Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Underappreciation of Steve Ovett

My summer reading frenzy about running is drawing to a close.  The last book of the four that I've read was written by Pat Butcher and it's called "The Perfect Distance."  It came out more than a decade ago and delves deep into the greatest middle distance rivalry in the last 50 years that pitted to Brits against each other, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe.

The book has stirred a lot of memories and feelings I had about these two great milers, both Olympians and world record holders.  It was a rivalry in which fans were certainly divided.  Sebastian Coe was the perfect runner.  His speed was amazing.  He was smart, erudite and a media darling.  Ovett was a man born of humble beginnings, ran like a runaway freight train, showboated and had an awful relationship with the media.  I loved Steve Ovett.

Reading wonderfully written history filled in a lot of holes about my memories of these two middle distance giants.  I first became aware of Ovett at the 1976 Olympics and my feelings were that he was too young and in something way beyond his means.  I would be proven wrong a year later when he dismantled a world class field to win the World Cup, the same year Sebastian Coe first served notice that he was an 800 meter runner of ability.

Their first big head to head race was upstaged by East German Willi Wulbeck at the 1978 European Championships.  Coe showed his inexperience at international racing finishing third and Wulbeck snuck by Ovett for the gold.  The world wanted more but it would have to wait two years.

By 1979 Coe was on a world record setting run, breaking three world records in the 800, 1500 and mile over the course of 41 days.  He would later add the 1000 meter world record for good measure in 1980 with Ovett finally taking away the mile record a month before the showdown of showdowns at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

If it weren't for Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett the Moscow Olympics wouldn't have existed for the United States.  President Jimmy Carter's idiotic decision to boycott the games because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan ruined the games in the eyes of most Americans besides cheating hundreds of hard working athletes out of Olympic glory.  The British AAA had thumbed its nose at Margaret Thatcher and didn't join in the boycott, thus setting the stage for an 800/1500 clash of the titans.

The 800 was first on the schedule and everyone assumed it was Coe's race, everyone but Steve Ovett.  He literally bowled through the field on his way to gold while Coe was shell-shocked with silver.  Sebastian Coe was devastated but somehow mustered his self-confidence and managed to turn the tables on Ovett in the 1500 taking gold.  Ovett settled for bronze and back in eighth place was another promising Brit, Steve Cram.

Over the next year Coe and Ovett avoided each other.  More and more money was floating into what was supposed to be an amateur sport.  No one could come up with the right amount of cash to get the duo onto the track.  1981 saw the two men exchange world records in the mile. 

Then a series of three races between the two was announced for 1982.  Ovett suffered a serious injury during training and then Coe was hurt so the races never happened.  I even purchased a ticket for the final race in the mile set for Eugene in September hoping against hope that the two men would recover for a clash.  Instead, I saw Tom Byers hammer out a tremendous mile against a decent but certainly diminished field.

It wasn't until 1984 I finally got to see the two race at the Los Angeles Olympics.  Coe was on the comeback trail, Ovett was in tip top shape.  But the heat and smog of Los Angeles wrecked havoc with Ovett's breathing.  His Olympics featured multiple trips to the hospital.  He finished dead last in the 800 final while Coe once again had to settle for silver in his best event. 

Ovett was warned not to attempt the 1500 by doctors.  His race in the finals ended 350 meters from the finish as he stepped off the track and collapsed.  Coe ran brilliantly again, as he had in Moscow and became the first man to win back to back gold medals in the 1500.  Steve Cram, who was soon to go on a world record spree of his own, took the silver. 

1984 really put a cap on that magnificent rivalry.  Neither Ovett and Coe never raced each other again.  They raced each other only six times.  It's a shame.

Ovett's last major win came in 1986 at 5000 meters in the Commonwealth Games.  He continued to compete until 1991, one year longer than Coe.  British Olympic selectors cruelly refused to allow Coe a chance to defend his 1500 title at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.  Yet he was still good enough the following year to capture the British 1500 AAA title as well as running a super fast 800 under 1:44.

The decade plus span of their careers was pre-internet.  You had to rely on Track and Field News for the latest takes on their running exploits.  You were getting the bulk of the news then, usually a month after it happened.  It only added to the aura and mystery of these two great runners.

Both men are responsible for helping push track and field into a professional era.  There was no denying that they were huge draws wherever they ran.  Both made countless tens of thousands of dollars under the table before the sport finally caught up and made those illegal payments, legal.   

British middle distance running from 1972 through 1992 was dominant.  Brendan Foster, Dave Moorcroft, Graham Williamson, and Peter Elliot were right there with Coe, Ovett and Cram.  It's amazing that for more than 20 years British middle distance running was dormant and even now only Mo Farah, really a long distance runner, has run as faster than the great British trio.

Doubtless Seb Coe is the great middle distance runner of the last 50 years.  His range from 800 to 1500 was unmatched.  The dozen or so world records speak for themselves.  But Steve Ovett was the rock and roll rebel who captured my heart.  And the two made for a great decade of racing and record chasing.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

And Then There Was Gene

2016 has been an unsettling year.  So many celebrity deaths, a handful of which have reached down into the core of the American soul of popular culture.  Prince, Pat Summit, David Bowie, Muhammed Ali, Morley Safer, Gary Shandling, and yes, even Nancy Reagan.  Then there was news of Gene Wilder's passing.  It doesn't pack the punch of an Ali, Bowie, Shandling or Prince, but I have the feeling that many people under the age of 40 don't realize just how great he was.

Outside of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Gen X'ers and Millennials don't have a clue about this curly haired comedic genius.  I remember the first movie I ever went to in which Wilder had a leading role.  It was 1974.  Barney McCoy had regaled members of the track team about a new movie he had seen, "Blazing Saddles."  Barney's description of the fart scene had us rolling.

So off I went not knowing a thing about Wilder or the genius behind this great movie, Mel Brooks.  Wilder was this sophisticated, alcoholic gun fighter, playing a buddy to a black sheriff ,Cleavon Little.  The chemistry was stunning and it laid the path for future black/white buddy films including a few that Wilder would star in with the legendary Richard Pryor, "Silver Streak" being the most memorable of their collaborations.

Yet it is two other Wilder/Brooks movies that will stand the test of time.  I didn't see "The Producers" until more than a decade after its release.  Gene Wilder made me uncomfortable.  From that sprung great comedy.  Every time I see that movie, it only gets better.

The greatest movie he ever starred in he co-wrote with Brooks.  If there ever is a movie starring Gene Wilder that you should see it is "Young Frankenstein."  The cast is brilliant and the writing was hilarious.  But it is a song and dance routine that captured the film's essence.  The young doctor tap dancing with the Monster to "Putting on the Ritz" is a classic piece of American comedy.

I can't wait for Thursday night's tribute to Wilder on TMC.  Let the hilarity ensue.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

USA Distance: Magna Cum Laude

Jager, present, Centrowitz, present, Chelimo present, Rupp present, excuse me while I hand out a major upgrade to America's distance running efforts at the 2016 Rio Olympics.  Does any team from any country deserve an A+ more than the USA?  Ethiopia came close with Anaya's amazing World Record run in the women's 10,000 and a silver in the men's the marathon.   Kenya, no finalists in the men's 5,000?  Impossible.  The usual steeple gold and Rudisha in the 800 but then a disappearing act in the 1,500.  The Kenyan women at least held their own.

When last we met a mere short five days ago the United States Olympic track and field team was on a roll.  The distance running hot streak continued right through Sunday requiring a major upgrade that the original B+.  In fact, we've just witnessed the greatest distance throw down at the Olympics by the USA ever.

There were so many surprises and so much to celebrate.  We'll start with Evan Jager, who cemented his place as America's greatest steeplechaser.  Henry Marsh held that title for years but Jager's American Record last year along with his silver medal in brutal conditions Wednesday morning closes the book.  Jager ran a gutsy race, pushing the pace, forcing the Kenyans hand.  It was America's first medal in the men's 3,000 steeplechase since 1984.

The most incredible fireworks came on the last night of the Games.  Matt Centrowitz, Jr. fulfilled the promise he first showed with his unexpected bronze medal at the 2011 World Championships.  He finished a disappointing 4th at the 2012 London Games but showed he was on a mission this year by breaking the long standing U.S. Olympic Trials 1,500 record.

Centrowitz exerted amazing control on one of the best 1,500 field ever assembled.  He dominated the race from the front.  Kenya's Asbel Kiprop, the heavy favorite, ran horribly, unable to position himself properly and wasting energy jockeying around the field.

Centrowitz was able to slowly ratchet up the pace with 700 meters to go, sprinting the last 400 in 50.6 to win the slowest Olympic final in more than 80 years.  In doing so he not only beat the world's top-ranked 1,500 runner, Kiprop, but took down the defending gold medalist.  For baby boomers like myself that have lived almost 50 years with the agony of Jim Ryun's silver medal of 1968, Saturday night was redemption.

The men's 5,000 meter final that followed was icing to the cake.  Great Britain's Mo Farah did what Mo Farah does.  He ran a brilliant race staying out of the mess that trailed behind him.  It was like watching roller derby over the last 800 or so.  Somehow, unexpectedly, the U.S.A.'s Paul Chelimo ran a massive PR to grab the silver medal.  Just two places behind him, 41-year-old Bernard Lagat capped his amazing career with another Masters World Record with his 5th place finish.

All that remained was Sunday morning's men's marathon.  Could the U.S.A. come close to duplicating the previous Sunday efforts by the women where Shalane Flanagan, Desiree Linden and Amy Cragg, who all finished in the top nine?  The boys answered with another trip to the podium.

Galen Rupp carved out his claim as America's greatest distance runner ever by grabbing the bronze medal.  When you add that to his silver in the 10,000 in London and his many American Records, Rupp is pushing his way past Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter as GOAT.  A win at one of the world's major marathons would only cement it.

Behind Rupp was an amazing run by Jared Ward.  A running every man, who carefully picked his way through the field that gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge laid waste to.  Ward judged his pace properly to run a PR in hot conditions and finish 6th.

Then there was Meb.  Yes, Meb Keflezighi finished a mere 33rd, but consider this, he's 41-years-old and he ran a solid 2:16:46 despite an unforgiving stomach.  Yes, this old man, barfed his way to a sub 2:20 marathon.  Think about that for a second.

So in the end, from the 800 meters to the marathon, the United States took one gold, two silver, and four bronze.  That's seven medals at one games.  That's distance medals than the U.S. won over the last five Olympic Games.

The question is why has it taken so long?  Well, it takes time for the seeds to grow and take root.  Those seeds were planted more than a decade ago.  Some of the credit can go to Meb and Deena Kastor.  Meb's marathon silver medal and Deena's marathon bronze in Athens showed that American's didn't have to take a back seat to the East Africans.

But I will argue that the bulk of the credit should go to a trio of three American high school boys.  Alan Webb, Dathan Ritzenheim and Ryan Hall sparked a running revolution that stirred the internet and sparked a renewed interest in what was possible in distance running at the high school level.  It gave us Rupp, Jenny Simpson, Clayton Murphy, Emma Coburn, Evan Jager and yes, the amazing Matt Centrowitz, Jr.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Health Plus

More than 20 years ago an ambitious venture aimed at exercise opened in Overland Park, Kansas called Health Plus.  Today that monument to fitness is being torn down.  I can't begin to describe how sad this makes me.

Health Plus offered a little bit of everything.  It had a small shoe store, it offered personalized coaching, it had a 25 meter pool, a full sized basketball court, weights of all manner and best of all, a decent indoor running track.  The club also sat just yards away from some of the best running trails the Kansas City area had to offer.

I first ventured into the facility in December of 1984 looking to bring some direction to my running as I was about to turn 30.  I sat down with coach Tom Dowling.  He proceeded to outline a six month running program which would have me completing a 21 mile long run by the end of June.  I looked at him incredulous and told him that was impossible.  I had a busy professional career and there was no way I could tackle anything longer than 10 miles in any given run.

I was running 21 miles on Sundays by May.  I had stumbled upon a unique group of runners of all abilities that had fallen in love with Health Plus and with Dowling in particular.  The long runs were so unique, such a powerful show of camaraderie, that I put together a four minute piece for a television sports show about the Sunday runs.

The runs took place over the rolling hills that stretched south of what was then an undeveloped part of Overland Park and Leawood.  There was a traditional water and bathroom stop four miles in at a Leawood fire station.  Water jugs were stashed in the ditches at various parts along the 21 mile route, which we sometimes stretched to 25 miles.  There was always time to stop for a big coke that we all eagerly shared at a Qwik Trip at 151st Street.  On really hot days, a water spigot at a now vanished nursery provided much needed relief at mile 19.

The most important long run I took from Health Plus didn't happen on a Sunday and it wasn't 21  miles.  It was a Saturday in the summer of 1988 when I went an 18 mile long run with Dowling and a kid I'd never met before named Mike Bloemker.  At the time I wasn't very happy about this kid tagging along.  Seven years later he would become one of my best friends and he now is the head track and field coach at Johnson County Community College.

Besides the long runs I became involved with Dowling's outstanding high school training program.  I discovered what it took to build a high school runner into a state champion.  Dowling and later Bloemker, had dozens of them.  The high school program led me to another great friend, Chris Ronan, a multiple state champion who would later compete for the University of Kansas.

When Tom passed away unexpectedly in 1995, his protege' Bloemker stepped in and while the sense of loss was deep, the high school program rolled along.  The national caliber runners continued to spring from that program including two-time Olympian Amy Cragg.

Health Plus was in the midst of change when Tom died.  The economics of this huge facility simply didn't add up.  It was on its last leg financially by the start of the new millennium.  Bloemker pulled the plug on the now legendary high school program to devote himself full time to his coaching gig at Johnson County.

Now the famous training ground, called Stress Plus, by the high school coaches who hated it, is being torn down.  My memories will endure.  The indoor track meets, breaking into the facility on Sundays to run long on the track during violent thunderstorms, the numerous sexual escapades inside the facility that were shared among the boys while out on those runs and even that precious black and green Health Plus singlet, are stuck in my mind and buried deep in my heart.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

In The Home Stretch

We've rolled through more than half of the distance finals at the 2016 Rio Olympics.  The United States is on its way to one of its most successful Olympics from the 800 to the Marathon ever.  Right now if I could grade the effort I would give it a B+.

It started on Friday with an amazing World Record in the women's 10,000 meters.  Even though Molly Huddle was left almost a lap behind in its wake she still blasted the American Record and finished a respectable 6th.  Our women's marathon team followed up on Sunday with its best team showing in the short Olympic history of the event.  Shalane Flanagan, Desiree Linden and Amy Cragg were all in the top nine.  All three ran terrific times in very hot conditions.

Galen Rupp put his stamp on the title of greatest American 10,000 meter runner Sunday night with his 5th place finish.  He won silver in London in 2012.  The skeptics said Rupp should stick to the marathon in Rio and forsake the 10K.  Rupp made those critics eat their words running a very competitive race and I think only sharpened his speed for this weekend's men's Marathon final.

Monday brought the U.S.A. double bronze.  In very hot conditions, a very cool Emma Coburn played a first rate waiting game in the women's 3,000 meter steeple chase.  The hot pace allowed the Colorado grad to slowly work her way onto the podium along with an American Record with her 3rd place finish.

Monday night Kenyan David Rudisha cemented his place as the greatest 800 meter runner of all time.  But the joyous surprise of that race was American Clayton Murphy's fantastic finish to grab bronze in a stunning 1:42.92.  His time was more than a second faster than his personal best and puts the 21-year-old in position to be a real 1500/800 favorite at Tokyo in 2020.

Tuesday night it was another Buffalo gal, Jenny Simpson, who ran as smart a 1,500 final as you could ever hope see.  Genzebe Dibaba's jaw dropping insane 3rd lap left Simpson and fellow American Shannon Rowbury more than 30 meters off the lead.  Both Americans didn't lose their heads during the chaotic final 700 meters and calmly worked their way up the field with Simpson nearly catching Dibaba for the silver, settling for a well-earned bronze and Rowbury just a step behind in 4th.  Simpson, who went to high school in the Tampa area, grabbed the first 1500 medal ever for an American.

A lot of medal chances remain in the upcoming events.  Evan Jager could break up the Kenyan logjam in the steeplechase with a medal.  Matt Centrowitz has a legitimate spot for a medal in the men's 1,500.  I think the American women have almost no hope to win a medal in either the 5,000 or 800, but Katie Grace could surprise in the later.  Getting to the finals of the 800 is a combination of strength by surviving the rounds and competitive smarts.

The real wild card left on the schedule is the men's 5,000 meter final.  Can a 41-year-old Bernard Lagat win another Olympic medal.  If the East Africans are stupid even to jog the first 3,000 meters Lagat has a chance.  No one in the field, outside of Mo Farah, can kick with Lagat over the final 200 meters.  But I'm not holding my breath.

Finally there's the men's Marathon which starts at 8:30 Sunday morning.  Since it is truly a race and not a time trial like the marathons in London and Berlin, Galen Rupp has a chance.  Rupp is a racer.  He can handle the changes of paces the Kenyans and Ethiopians will throw into the competition.  Another Olympic medal would cement Rupp's place as America's greatest distance runner. 

Medals by Jager, Centrowitz and Rupp could take that B+ to an A-.  A Centrowitz Gold over the amzing Asbel Kiprop would bump it all the way to an A+.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016


The news came in the form of an email last week from my favorite boss.  Tommy Sifuentes was dead, natural causes.  He was just 58.  I anxiously waited on an obituary and all I've seen is the announcement for his viewing and funeral.  Tommy and I shared something very important and I feel compelled to write about him.

Thomas Sifuentes, Junior started working at WDAF TV in the late 1970's.  He was just a teenager.  A young Latino, a barrier breaker, like his co-worker Joe Arse and a handful of other Latinos working at KMBC like Ralph Siguera.  Tommy learned how to become a videographer.  Back then it was back breaking work.  Here was this little guy lugging around 70 pounds of gear.  He worked hard.

Tommy wasn't an artist with the camera.  But he cared deeply about his work.  I remember going out with him for a shoot at Royals Stadium in advance of a special story I was working on.  Tommy did everything I asked of him and more.  He was always careful to throw his hand in front of the lens so you couldn't use a shot that he felt wouldn't be up to snuff.  Tommy didn't want second class work making it to air.

Tommy and I both battled the same personal demons and we leaned on each other.  We learned how to be better people from each other.  I owe him more than I think he ever realized.  And I wish that he had known how often I thought about him.

Last year he parted company with WDAF TV.  I can only imagine how hard it was for him to walk away from the only job he had ever known.  I know he was unhappy.  I know that he wanted so much more for his life and for his children that he loved so much.

Losing Tommy caused me to think about all of my television friends that passed too soon over the last 40 plus years that I had the joy of working alongside.  It gets harder as you get older.  The list keeps getting longer and I want those folks remembered, because they all contributed to my life in so many ways.  God bless you Tommy, I pray that you are at peace.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

What's Old Is New

It sat staring at me for nearly two years.  It was an old book, torn and tattered, part of a little library that's part of my running store.  Mike Pemberton kept more than a couple of dozen books in the store.  Most of them are about training, a few running biographies, including Marty Liquori's "On The Run."  It pains me every time I see that book.  I had a copy of my own, autographed by Liquori back in 1980.  It disappeared a long time ago.  I suspect someone kept it after borrowing it from me.

The sad book that stared at me was one that I would have never considered reading were it not for the fact that Mike had it sitting there and were it not for my boredom stemming from the slow days of summer that mark the running shoe business in Southwest Florida.  The book is called, "My Race Be Won."  It was written by Olympic 400 meter champion Vince Matthews.  Last week I finally gave in and started reading it.

Much to my surprise, it was a great read.  It's one of the better book about being a track and field athlete that I've ever read.  Matthews 40 plus years old autobiography taught me a very sorry lesson.  Little has changed in terms of race relations in the United States of America.

Matthews came of age as a track star when the sport was strictly amateur.  Any money an athlete made during that era was strictly under the table or by being clever when it came to asking for airfare and lodging.  He was a top flight high school quarter miler in the mid-60's but his academics limited his collegiate options.  In fact, it took him an extra semester of high school before he could graduate and enroll in a small, historically black college in North Carolina.

It's hard to think that a world class runner could emerge from a small black college.  But that was the world of track and field in the 1960's and 70's.  Matthews does a great job of dissecting the inherent racism that can cut both ways in society.  Even in a sport like track and field where it appears black athletes would have parity, it simply wasn't the case.  Let's face it, white distance runners get more ink and more shoe company dollars than black sprinters.  It was true in 1968 and it's still true for the most part in 2016.

Matthews' 1972 gold medal in Munich is a compelling a comeback as you can find in the world of track and field.  He jumped fences and barbed wire to train on a track.  He overcame terrible medical issues to compete.  He also overcame an indifferent United States Olympic Committee which refused to pay his way to compete at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene.  They gave a big no to a man who ran on a world record setting 4 x 400 relay that won gold in 1968 at the Mexico City Games.

Matthews is an inspiration.  He is a renaissance man who allows us to go along for the ride.  His descriptions of the trips to Europe, the women, the gambling, the fight for the rights for African-Americans, it's all there.