Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 30 May 2004 08:45:44 -0400

Visit to a Shrine

RUNNING COMMENTARY 521

(rerun from May 1998 RW)

Olympic tracks are the shrines of our sport. Unfortunately we must leave North America to visit any of them used in our running lifetime.

The sad fact is that all three tracks used for the Olympics on this continent since 1976 weren't considered important enough to preserve. Track couldn't fill these stadiums, so baseball or football moved in soon after the last Olympic medal was awarded.

Montreal ripped up its track to reconfigure the field for the Expos. Los Angeles renovated for the Raiders (who later moved back to Oakland). Atlanta cut its stadium in half to become home of the Braves.

To see an Olympic track, I had to travel to Tokyo. This wasn't the reason for visiting Japan but was to be the highlight of that trip. I recommend going there -- or to another surviving shrine -- to all runners with enough years on them to have a sense of history.

Some personal history: 1964 was the high point for my track-watching fanaticism (also my best year of track racing). The Olympics came to Tokyo that year, to what the Japanese now call "National Stadium."

That October I stayed up much of the night to catch as many events as possible on television. But the best one slipped past me.

My dad woke me with the stunning news of Billy Mills, who went in as third-fastest on the three-member U.S. team, winning the 10,000. Americans Bob Schul and Bill Dellinger later went 1-3 in the 5000.

Peter Snell won his second Olympic 800, plus the 1500. Abebe Bikila won his second marathon.

I later got to know Mills. I've corresponded with Schul and heard him speak, and I live in the same town as Dellinger.

I've met Snell since he became a U.S. resident and a Ph.D. in exercise physiology. I saw Bikila in a wheelchair at the Munich Games shortly before he died.

But I'd never visited the place where they ran at their best. And I almost missed the chance in 1997.

Tokyo's traffic spooked the small-town boy in me. But my Los Angeles-born wife Barbara insisted that we go to the stadium by taxi. "You may never get this chance again," she said.

Once there we found it seemingly locked tightly. "Let's just walk around the outside to get a feel of the place," I said.

Barbara then spied a tiny doorway and went over to peek inside. I held back.

"We can sneak in here," she shouted. I swallowed my fears of a trespassing arrest and followed her inside.

Here I walked a lap. The stadium appeared empty except for the two of us.

But in this shrine I could sense the ghosts of Mills and Schul and Dellinger, Snell and Bikila when they were young, these seats were filled, and this air was supercharged with sound and emotion. My Japanese trip peaked in the 10 minutes here, when memories from long ago and far away came together briefly with here and now.

UPDATE. Ray Kressler, a friend of mine from Pennsylvania, plans to fly to Tokyo this October. He intends to run on the Olympic track, 40 years to the day after Billy Mills's victory. I've told Ray where to find the tiny doorway into a glorious past.

You still can run on the 1904 Olympic track in St. Louis. The spot now called Francis Field served as the starting line for the women's Olympic Trials Marathon this spring.

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