Two Left Shoes And a Lonely Place

The year was 1988. The event was the Olympic trials. Diarrhea.

The year was 1984. The Bruce Jenner meet. Hemorrhoids.

The year was 1969, the national track and field championships. Over slept for discus.

Olympic trials, 1980. Two left throwing shoes in the gym bag. Really, two left shoes. I pulled them out and thought, I gotta stop drinking.

1982. National championships in Knoxville. My third throw, 71 feet. The official ruled that I fouled. But in film reviews the next day, it showed that I didn’t foul. I would have gotten into the finals, but I was on the outside looking in again.

This made me wonder, was it over-officiating, or was there a conspiracy against me? Did someone put something in my food in 1988? Did someone switch shoes on me? Did someone drug me in 1969? Was that official blinded by my bubbly personality?

It’s a really difficult thing to train for something and have notions of what it will be like and then experience it, because the experience is never what you imagine. Murphy’s Law is always at play. Something will go wrong. Count on it. Life just goes wrong.

My question is: How do you live your life up to that day in order to overcome all the obstacles, all the conspiracies against you? I’m still searching for the answer.

I never took the discus too seriously. But there were days.     I was 24 and not doing well in the shot-put. I was throwing 63 feet or so. So I was going to throw discus at the national championships in Dade County the next day. My coach, Ted Hayden of the University of Chicago Track Club, wanted me to throw discus. He thought it would help my career.

The next morning he came into my room. I was still sleeping. He said, “Are you competing in the discus today?”

I said, “Yes, I am.”

He said, “I think they started already.”

I remember it well because it was like an alarm clock, an alarm clock with red flags waving in my face.

I jumped up and stumbled around and got ready. I took the shuttle bus and arrived at the field. The officials had all the flights booked already, the scratches were made up. I was all ready to go, but nowhere to throw. I was out of luck. But at least I was out of bed. I watched the throwers and felt bad. John Cole set a record that day, 216 feet. I had never seen a discus thrown that far.

Then Mark Murro set a record in the javelin, 300 feet and change, I think. So it was a good day for American throwers. I just wasn’t part of it.

That was a huge blunder. There I was, poised for another day of competition at the national championships, for which only one percent of the upper one percent qualify. That means you are in high company, extremely high company of the extreme first order. I should have been up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for it, ready to throw until my arm fell off, but instead I was slacking like a teenager. I guess I already was on my way to becoming a prima donna.

Eighty percent of success is simply showing up, according to Woody Allen. I guess he meant showing up on time.

This sort of thing always happened to me in spite of my best efforts to fly right. But I’m not the only one. I could tell you about the track guys at the Olympics who missed their event because they were playing penny-ante poker, but I won’t.

My theory about these events is that they are a manifestation of the subconscious fear of success. It’s more common than you think. Fear of failure is always there, but anybody who fears to fail may never compete, because failure, as Michael Jordan said, is commonplace. Remember that he said he failed thousands of times in order to succeed. You just have to push the fear back. That can be done. I feared failure so much I would throw up before events.

But fear of success is different, more complex. It can make you do dumb things, like over sleep, pack the wrong shoes, drink too much the night before.

Because if you become successful, you have to keep on succeeding and keep up the image, the responsibility, the status, the prima donna-ship.

At the 1980 Olympic trials, I arrived on the field and reached in my bag to change into my throwing shoes. I pulled out two left ones. I was dumbfounded. I searched for the right one, but it wasn’t there. The night before I failed to prepare, as I was having a close encounter of the female kind. So when I was leaving for the trials, I just threw my stuff in a bag and headed out. Good thing I didn’t pull any female underwear out of there.

Not having the right shoes is a major concern. I ran around the field and found the Adidas representative. This was in Eugene, Ore., which was Nike Town at the time.  He was sort of hiding out, trying to look inconspicuous, but he had shoes for me, size 15. So I started throwing and made the team as an alternate.

Not that it mattered. President Carter cancelled U.S. participation in the Moscow games that year because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Thirty years later, guess where the Americanos are.

The left shoes were not the only issue that day. I had been battling the USOC for a right to compete after I had turned pro. It was still in question whether the USOC officials would allow me to throw. But I had a secret weapon in my bag besides the two left shoes – a cigar. My plan was to hold a sit-in in the throwing circle if they didn’t allow me to compete. I’d light up the cigar and just sit there, puffing my own personal protest, waiting for the gendarmes to haul me away. But they let me throw and I was kind of disappointed about not holding my protest. I would have made the newspapers again.

I don’t even want to talk about 1988 and the diarrhea. But let me tell you this, it was a most miserable day. First of all, the Olympic trials were in Indianapolis, which was within striking distance for my family. My mother, sister and her hubby and my nephew came to watch me attempt to get into the Seoul Olympics.

This was my swan song in competition. I was 43 years old. But I thought I could make the team. I threw 67’5” the week before at a meet in Los Gatos, Cal.

But those little conspiracies. I had to be the tour guide for my family. That was a distraction. We had a hotel room and I couldn’t get into the bathroom because three other people had to use it, too. It was hot and the female heptathletes were running around in their little sports bra outfits. Distracting.

I started eating ice cream sandwiches, drinking Gatorade, orange soda pop and all kinds of other crap.

We were driving to the trials and I was riding shotgun, my brother-in-law driving. I felt the volcanic eruption begin to rumble in my guts. I told him to drop me off at the front gate. I jumped out and made a bee line across flower beds and other no-trespassing areas toward the portable outhouses. A security guard tried to stop me. I told him, “Hey, I gotta go. Stay outta my way.”

And I went. It was miserable and hot in that plastic john. No toilet paper. I used my T-shirt and put on a singlet. I finished up and ran to the field. People had already taken their warm-ups. I was sweating and sick.

I got to the ring and could not get enough lift into my throws. I was wiped out and dazed. I did not get into the finals.  My throws sucked. I couldn’t get into the groove. I couldn’t even get my game face on.

Still, I came within an inch of getting into the finals and thought, if only I hadn’t had that gastric disturbance, that last ice cream sandwich, that can of orange pop. But shit happens and that was the end of competition for me.

I still think about those little human details that catch up to you and throw you off the world athletic stage. You end up in a lonely place, like that portable toilet.

I’m still not a morning person.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

6 thoughts on “Two Left Shoes And a Lonely Place

  1. Great read this morning from the usual Track & Field News banter. Youth in the 1970s and Oldfield given this unusual Rebel persona from SI or other media. It all appears misrepresented with where was the human side of this guy(?) Field events had the most interesting competitors but given to their eccentrics. I learned to cheer for Oldfield as much as I understood Al Oetre giving it one more try. Fact that Oldfield made SI cover was his moment in the sun.

  2. Thanks Brian for a very insightful piece. Candid as always, it touches on fear of success as a factor in procrastination, lack of prep, and ultimately setbacks. This is a revelation for me and helps explain why I struggled at times as a high potential thrower in my youth and now as an executive. Well done.

  3. very interesting Brian, thanks for sharing. I find it interesting that so many are NOT the least bit intrigued about HOW to compete , these things happen just as you say, and it is up to the champion to walk thru it all. If I told a guy “how would you like a 4 foot improvement in the big meet ?” he would be all ears until he found out the secret was between his own ears, then they usually run and hide afraid to even look at choking let alone overcome it…..thanks great read buddy!

  4. Brian, I have always wanted to tell you that I have admired you for years. This is why I am going to compete in 2014 (Masters 50-54). Thank you Sir for ALL that you have done for the Sport! I respect You Very Much! Eric

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