PORTLAND, Ore. – There was a time when indoor track and field truly was a three-ring circus, replete with men in tuxedos announcing events, pole vault standards made to look like safety razors in a nod to a sponsor and a man in a devil’s costume using a plastic trident to prod the butts of lagging runners in the mile.
Those were the days, when a young doctor with no sprinting experience could don snug gold swim trunks and a hospital scrub with suspenders and become a sensation for his startling triumphs; when the dominant runner of his era assumed the mantle of Chairman of the Boards for pounding out victories on 160-yard plywood tracks “aerated’’ by the pockmarks of racing spikes; when the shortest dashes included 50 yards, 55 meters, 60 yards and 60 meters to complicate the lives of record-keepers.
Back in those days, there was even an indoor marathon on the record books chronicling the mind-numbing and metronomic action of 230 laps, around and around and around like some prolonged countdown on New Year’s Eve that began a week earlier.
Only in indoor track can you find men competing in the heptathlon but no one competing in the half-lap dash because of the inherent disadvantages to a staggered start on a banked 200-meter track.
When the 16th edition of the IAAF World Indoor Championships comes to the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, March 17-20, there will be nobody dressed as a devil chasing milers around the track and mercifully, no marathon. However, there will be more than 600 of the world’s best male and female athletes from as many as 200 countries competing in 13 now-standardized events in what should play out as a mini-preview of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro five months later.
Better yet, none of the sprints, hurdles and horizontal jumps will be wind-aided, as officials at the Oregon Convention Center promise to keep the doors closed.
“You don’t have to worry about wind readings,’’ said Ed Gordon, a veteran Pacific Association/USA Track & Field meet official who has diligently produced annual indoor record books and lists since 1976 under the aegis of the Track & Field Writers of America. “The season is short. It’s only three months, mostly concentrated in February (and March). I like being really close to the track and I think spectators do, too.’’
That’s one of the big selling points of indoor track, the proximity of fans sitting so close to the track they can see effort etched onto the faces of the runners and chalk dust billowing from the hands of shot putters about to launch cannonballs.
Team USA to be chosen one week earlier
U.S. athletes hoping to run in the World Indoors will have to make the team a week before at the USATF Indoor Championships (March 11-12), also held in the Oregon Convention Center, by finishing in the top two. One of them is former University of Oregon sprinter English Gardner, who had a breakthrough season in 2015 as she whittled her 100-meter best down to 10.79 seconds. She would love to run the 60-meter dash in Portland; her best time is 7.12.
“It’s most definitely a hope of mine, seeing as Oregon is my second home,’’ Gardner said. “It would be nice to run in front of people who actually care about the sport. Anytime I can run in front of a crowd that actually knows who I am, it’s amazing. … It’s the spirit of Oregon track and field. I feel there are going to be phenomenal performances. It’s something I’m looking forward to.’’
It will be the first time the World Indoors have been staged in the U.S. since the inaugural event in Indianapolis in 1987. On the West Coast, the annual Oregon Indoor meet enjoyed a 30-year run in Portland, beginning with the first installment in 1961 at a brand new Memorial Coliseum. (Stay tuned for more on the history of the Oregon Indoor meet.)
“In my event, the 60, it’s all about who can be perfect the longest,’’ Gardner said. “If I’m able to execute the race I’m supposed to run, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be out front. … Our lives depend on those seven seconds or those 10 seconds in the race … I’ve always been coo-coo for coconuts.’’
There was a time when Tom Jordan, the longtime meet director of the Prefontaine Classic, was a little coo-coo, too. Nearly 40 years ago, a few years removed from being a “ham-and-egger’’ runner in college, Jordan slipped into a red costume with tail and horns and grabbed a trident and became the Devil in the Devil-take-the-hindmost-mile at the long-defunct San Francisco Examiner Games at the Cow Palace. After three laps, his job was to catch up to and poke the trailing runner in an act of elimination on each successive lap that never failed to delight the crowd.
“It was a blast, a lot of fun,’’ Jordan said. “The biggest problem I had was when somebody got prodded and refused to drop out. Now, with all the tracks being 200 meters, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. At 160 yards, it came around quick.’’
The first Chairman of the Boards
It was on 160-yard tracks that Martin McGrady achieved fame as the Chairman of the Boards some 45 years ago. Although he never did much of anything when the sport moved outdoors on 400-meter tracks, when it came to the in-between indoor distance of 600 yards, McGrady dominated like nobody before him and only one since.
McGrady’s time of 1:07.6 seconds for 600 yards at the AAU Indoor meet at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Feb. 27, 1970 lasted nearly 22 years, until U.S. Olympian Mark Everett ran marginally faster in 1992 at 1:07.53. So specialized was McGrady at 600 yards that he never made any noise indoors at 500 yards or 1,000 yards. But he’s there in Gordon’s indoor compendium of the arcane, page 234, second-best all time at a distance rarely run anymore.
After McGrady, the mantle of Chairman of the Boards went to Ireland’s Eamonn Coghlan, who was to the mile what McGrady was to 600 yards: master of the craft. In 1983 at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., Coghlan ran the indoor mile in 3:49.78, a mark that stood until 1997 when the great Hicham El Guerrouj clocked 3:48.45. Like McGrady, Coghlan’s time is still No. 2 all time.
Another athlete who achieved fame for his indoor accomplishments was Dr. Delano Meriwether, a Boston hematologist who took up sprinting because he believed he could run faster than the men he saw in a 1970 meet. For a short time, he did, winning the 1972 AAU 60-yard indoor title in 6.2 seconds wearing his signature “uniform’’ of gold swim trunks, white hospital scrub and gold-striped suspenders. He also won the 1971 AAU outdoor 100-yard dash in a very wind-aided 9.0, besting a field that included Jim Greene, Don Quarrie, Charles Greene and Ivory Crockett. The runners were hurried along by a hurricane of 6.55 meters per second at their backs. Meriwether, who was featured on the Feb. 22, 1971 cover of Sports Illustrated, was second in the 100 meters at the 1972 AAU meet but was unable to make the Olympic team a short time later.
Thus ended the short but spectacular sprinting career of Dr. Delano Meriwether, who would go on to perform admirable humanitarian work as a doctor serving hundreds of patients in Africa. The story of indoor track and field cannot properly be told without mentioning McGrady or Meriwether.
Pole vault showcased at World Indoors
The only exhibitions taking place in Portland in March will be of the elite variety in the 60, 400, 800,
1,500 and 3,000 meters, 4x400m relay, 60-meter hurdles, high jump, long jump, triple jump, pole vault, shot put, men’s heptathlon and women’s pentathlon.
TrackTown USA, the local organizing committee for the event, is featuring the men’s and women’s pole vaults on March 17, the day before the meet proper, at the OCC. This will be a chance for fans to see such elite vaulters as France’s world record-holder Renaud Lavillenie, Canada’s rising star Shawn Barber and American record-holder Jenn Suhr up close, much closer than at an outdoor meet.
Lavillenie is one of only two men to clear 20 feet with his world record of 20-2 ½ (6.16 meters) set less than two years ago. The other is Sergey Bubka. Barber is the reigning World Champion after winning the pole vault in Beijing last August and a 2015 finalist for The Bowerman.
In the other vertical jump, perhaps rivals Mutaz Barshim of Qatar and Bogdan Bondarenko will challenge the 8-foot barrier in the high jump, a mark Javier Sotomayor achieved outdoors (8-0 ½, 2.45m) but fell a half-inch short of (7-11 ½, or 2.43m) indoors in 1989, still the world indoor record.
Other global stars who might be competing in Portland include Ethiopian distance star Genzebe Dibaba, Grenada’s 400-meter champion Kirani James, Netherlands’ heptathlete-turned-sprinter Dafne Schippers and German shot put champ David Storl, to name a few.
Team USA will be led by Oregon Track Club Elite’s and University of Oregon alum Ashton Eaton, the world record-holder in the indoor heptathlon (6,645 points), who will be seeking a third straight World Indoor title.
For those athletes for whom indoor track is as comfortable as a pair of slippers, Portland 2016 should indeed be a three-ring circus of excellence – minus the man in the red suit and trident.