Mac Wilkins and John Powell
Mac Wilkins and John Powell

They were teammates. But they were not friends.

For well over a decade Mac Wilkins of Eugene Oregon and John Powell of San Francisco, California competed on the field trying to out-throw the other in the discus, and competed off the field with cutting quips.

Sports writer John Schulian wrote a great opening paragraph for his June 29, 1984 column in the Morning Advocate, a Baton Rouge newspaper, describing their rivalry. (Yes, you need to be up on your 20th century American pop culture.)

If John Powell said, “Less filling,” Mac Wilkins would reply, “Tastes great,” for they are the Bickersons of the discus, and agreeing on anything would likely ruin their reputations forever. They will argue about how much a quarter-pounder weights, or when the swallows come back to Capistrano, and the fact that they are Olympic teammates once again will do nothing to harness their tongues. Why should it? They are halfway to the new American dream – a beer commercial.

In a June 24, 1984 article in The Boston Herald, Charles Pierce described an exchange between Powell and Wilkins after Powell had won the discus throw finals in the Olympic trials a few weeks before the start of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

  • Powell (referring to then 33-year-old Wilkins): “Some old guys choke, and some don’t, I guess,” opined 37-year-old winner John Powell (220.3 ft)
  • Wilkins: “That’s right, John,” chimed in Mac Wilkins, the 1976 gold medalist who threw himself into second place with a final toss of 217 feet. “It wasn’t exactly a top flight performance out there. I personally think that my performance was one of my worst.”
  • Powell: “I appreciate that.”

A few weeks previously, they had this exchange:

  • Wilkins: “Powell has a new diet. I understand it’s helping him avoid those mood swings. Now he’s unhappy all the time.”
  • Powell: “Poor Mac, he’s delirious. It must be the sun.”

When did this enmity/comedy routine begin? Some say it began in earnest with the discus throw finals at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In the discus throw finals there are six rounds to make your best throw. Wilkins tossed the discuss 67.5 meters or 221 feet in the second round. In the third round, Powell tossed the discus 65.7 meters or 215 feet, which was good enough for silver, until the sixth round. That’s when East German Wolfgang Schmidt unleashed a throw of 66.22 meters or 217 feet.

Wolfgang Schmidt, Mac Wilkins John Powell
Wolfgang Schmidt, Mac Wilkins John Powell on medal podium at 1976 Montreal Olympics

When it was clear that Wilkins had won the gold medal, Powell, who had slipped to bronze went up to Wilkins to congratulate him. The story goes that Wilkins ignored his American teammate and went up to the East German, Schmidt, and gave him a big hug.

As Wilkins explained in the book, Tales of Gold, those who reported on this scene didn’t understand.

Everybody around there thought I had insulted Powell, my fellow countryman. John Powell was not my friend, but Wolfgang was. I wasn’t looking at what country Schmidt was from; I was just looking at the terrific performance he had made, coming through on his last throw like that to take a silver medal. He was great, but a lot of stuffed shirts were upset with me then, and ever more so a bit later.

Wilkins would win the silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, with Powell taking bronze.

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Mac Wilkins
Mac Wilkins, Photo/Foto: George Herringshaw, 04 September 1977

In many ways I was the bad guy, the black sheep of the ’76 Olympic Games. First, I was big and strong and had long hair and a beard, and that probably intimidated some people.

Whatever it was, Mac Wilkins had a way of ticking people off. Wilkins had just won the gold medal in the discus throw at the Montreal Olympics, and was asked by the press whether he won the gold for his country or himself. Wilkins replied that it was “for myself. I worked for it. The United States can share in it if they wish, but they had no part in winning it.”

The president of the United States Olympic Committee at the time, Phillip Krumm, called Wilkins, gold medalist in the discus throw at the Montreal Olympics, a “grandstander and a popoff,” and that his response was akin to “hating your parents.”

Wilkins was a maverick, often at odds with officials. In prepping for the Montreal Games, Wilkins said in the oral history of American Olympic gold medalist, Tales of Gold, that he had informed the USOC that he and his shot putter friend, Al Feuerbach, intended not to enter the Olympic Village at the same time as the rest of team so that they could continue to train independently.

“Al and I decided we didn’t want to check into the Village that far ahead of our event. I knew what it would be like; it would be mass chaos and constant stimulation, and when you get too much of that your mind goes blank, and you don’t know what you’re going, so you can’t concentrate.”

According to Wilkins, they never got approval, but still decided to hang back where they were training in Plattsburg, New York until the day before the opening ceremonies. Despite an intention to go to Montreal a few days later, they were ordered to Montreal for drug tests. Believing that the USOC would not kick a potential medalist off the team, he insisted that they send a car to pick them up and conduct the tests outside the Village. In the end, Wilkins got his way, and was able to stay out of the Village and prepare himself the way he wanted to.

We got back to the Village on the following Wednesday and checked in. it was perfect timing for me because once you check in you get a real adrenaline rush, and you can hold that for only so long. If you get it too soon, you’re going to be flat for your competition. But it came at just the right time for me. I did a little workout on Thursday, and I had a great workout on Friday. I hit 230 feet with a left-hand wind, which was a handicap. It was one of those times when, after the workout, you sit down to write in your diary, and you realize what you’ve done and what you’re capable of doing. It’s kind of overwhelming, and it brings tears to your eyes. This happens rarely, and I think it does because at those moment you are facing the fear of success and you’re accepting it and realizing that you can overcome it and reach your potential, which is usually beyond what you ever imagined.

The first day of the Olympics was the first day of competition for the discus throw. Wilkins watched his American competition, John Powell and Jay Silvester, make initial throws under the qualifying distance of 200 feet. Wilkins went up and tossed the discus 224 feet, 5 inches, an Olympic record.

The next day was the finals of the discus throw. Wilkins admitted he didn’t feel as sharp as the previous day, and ended up throwing the discuss 221 feet (67.5 meters) in the second round of the finals. It was not as far as the previous day’s record, but it was good enough to hold up as the greatest distance through the next four rounds. Wilkins believed that he knew exactly what he needed to do to get himself ready for winning. And when he executed on his plan, he was simply happy.

On the victory stand I was laughing and chuckling to myself and thinking, so this is what it’s all about. This is what you see on TV, and it comes down to this. This is easy and no big deal. Of course, the performance itself was relatively easy. The hard part was preparing physically and mentally to get to the level needed to make that performance.