To spouses and sweethearts alike, a very happy Valentine’s Day from The Olympians!
Gymnast Nikolai Prodanov and javelin thrower Diana Yorgova of Bulgaria are the first Olympians to marry during the Olympics, tying the knot in the Olympic Village of the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Americans Hal (hammer) and Olga (discus) Connolly sneak a kiss through a fence that prevented men from gaining access to the women’s rooms in Tokyo. They famously met at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when she was Olga Fikotova of Czechoslovakia, and they both took home gold.
Brit Ken Matthews, gold medalist of the 20K walk at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, gets a celebrated hug from his wife Sheila after his victory.
Double gold medalist (400m, 4x400m relay), Mike Larrabee, gets a lengthy kiss from his wife, Margaret. Larrabee of Team USA as you can see in the picture also placed the gold medal he had just won from his 400-meter finals around her neck.
He could sense the ghosts of Rome with him. Robbie Brightwell, just 17, crashed out of the 400 meters in the semi-finals at the 1960 Summer Olympics. He ran so hard in the first 200 meters that he didn’t have the strength to fight effortlessly through an expected crosswind around the bend.
Brightwell, returning to the 400 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Games as the captain of Great Britain’s athletics squad, was determined to do better. And this time, he made it to the final eight. But the ghosts of Rome stuck to Brightwell like the thick humidity of the Tokyo air. The ghosts whispered doubts into Brightwell’s ears, and the 21-year-old from Shropshire could not help by listen. Here’s how he describes his moment of truth in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl:
Something wasn’t right in my head. The burning flame to win was waning. Instead, a terrible foreboding gripped me, akin to the terror of being buried alive. I was suffering the onset of ‘choking’. It was like acid eating away at my resolve. It’d started during our tunnel walk. One moment I was okay, the next swamped by fear.
Brightwell was actually in third, behind eventual gold medalist Mike Larrabee and silver medalist Wendell Mottley, going into the home stretch. But when he saw Larabee blast into a five-meter lead, something broke within Brightwell. “A wave of hopelessness swept over me. My oxygen and glucose banks were empty, and I was running on despair.”
And despite being in third, he meekly allowed the Polish sprinter, Andrzej Badeński, to pass him for the bronze medal.
I felt disconsolate. What hurt most wasn’t the fact that I’d been beaten, but rather that I’d failed myself. At the critical moment, the demons in my head had taken over. That was an unforgivable sin. I hated myself. After years of training and seismic setbacks, I’d fallen into the fathomless Pit of Doubt. Idiot!
And yet, it is not how we lose or fail, it is how we react to loss or failure that shows what we are truly made of. Redemption, in the 4×400 meter relay, was only two days away for Brightwell.
While the Americans were favored to win this competition, as they featured the 400-meter gold medalist Mike Larrabee and the 200-meter gold medalist Henry Carr, Team GB was a strong medal candidate. Tim Graham, Adrian Metcalfe, 400-meter hurdler silver medalist John Cooper and Brightwell as the anchor had already run the fastest team time in the heats.
But the finals brought the best in the world together for winner take all.
Great Britain was in the outside lane, which meant that in this staggered start, leadoff runner, Graham, could not see anyone in front of him. And yet he ran well and passed the baton to Metcalfe, who was going so fast in the first 100 meters that Brightwell worried if he could last. In fact, Metcalfe drew first blood, grabbing the inside lane and the lead.
Metcalfe was up against the 400-meter champion Larabee, who powered ahead, as did Kent Barnard of Trinidad and Tobago. Metcalfe handed the baton to Cooper, who strained to keep up with American Ulis Williams and Trinidadian Edwin Roberts. Cooper’s head wagged as he dashed towards Brightwell, but was passed by the Jamaican Mal Spence.
Just when Cooper was about to hand the baton to Brightwell, Williams of the USA slapped the baton into Carr’s hand, and then went sprawling to the cinder track. Brightwell grabbed the baton and found himself in fourth with 400 meters to go.
Carr, Mottley, and (George) Kerr were travelling at vertiginous speed, and I was falling further behind. I knew they were engaged in a headlong fight to reach the last turn first. That way they could dominate the inside lane, and avoid running extra distance around the turn. Fixing Kerr’s bobbing head in front, I eased fractionally. I mustn’t repeat my Perth mistake. Let him duel with Mottley.
As we scorched the final turn, Carr put in a ferocious kick, pulling away from Mottley who, in responding to his burst of speed, opened a gap between himself and Kerr. Still fourth, I kept close behind the Jamaican, awaiting any sign of weakness. Suddenly, his head began to waggle. The punishing pace was taking its toll. Determination took hold. I attacked, inching alongside him. We were so close our elbows clashed. He drifted behind.
The last 60 meters loomed. Two runners remained in front: Mottley and Carr. Instinctively, I relaxed and fixed the Trinidadian in my sights. My legs, although heavy, continued driving. Then, almost as though watching a slow motion film, Wendell wavered, chopping his stride, and tensing his neck. That was enough to give me encouragement. I slowly inched up to his shoulder. Holding me steadfast was the thought that this would be the last time I’d compete. In the last few meters, I flung myself at the finishing line.
Brightwell did it. He came from way behind to not only secure a medal, but a silver medal. Brightwell had brought his team back from the dead, exorcising ghosts of his own on the way.
Watch the video below from the 1 minute, 30-second mark to see part of this race.
The first heat went well. The American 4X400 relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics won handily against the Soviet Union and France, finishing a full 2 seconds ahead of the Soviets. Henry Carr led off, followed by Ollan Cassell, Mike Larrabee and Ulis Williams.
Thus, America was favored to take gold. After all, Carr was the gold medalist in the 200 meter finals. Mike Larrabee was the gold medalist in the 400 meter finals. Williams was a finalist and placed fifth in the 400-meter finals, while Cassell nearly qualified for the 400-meter finals.
And yet, Williams was worried. He wasn’t feeling right. He told me that he had run in the LA Times Indoor Track Meet in January of 1964, and had injured himself. “The track was slanted, so I ran in that leaning way you do in indoor tracks and pulled a muscle, right off the bone,” Williams told me. “I really never got back into top shape. I still ran some of my better times, but because I placed fifth in the 400-meter finals the day before, psychologically, I wasn’t sure. I had doubts.”
Williams ran the anchor leg on the team, and in fact had always run the anchor leg in his career. Even at Arizona State University, where he and Carr were teammates on the track team, he had always run anchor. But he was concerned enough to ask the US track coach, Bob Giegengack, to hold a team meeting before the 4X400 relay finals.
“I told the team I was not feeling how I would like to feel, and didn’t feel I was running my best, that I wanted to make sure that we had the best chance to win the gold medal.” In other words, he implied that he might not be the best choice as anchor for the finals and that he would run in any place the coach wanted him to run.
After Williams made that statement, Giegengack asked the others if they had any comments. Williams said that Carr stepped up and said “I don’t care where I run. I am just going to take care of business.” According to Williams, Carr made that statement with such confidence that everyone in the room thought, “With that attitude, you anchor.”
So with the decision to replace Carr with Williams as the anchor, 400-meter champion Larrabee spoke up and said he wanted to run second. According to Williams, it is a common tactic to place your fastest runner second, and so Larrabee thought that he could give a significant lift by building a lead in the first half of the race. With those two decisions, Williams slotted into the third leg, and Cassell took the opening leg.
And the rest is history. Although there was a slight hiccup in one of the exchanges, the Americans won gold in the world record time of 3:00.7 seconds, with Henry Carr blazing to the tape, the team finishing essentially a second faster than the teams from Great Britain and Trinidad and Tobago.
In 1964, the fastest man in the world in 200 meters was Henry Carr. As Cassell explained, Carr won the US trials for the 200 meters in New York in the Spring. But the US Olympic track and field authorities held a second trial in Los Angeles in the summer, and Carr was unfortunately out of condition, finishing fourth in the trials. Since the top three qualified for the Olympic squad, Carr was unexpectedly off the team.
In stepped Hayes, who happened to finish third in the 200 meters, and had already qualified for Tokyo in the 100 meters. Hayes ceded his spot to Carr on the 200-meter team, and Carr got his motor running, training twice a day to get ready for Tokyo. As Cassell wrote, “everyone on the team was indeed grateful to Bob.”
Hayes of course went on to take gold in the 100 meters and 4×100 relay in spectacular fashion. But his gracious act continued to pay dividends. Rejuvenated, Carr was looking strong prior to his races, in shape, and ready to win. Not only did Carr set an Olympic record in the 200 meters, he anchored the US men’s 4×400 relay team, blazing to a world record finish.
Perhaps thanks to that fateful decision by Bob Hayes, fellow track mates Mike Larrabee and Henry Carr won their second gold medals of the Tokyo Olympics, while Cassell and teammate Ulis Williams took home gold as well. Wrote Cassell in his book, “standing on the victory podium, receiving a gold medal and watching the USA flag rise on the highest pole made me feel it was all worth it.”
NOTE: In Hayes’ autobiography, “Run, Bullet, Run,” Hayes writes that he indeed did finish third in the trials cited above, but that since Carr had won in the initial trials at Randall’s Island, “(Carr) retained his place on the team, and I was bumped out of a spot in the 200-meter race.” Hayes doesn’t refer to relinquishing his spot (although it still could have been a factor.)
On this, the last day of 2015, I’d like to thank everyone for their support of my blog – The Olympians. I have posted at least once every day since I started the blog on May 1. Out of about 300 posts, I’ve selected 25 that I personally like, in good part because I’ve had the great fortune to talk with the people mentioned in these stories.
The baton hand off in relay races are critical. The slightest misplay and you lose. The US 4X100 relay team in Rome, which had the fastest time in the finals, was disqualified because of a mis-timed hand off between two runners.
So when you see a picture like the one above, you can imagine only disaster. American Ulis Williams was handing off to anchor Henry Carr in the finals of the 4X400 relay race in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As Ulis told me, he saw his closest competition fall in behind Williams to get the inside lane. That’s when Williams put on the jets around the curve approaching the exchange lane where the anchor awaited.
“I put on the speed and got five or six yards on him,” Williams explained to me. “Henry (Carr) took off, but he didn’t take off fast enough. He was too close on my approach, and I didn’t want to spike him. I took a chance and leaned forward to give him the baton, so I took a short step, didn’t plant my lead foot. I concentrated so much on handing him the baton that I slammed hard into the ground.”
It was a scary moment for lead runner, Ollan Cassell. “I dragged Ulis off because I didn’t want him to get a DQ for interference.” Williams said he tore the skin right off his upper thigh, but all he remembers is celebrating with his teammates at the finish line.