The Latin America Tour; Bored and broke, but we had batteries

I was in Santiago, Chile, doing a tour of South America as a born-again amateur and an athletic revolutionary. I wanted to spread the word of the heavy metal gospel and continue my free-wheeling, free-throwing lifestyle.

Unfortunately, I ended up getting expelled from the continent, for which I am grateful. Had I been stayed longer, I might have ended up against a wall staring at a firing squad. Or down the barrel of a pistola held by an angry husband or father.

Santiago was a charming city with little fortress homes, fleets of Mercedes public buses and little Catholic girls and boys in their uniforms everywhere. The tour had started in Trinidad, went to Venezuela, then to Brazil, and on to Chile, which was the last stop.

It was an eye opening trip for me. I hadn’t really seen slums where people lived in cardboard and plastic shacks built into the sides of hills, unless you count the homeless guys camped out on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago.

I was associated with a track and field club called the Philadelphia Pioneers, a group formed to compete against other clubs, including such organizations as the Pacific Coast Club, the New York Athletic Club, and the University of Chicago Track Club, my all-time favorite. Back then, there was a lot more attention paid to track and field because of the big boom in citizen running and races and the legendary fame of such athletes as Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine, Jim Ryun and, of course, myself.

Even the shot-put became a popular event due to television coverage of the Olympics and other sporting events. The coverage spotlighted most of the speed and power events, the endurance events, and the swimming events. Everybody wanted to run, jump, swim or throw. People still do, but the Baby Boom generation seemed to make it more popular just through sheer numbers. Everybody started buying running shoes, even if they didn’t run.

It was 1981, and by then I had competed in the Munich Olympics, become a professional track and field celebrity, set a world record, been banned from the Olympics and amateur competition, declared war on the U.S. Olympic Committee and then re-admitted to amateur competition by a federal court decision. It was a wild ride.

The year before I was ready to go and throw in Moscow for the Olympic Games, but that turned out to be the year of humiliation as President Carter withdrew the U.S. team because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

I was 36 and still competing when the track and field tour to the southern latitudes came up. I didn‘t want to miss it. I had been in Leningrad for a meet with a lot of my American comrades and thought a stop in Rio de Janeiro would be in order. I came home, bought a new summer wardrobe, and headed toward the border.

It was summer in South America, winter up north, so it was a good place to spend a month. On this particular trip I fell in with the Pioneers, many of them fellow hooligans to whom I could relate. It was a good club. Track clubs were a way for amateur athletes to compete, get their expenses paid and receive a little per diem.

A lot of people were getting free shoes, equipment and accessories from various companies under the table and it was the beginning of club sponsorship by shoe and sportswear companies. I wasn’t a member of the Pioneers. I was a solo artist, and had gotten an invitation to make the tour, along with such luminaries as Carl Lewis, hurdler Charles Foster, pole vaulter Larry Jesse and others.

As amateurs, there was no paycheck, but we received money to live on and a little extra spending cash. Few of us had money of any significance. Few of us came from affluent families. But we got a couple of bucks for showing up and wowing the fans. It was a type of indentured servitude, except that we could always walk away.

Of course, if I walked away I would have to get a job. You know what getting a job means to me. I’ve had jobs and I think they are very over-rated unless you’re making six or seven figures and have a car and a chauffer.

I recall that the tour was sponsored by the Brunswick Corp. which at that time was known mostly for its bowling equipment and pool tables. Somehow the company Hottentots wanted to branch out into track and field. That was fine with me. I would have even bowled for them if they wanted, as long as they paid my airfare, hotel bill and expense money, plus a little extra to buy cigarettes or whatever.

On this trip, I hung out with Larry Jesse, who held the U.S. record in the pole vault at the time. I had met him in El Paso when I lived there. He was one of those people who taught me how to be an airline pirate, mixing and matching airline tickets. Back then it was all on paper with carbon copies, sort of fill in the blank tickets. He could scam his way onto a flight as if he were that guy in “Catch Me If You Can.”

Larry knew all the meet promoters and all the scams to work on tour. He would take several poles, lose them and collect the insurance. That sort of thing.

At these meets we would compete against local clubs and their best Olympic-caliber athletes. It was not particularly challenging for us. I think it was difficult for gifted young athletes in those countries to break out. Many of the local clubs were sponsored by police or military agencies and those were the people who had the money and the power. They brought in their own kids, or their friend’s kids, and didn’t go searching through the slums for kids who had potential.

We went to Argentina, where we did the tango in the dance clubs. Brazil was great. I seemed to attract women there, and had a great time. I recall that the meet was packed with spectators. It was like New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Track and field was very popular in Brazil.

Then we went to Santiago. Santiago was part Third World, part New World. At the airport, people had chickens in cages as carry-on luggage. There were llamas everywhere. And we ran into Gypsies.

We were staying at a hotel, a stone’s throw away from an old abandoned building. It was an old wreck of a place. So from our room, we started flinging batteries at the windows, just because it was a challenge. And perhaps we were a little bored. I think they were D size batteries from our boom box radios.

We had to throw through the open window of our room without smashing our knuckles against the frame. There were five of us. Larry Jesse was one. Another guy was a high jumper whose father was an ambassador somewhere; and there were two quarter-milers from the relay team. I won’t name them because the quarter-milers found the Gypsies who sold them the hashish.

I guess that might have had something to do with the battery toss. I don’t know. There we were, grown men, Olympians, throwing batteries at this building just to watch the windows break. Believe me, it wasn’t that easy, hitting those windows. It was at least 100 yards, maybe more. It took an Olympic effort, but in the end, I think I won. No, I’m sure of it.

There is a theory that humanoids started walking upright so we could throw things at our enemies, at our prey and at windows. The battery incident is proof of that. We, as humans, like to throw stuff.

But that’s not how I got kicked out of Chile. I’ll explain that in my next blog.

By Brian Oldfield and George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 12/12/2011)

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