Athletics is capable of bridging great human divides

Published: January 30, 2008 04:38AM


Writing is not as hard as running a race, or even an interval day. That’s not to say it’s without rigor. Writing without breaking the golden rule means not inflicting on a reader anything that would make me hurl a book across a room. Each sentence must declare a real idea, which must be made to stand naked for inspection. Everything that can be thought can be thought clearly. If a paragraph is not lucid, it’s gaseous distraction.

This all takes a certain effort, and is often compared to other pursuits that one doesn’t really like doing but loves having done. One is distance running. I will admit that writing is not unlike training. Editing is cutting extra weight from shoes. A piece must attain reading fitness before going before the crabby, poetry-deaf public. The success of a sentence or an article or a book is entirely up to its readers.

The judgment of Hayward Field is of another order. A race can take place before thousands, yet feel savagely alone, most of its meaning hidden from the howling crowd. Running, therefore, is more a worthy subject than a parallel pursuit.

I am unspeakably honored that Bill Bowerman’s biography is the Readin’ in the Rain libraries’ and bookstores’ selection for Lane County to soak in this winter.

What can Bowerman possibly say to us today that justified four years of writing? Well, for one, we are in a time of war, and he was a World War II hero, with a silver star, who found from that brutal experience that war is a hideous, hidebound way to settle things. He was a great teacher of athletes who found something better — the Olympic creed, whereby we channel our hatreds and aggression into competition, not conquest. He believed with the ancient Greeks that there is more honor in outrunning a man than in killing him.

Whenever he spoke of his highest aim, it was always outreach by sport. He mourned Steve Prefontaine at his 1975 memorial service by lauding him as an “emancipator,” because Pre had fought to free U.S. athletes from the exploitative Amateur Athletic Union, allowing them to compete against the best in the world.

The race that affected Bowerman most wasn’t even by one of his own. In 1970, in the depth of the Cold War, the USA national track team faced the USSR in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). The armed guards who met us at the airport were sweating with fear. What monsters had they been told we were?

Sixty-five thousand malevolent Russians watched in the rain as Frank Shorter and I raced Leonid Ivanov and Leonid Mikityenko over 10,000 meters, a distance the Soviets had never lost to Americans on Russian soil. Frank responded by running a race for the ages, breaking away early and passing 5,000 meters in 13:55, a stunning pace.

When the crowd — that great, educated Russian crowd — heard his split time, it came to its feet and thundered. Its love of track overcame its love of country. It switched sides to roar Frank to a record. He was so gripped by the crowd’s urging he tried too hard and got a side stitch. He still won by half a lap. I took second because the two Leonids had killed themselves trying to stay with Frank.

Afterward, we four did a weary victory lap. The sky over our heads filled with hundreds of cellophane-wrapped roses. Everything had changed. Frank’s run was the greatest example of sport catalyzing understanding I have ever witnessed. His turning a stadium of Soviet citizens into 65,000 singing supporters should have let us see that the Cold War couldn’t last forever. Eventually our two great peoples would get over our blood feud about whether central planning or the free market is better at distributing goods and services.

That outbreak of common humanity, ignited by a great run, gave all of us there reason to hope that other such outbreaks — ignited by sport or science or art — might overcome the fear indoctrinated into those soldiers on the plane. It would be no surprise that the thing it took to pry open Communist China was ping pong.

Bill wasn’t the coach of that team. He watched us on TV, but when I came home and described the events of Leningrad, he was moved. “I’m covetous of your being there when Frank turned that crowd,” he said. “That’s what it’s for, isn’t it. Is that not why we do these things?”

If you agree, if you know why staging the Olympic Track and Field Trials is morally defining for our community, then “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon” is for you.

HHHH

Kenny Moore is a two-time Olympic marathoner who became a senior writer for Sports Illustrated before writing “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon: The Story of Oregon’s Legendary Coach and Nike’s Cofounder.” Readin’ in the Rain is organized by libraries and bookstores to inspire Eugene-Springfield residents to read and talk about one book. Free events include the Umbrella Opening kick-off at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Eugene Public Library, 100 W. 10th Ave., and a talk by the author at 7 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Hult Center, with introduction by UO President Dave Frohnmayer. For information, go to www.read-rain.org or call 682-5450.