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The Truth, Mainly - 07/29/1996

Staying home from Olympics; A modern Greek tragedy

not the final draft

This is a modern Greek tragedy, a story of thwarted greatness, squandered talent, wasted poetry in motion: I won't be running in the Olympics this year either.

That means Atlanta will be added to the list of Olympic sites where I haven't run: Barcelona, Seoul, Los Angeles, Moscow, Montreal, Munich, Mexico City, Tokyo, Rome, Melbourne, Helsinki.

Helsinki's where I should have run in my first Olympics. I was 18 in 1952 and just out of high school, but tragically, I hadn't jelled yet.

Certainly it wasn't the fault of my DNA. Listen to this: My father, even in his late 30s could outrun any challenger in Meade County, Kansas down the three-block main street of our town.

I suppose you wouldn't have guessed that by just looking at me, would you?

So I knew I had the right stuff. It was just a matter of time before my stuff firmed up. My father tried to speed it along by giving advice.

"Point your toes straight ahead," he'd tell me, "and try not to run so long in the same place."

It was good advice and I resolved to make use of it after my blazing speed developed. I'd be running the 100, maybe the 200, I figured. I'd already discovered anything longer was tiring and not much fun.

The high school coach had me running the mile—eight times as far as the 220—because he said some of the best milers he knew were pigeon-toed. Said he was a little fuzzy on the cause-effect, but it was true. I put up with the mile because I knew it was only until the quick-jerk portion of my leg muscle developed and I'd leave them gasping in the Olympics.

Then disaster struck. Twice.

First there was the High Plains League meet in Satanta. You probably read about it in the Satanta Sentinal ("Speedster's Thinclad Son Finishes Dead Last!")

While waiting for my potential to develop, I prided myself in not finishing dead last in the mile. Now I was trotting along in my usual next-to-last position when the last place guy—a pudgy freshman from Rolla—dropped out in the third lap, thereby the optical illusion that I was last.

Even my father was fooled.

"Pick it up," he yelled as he ran beside me on the backstretch of the fourth lap. "You're running dead last. Turn it on."

I tried to explain as I chugged along that I wasn't really dead last because the kid from Rolla had quit. That's when I learned that the older generation was more interested in appearances than in reality.

It was a psychological setback, even though it wasn't my fault.

It wasn't my fault a week later when I was humiliated in front of a home crowd (ten parents, three cheerleaders) in our dual meet with Kismet. I couldn't help it that our home track was Little Churchill Downs, the half-mile racehorse track north of town. Our coach said that running on a half-mile track instead of a quarter-mile track would be to our advantage later in life.

The Truth, Mainly


"Oh," we said, a little fuzzy on cause-effect. "OK."

Anyway, it seemed to be working against Kismet. But what wouldn't? Kismet was such a podunk town that its track team wore army-surplus olive-drab sneakers. We wore real track shoes with spikes and we were cleaning their clocks.

There were six milers, three of us and three of them. When my two teammates finished first and second, I still had 100 yards to go, but I was 20 yards ahead of the three Kismet guys who were bunched up in their podunk army-surplus sneakers, laughing at the road-apples on our track and making comments about our cheerleaders.

So I figured I was about to come in third and win my first medal. I knew a third-place medal in a dual meet with Kismet was not big deal, but I saw it as the beginning of a long sequence that would end with Olympic gold. I felt like maybe I was beginning to gell.

The problem was that the Little Churchill Downs Derby had been run the previous weekend and not only were the road apples still there, so was the finish wire.

If the cheerleaders, who'd been holding string for the winner to break, hadn't got tired of waiting for third place and gone for Coca-Colas, I wouldn't have mistaken the horserace finishing wire for the finish line in the human mile run.

But I stopped at the wire, which turned out to be 15 yards short of my finish line. I was bent over with my hands on my knee when I heard the coach hollering something I couldn't make out in the wind. I looked up to see my father running—pretty fast, naturally—toward me, at the same time motioning me to come in his direction.

I figured he was bringing my medal. I held up my finger in V signs.

That's when the three Kismet guys came running past me, snickering in their sneakers, and the awful truth dawned. I finished dead last.

I never ran again. Instead I followed my father's advice to be "an English teacher or something like that."

And every four years, at Olympics time, I'm haunted by two questions: What if the pudgy freshman from Rolla hadn't quit? What if our cheerleaders had stayed at the finish line instead of going for Coca-Colas?

I can't stand it.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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