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Bob Hayes, from the book The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics

It’s the Olympics. You’re a football player with blazing speed, and you’re prepping to win gold, to be crowned the fastest man in the world.

But on October 15, 1964, in the midst of the Tokyo Olympics, Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power by Soviet leadership. American journalists, hoping to get a great quote from the biggest name in Tokyo, ask Bob Hayes, “What do you think?”

As he wrote in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, “What did a twenty-one-year-old kid who was trying to win a gold medal at the Olympics know about what was happening in the Soviet Union? I mean, if the experts in the CIA couldn’t see Khrushchev’s downfall coming, what was I supposed to know about it?”

Hayes hit the nail on the head with his response to the press: “I’m just going to answer your question once. I’m here to win a gold medal and not to talk about politics.”

Hayes, like the best high performance athletes, was focused on his mission.  Gold in the 100-meter finals. Gold in the 4×100-meter relays.

And yet….there’s always something.

It is hours before the finals of the 100-meter dash on October 15. Hayes is sitting in his room in the Olympic Village with the hopes of keeping himself calm. His roommate, long jumper Ralph Boston, is lying on his bed, keeping to himself.

Then walks in Joe Frazier, boxing heavyweight contender, who bounced into Hayes’ room a “bundle of nerves, but especially that day because he had an important boxing match coming up. He started throwing punches at my head. I asked him to leave me alone, so he went over to Ralph’s bed and threw jabs up to within an inch or two of Ralph’s head.”

Needless, to say, the eventual gold medal and heavyweight champion of the world was a distraction. Not getting the reaction he wanted, Frazier began rummaging Hayes’ bag for gum, stuck it in his mouth, and left.

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Receiving his gold medal for the 100 -meters finals, from the book, The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics

Flash forward to the National Stadium and the fastest runners in the world are prepping for the 100-meter finals. Hayes gets to the track and opens his bag to pull out his shoes. To his surprise, he finds only his right shoe. He dumps the contents of his bag and can’t find the left shoe. “The biggest race of my life, and I was missing a shoe.”

But who walks by but middle distance runner and teammate, Tom Farrell. Hayes has relatively small feet and is hoping against hope that Farrell happens to have the same size shoes – size eight. So when Farrell replied to Hayes’ sudden and unusual question, he said “Well, I wear size eight.”

Not only did Farrell wear the same size shoe, he also wore the Adidas 100 shoe that Hayes’ did. Now, properly attired for battle, Hayes lined up.

And then he learned that Hayes was placed in lane 1. Lane 1 is the innermost lane on the track, and the cinder track had been chopped up by some three dozen race walkers for three circles before heading out on the rest of their 20K journey. Don’t the fastest runners in the semis get the choice middle lanes? Not at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where sprinters were assigned lanes randomly.

So Hayes set up his blocks. His biggest rivals, Cuban Enrique Figuerola and Canadian Harry Jerome were in the less chewed up lanes 3 and 5. As he got set at his mark, the muscular Hayes was a tightly wound coil ready to spring, ticked off about his lane placement. “I was totally intense, the more so because iw as angry about having to run in the inside lane. Finally, I picked out a spot straight ahead of me down the track and vowed that I was going to get there before anyone else did.”

He did. Convincingly. Watch the video from the 3’ 55” mark to watch the black and white footage of the race. The angle is long enough to show the entire field. And you can see Hayes dominating the field from start to finish. Fastest Man in the World. By far.

 

Gold medal in hand, Hayes returned to his room. Hidden under his bedspread was the missing shoe. The next time he saw Joe Frazier, he shouted “’Don’t you ever go in my bag again!’ That was about the only time I ever saw Joe Frazier apologetic.”

Bob Hayes – fastest man in the world – bringing new meaning to the phrase “if the shoe fits, wear it.”

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buster-mathis-getty
Buster Mathis in May 1964.

He wobbles. He quivers. He rolls. He shakes. He is a dripping mass of flesh, a monument to fat. He is 6 feet 3 and weighs 295 pounds. His waist is 44, his chest is 52, but sometimes in the heat of action the measurements seem the other way around. Sitting in the corner, he looks like a melting chocolate sundae.

That’s how Sports Illustrated described heavyweight boxer Buster Mathis in an article on the results of the US Olympic team boxing trials, held in May, 1964. Mathis, despite his bulk, was surprisingly athletic. There are pictures of him playing basketball, flitting about on roller skates and dancing. And his ability to move deftly around the ring, weaving and bobbing, led one reporter to say that Mathis “floats like a baby elephant and stings like a bee.”

In the finals of the heavyweight division at the Trials, Mathis took on another promising heavyweight named Joe Frazier. Frazier, the butcher from Philadelphia who would go on to be heavyweight champion of the world in the glory days of Ali and Foreman, was no match for Mathis. Here’s how SI described Frazier’s futile attempt to go inside.

Frazier was a solid 195, but Buster still had a 100-pound pulling the weights. And he had his speed. Instead of hunting for the head, Frazier moved in to pound Buster’s belly, which shook and glinted under the lights. Buster managed to keep Frazier at bay with a whistling left hook (each one thrown with a loud grunt, “uuuuunnnnhhh!”), and even when Frazier did manage to get inside, his punches were smothered by flab. As Pappy (Gault) says, “Buster’s got an extra layer of fat on that stomach that stops the punches.”

buster-mathis-on-roller-skatesMathis, not Frazier was heading to Tokyo. Until he wasn’t. On September 19, just three weeks before the opening ceremony of the Toyo Olympics, it was announced that Mathis had a broken bone in his hand – some say it was a finger, others a thumb. It didn’t matter – Frazier was asked to go in Mathis’ place. Ironically, it is said that Mathis broke the bone in his fight with Frazier, learning the unfortunate lesson that winning isn’t everything.

Frazier would go to Tokyo and win the gold medal in the heavyweight division. However, when he broke his thumb in a semi-final match, Frazier told no one. Clearly favoring his right, Frazier managed to win the finals on points.

After the 1964 Olympics, both Frazier and Mathis turned professional, and began winning streaks. When Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the American armed forces, in the midst of the war with Vietnam, he was stripped of his titles and his license to box in the US revoked. Suddenly, the heavyweight title was up for grabs.

On March 4, 1968, Buster Mathis with a record of 23-0, took on old amateur rival Joe Frazier, with a record of 19-0. Mathis had beaten Frazier not once, but twice preceding the Tokyo Olympics. And when the bell had rung ending the sixth round of the 12-round title fight, Mathis was ahead on points. But Mathis had never gone so deep in a fight with the ferocious and determined Frazier. While Frazier’s patented body blows had little effect over short fights, over a longer period of time, Frazier’s blows began to wear Mathis down. And then suddenly, towards the end of the 11th round, a lightning left-hook by Frazier crumpled Mathis.

Hard-luck Buster Mathis could not win. He lost his biggest shot at the title against Frazier in 1968. And in 1964, he beat Frazier in the Olympic Trials, and still loses his shot at the Olympic glory. If not for Frazier, he coulda been a champ. Twice.

Cassius Clay wins gold in rome
Cassius Clay wins gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics after defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski by decision in the finals of the light heavyweight championship.

Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, and the internet flooded with tears.

A great man has passed, and all we can do is remember.

In 1960, Ali was known as Cassius Marcellus Clay. The 18-year-old from Louisville was certainly one of the noisiest Americans at the Rome Olympic Games. He did claim to be the Greatest to anyone who would listen, but he was not viewed as a leader of the US team. According to David Maraniss in his book, Rome 1960, Clay was simply not recognized on the same level as fellow US Olympians like decathlete Rafer Johnson, sprinter Wilma Rudolph, high jumper John Thomas, basketball players Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.

Rafer Johnson running in 1960
Rafer Johnson in Rome in 1960.

As discus thrower Rink Babka, the discus thrower from USC was quoted as saying, “When I think of 1960 and hear people say Cassius Clay was Mr. Olympics and everyone went to see him – bullshit.”

But one person in particular found Clay to be a kind of kindred spirit, or rather an alter ego. Maraniss wrote touchingly about the relationship between 1960’s Greatest Athlete in the World, decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, and boxing’s self-proclaimed Greatest of All Time.

“He (Johnson) felt close to the young boxer from the first time they met at the Olympic Village in Rome. Months after they had won their gold medals, they toured the South together on a speaking tour of predominantly black colleges. They were roommates on the road and stayed up late at night as Clay told Johnson precisely how he planned to become an unforgettable character as well as the heavyweight champion of the world. Many of the cocky phrases and poems that Clay – and later Ali – brought to the world, he first tried out on Rafer Johnson in their hotel rooms. Johnson saved those discussions for posterity on a small tape recorder.

The friendship, for Johnson, was an attraction to an opposite, or a repressed part of self, and he was self-aware enough to appreciate it, saying of Cassius Clay: “I love the way he talked. He was just brash and challenged people, and he said it the way he felt it, and he talked about it. I am not that type of person. I carry it inside. I talk about it a little bit, but I don’t need to say everything. He seemed to need to say everything. He wanted to talk about the beginning, and how he was going to do it, and the end, how he was going to finish. I just couldn’t do that. That just wasn’t my makeup. But I loved him for being that kind of person. I loved him for that.”

Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire
1960 Olympian and gold medalist Muhammad Ali defeats 1968 Olympian and gold medalist George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, in 1974.

Clay won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division at the Rome Olympics. He would go on to fame, recognition and notoriety four years later as Muhammad Ali. You can read all about that on the Internet, where Ali will indeed go down in history as the Greatest of All Time.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in The Thrilla in Manila
1960 Olympian and gold medalist Muhammad Ali defeats 1964 Olympian and gold medalist Joe Frazier in The Thrilla in Manila, in 1975.
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Joe Frazier, recovering from surgery to his thumb at a hospital in Philadelphia after returning from Tokyo. From “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Vol 16.

What a great picture of Joe Frazier, the butcher from Philadelphia, and gold-medal heavyweight from the Tokyo Summer Games. For years, Frazier was the verbal punching bag of Muhammad Ali, tolerating all sorts of insult regarding his looks. But here, Frazier is looking handsome and cool in his PJs.

You can see the left hand in a cast. At the Tokyo Summer Olympics, he apparently broke his Joe Frazier in Tokyo USA shirtthumb in the semi-final match with Vadim Yemelyanov, the Soviet boxer he knocked out in the second round. He knew something was wrong with his hand as he had trouble gripping with it. But the hand felt better after soaking in cold water, and so he didn’t bother getting x-rays. Frazier went on to gain a 3-2 decision over Hans Huber of Germany to win gold. While he clearly favored his right, he did occasionally throw a left hook. In the locker room, he must have been feeling supremely