Unforgettable Long-Distance Performances…by Jim Israel
My website: http://www.mistergripes.com
For this writer, my favorite events in track-and-field are the long-distance racing. The sprints are invariably flashes of thighs, legs, and arms crossing a tape, over in the snap-of-a-finger, and a bore. It’s all physiognomy – the best short muscle fibers win; learned skills are not a factor. Shot Putt? Discus? Drug-addled behemoths spin ‘round-and-‘round, eventually throwing some piece of metal way out past Saturn’s moons – big deal.
Yep, the long-distance competitions [800-, 1,500-, 5,000-, 10,000-meters and marathons] are what I crave during every Olympic extravaganza. Why? Multiple reasons: the length of the races tends to build drama; long-distance runners often possess outsized, interesting personalities; fatigue becomes an overwhelming factor, and stellar qualities such as fortitude and perseverance emerge, and, finally, the races are not precious, ‘don’t touch,’ wimpy contests. Swinging elbows, shoving competitors, kicking: they’re all part of the contest. This writer, who played rugby for 25 years, loves the rough stuff.
In upcoming columns, I’ll be recalling historic long-distance competitions and delve into some of the complicated, interesting personalities of long-distance racing.
I’ll start with the race that, for me, a boy of 17, was the most exciting track event he has ever witnessed:
Coming into the final lap, the race had come down to three competitors: 1. Australian Ron Clarke, the #1 distance runner in the world at the time, 2. Mohammed Gammoudi, Tunisia, and 3. Billy Mills, 26, U.S. Marine, Sioux Indian, and, prior to the race, not considered a potential medal winner in the competition.
We’ll pick it up on that last lap, with approximately 400 meters to go:
‘It’s Clarke, Gammoudi and the American Billy Mills neck-and-neck coming down the back stretch. They’re stride-for-stride, all three running next to each other. Clarke becomes boxed in by the other two, and pushes in between Mills and Clarke, throwing Mills off stride, falling off to the side.
‘On the last turn, the three are close together again. Now, it’s Gammoudi’s turn to push his way through the other two, and he takes the lead as they round the final turn. Mills is simply too far back in the pack now. The three are lapping other runners, leading to more confusion.
‘But wait a minute! From the middle of a second pack, with 30 yards to go, Mills surges forward with a great finishing kick, sprints past both Clarke and Gammoudi, and crosses the finish line 5 yards in front. The unheralded Billy Mills, from a Pine Ridge, South Dakota Indian reservation, has beaten the great Ron Clarke, and takes home the gold medal in the 10,000 meter race.’
No American has won the 10,000 meters event before or since.