L’il Abner Scores Big Under the Bright Lights in Moscow

I didn’t get to the 1969 Moscow track and field meet with that great American squad because of my good looks and charming manner. Those only go so far.

I got there because that year I had boosted my throw from 57 feet to 63 feet and took a third in the national championships. That’s a big leap in 12 months. How did I do it? I stopped trying to be somebody else’s thrower and just became myself. I started throwing as if I could punch a hole in the sky and believed I could. That’s what I thought about when I practiced. You learn to let your thoughts pull you along.

I was on the track and field team at Middle Tennessee State University, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. So I devoted myself to practice. I developed my own drills and borrowed others. One of them was a “Running South African.” We would run through the circle and let the shot fly. We called it that because at the time South Africa was banned from the Olympics due to the government’s apartheid policies. The running throw was banned, too, so the name fit. There was a “Walking South African” version and the drills helped develop footwork and linear drive.

I also learned to throw left-handed. That helped analyze the throwing movement to see how everything worked together. It forced you to pick apart all the movements and see how they fit or didn‘t fit.

The trip to Russia was an education in itself and an introduction to the Soviet system. One brand of toothpaste, one brand of toilet paper, one brand of this and one brand of that. One brand of beer. I think it was Stalin Lager. I didn’t drink the beer. I drank champagne, just like the Communist Party officials.

But it wasn’t all fun. We had to compete and do our best to humble the Soviets, who thought they were God’s gift, except they didn’t believe in God. The Russians weren’t a big factor in the shot and discus, but the East Germans were. The two I competed against were Hans-Peter Gies and Hartmut Briesenick.

The event was held in the Moscow version of Madison Square Garden, though it was bigger than the Garden. The place was packed, standing room only.

The Soviets were so desperate to win that they shone spotlights in the eyes of some of our athletes during the competition. These were like leftover World War II anti-aircraft spotlights. We had one long jumper, Norm Tate, who I thought might land in one of those big lights they had near the end of the jump pit. They pointed one right in his face. I thought it was a form of sabotage. It was the Cold War way.

Poor Norm was harassed as soon as he got off the plane, too. He was wearing a big Afro wig as a joke and the authorities took him aside and questioned him, as if he were a black revolutionary. The Soviets were just screwing with us, trying to put us off our game, trying to raise racial tensions between us. The Cold War was like that.

The lights didn’t bother me. I was the big hick, a one-strap bib overall kind of guy, just raring to go. The team called me Abner, as in L‘il Abner. I didn’t care. I felt impervious.
The throwers were the first event, right in the middle of the arena in the glare of the anti-aircraft spotlights. As the first American thrower, I had the responsibility of setting the tone for my teammates, though I didn’t know it at the time. I found out after I had drawn first blood. My teammates came up to me saying “Way to go. That’s the way to set the pace.” I was like, “Huh?”

I didn’t even know how far I was throwing since they were measuring in the metric system. My best throw was 18.516 meters, which calculates to 60 feet, 9 inches, which took top honors. We were hillbillies and had no clue. For all we knew, the metric system was the subway.

After the meet, the games continued in our rooms. When the coaches and chaperones all went to the bar to celebrate a successful meet, the American female athletes began to waltz into the American men’s rooms. I thought, “Whoa, I can’t wait until one walks into my room.” And one did.

She was a quarter-miler from the West Coast. It was the Hotel Moskva version of “Upstairs, Downstairs“ and it showed the Russians that Americans could get along with people of color, at least when the pants came down.

The bad news was that the trip got me dropped from the university. I got back to school and started going to classes and they said, “You’re not signed up for this class, anymore.”
So I explained what had happened, that I had gone to Moscow and beat the Soviets. They said, “You beat the Russkies?” I confirmed that I had. They thought that was the greatest thing anybody from Middle Tennessee State University had ever done and I thought they were going to lynch somebody to celebrate. They let me back into school and I got straight As.

My perspective on Russia changed. It wasn’t nearly as scary and gloomy as I thought. I won my event, drank champagne and got laid, too, a tough combination to beat. But, Gies and Briesenick came back to haunt me at the Munich Olympics. It was not the only haunting thing that would happen there.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 3/12/2010)

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