US Men's 4x400 relay team_2
Ulis WIlliams, Henry Carr, Mike Larrabee and Ollan Cassell

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.”

Henry Carr takes 4x400 team to gold_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Henry Carr takes 4×400 team to gold, from the book, Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

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.

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Hayes Boston Carr in Tokyo _ Getty
Members of the Japanese press interview three US track stars (left to right): Bob Hayes, Ralph Boston and Henry Carr, shortly after the first contingent of the US Olympic team arrived here September 29th; Getty Images

I am enjoying the book, Inside the Five-Ring Circus, by 1964 Olympian, Ollan Cassell, and I recently read this delicious tidbit about double-gold medalist Olympic legend, Bob Hayes.

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.”

Inside Five Ring Circus CoverHayes 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.”

Thanks Bob!

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.) 

Roy_summer vacation_1967 maybe
Roy, sometime between the Tokyo and Mexico City Olympic Games.

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.

  1. A Helicopter View of US-USSR Relations, Olympic Style
  2. American Gymnast Makoto Sakamoto and Memories of Home: Post-War Shinjuku
  3. Arnold Gordon (Part 1): Befriending Judy Garland at Manos in Shinjuku
  4. The Banning of Headgear in Boxing: The Convoluted World of Protecting Our Athletes
  5. Clumsy Handoff, Beautiful Result: A World Record Finish for the American 4X400 Relay Team in Tokyo
  6. Coach Hank Iba: The Iron Duke of Defense Who Led the Men’s Basketball Team to Gold in 1964
  7. Creativity by Committee: The 2020 Olympic Emblem and the Rio Olympic Mascots?
  8. Crowded, Noisy, Dirty, Impersonal: Tokyo in the 1960s
  9. The Dale McClements’ Diary: From Athlete to Activist
  10. Doug Rogers, Star of the Short Film “Judoka”: A Fascinating Look at Japan, and the Foreigner Studying Judo in the 1960s
  11. Escape from East Berlin in October 1964: A Love Story
  12. Escape from Manchuria: How the Father of an Olympian Left a Legacy Beyond Olympic Proportions
  13. Fame: Cover Girl and Canadian Figure Skater Sandra Bezic
  14. Frank Gorman: Harvard Star, Tokyo Olympian, and Now Inductee to the International Swimming Hall of Fame
  15. The Geesink Eclipse – The Day International Judo Grew Up
  16. India Beats Pakistan in Field Hockey: After the Partition, the Sporting Equivalent of War
  17. The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  18. On Being Grateful: Bob Schul
  19. Protesting Via Political Cartoons: Indonesia Boycotts the Tokyo Olympics
  20. The Sexist Sixties: A Sports Writers Version of “Mad Men” Would Make the Ad Men Blush
  21. “Swing” – The Danish Coxless Fours Found It, and Gold, in Tokyo
  22. Toby Gibson: Boxer, Lawyer, Convict
  23. Vesper Victorious Under Rockets Red Glare – A Dramatic Finish to One of America’s Greatest Rowing Accomplishments
  24. What it Means to Be an Olympian: Bill Cleary Remembers
  25. Who is that Bald-Headed Beauty: The Mystery of the Soviet Javelin Champion
Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the boo,
Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the boo, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News” Agency

At every Olympics, there are people who stand out brighter than others. In 1964, everybody had a Billy Mills story. The legendary Native American champion of the 10,000 meter race, Mills was not expected to medal in Tokyo, and thus appeared to come out of nowhere to win one of the most dramatic races in Tokyo.

Silver medalist  3-meter springboard diver, Frank Gorman, remembers sitting in the Olympic Village common area watching the Olympic Games on TV. “He was a guy I didn’t know until I got to Tokyo. In between our work outs we would sit and watch the games on the local TV, just the two of us. I understood that he was training hard, and that nobody thought he had a prayer, nobody was putting any money on him. But he told me he was excited about being there, and that he had been working his whole life at being the best.”

Gold medalist 400-meer runner, Ulis Williams, watched Mills in the stadium. “Towards the end, I think the last 200 meters, we see him picking up speed. We couldn’t believe it, and we’re shouting ‘Look at him go!’ He tried to go around a guy, and they were moving to block him, but he burst through the center with his arms up. We absolutely couldn’t believe it.”

Billy Mills (middle) and Ron Clarke (right) in 10000 meter run, from the book,
Billy Mills and Ron Clarke in 10000 meter run, from the book, “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16”

For gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto, he remembers watching the 10,000 meter race on a black and white TV in a common room. “I remember it’s the final lap. A bunch of us, 30 of us, we were just yelling our heads off! And he wins the thing. What a dramatic finish! Mills comes out of nowhere and wins!”

Peter Snell remembers agreeing with his teammates that Australian Ron Clarke was a definite favorite to win, and had no expectations for any American, let alone Billy Mills to be in the running. As he wrote in his biography, No Bugles, No Drums, “This is no personal reflection on the tremendous performance of the winner Billy Mills. It’s just that Americans are traditional masters of the short track events and we other nations are naturally not too keen to see that mastery extended to the longer races.”

Snell, the incredible middle-distance runner from New Zealand, who won gold in both the 800 and1500 meters races in Tokyo wrote that “the 10,000 lives in my memory as one of the most exciting

Ulis Williams stumbles in the 4X400 relay finals_The Olympic Century - XVIII Olympiad - Volume 16
Ulis Williams stumbles handing off the baton to Henry Carr in the 4X400 relay finals_The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16

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.

Carr successfully