When they decided not to pay us, I wanted to demonstrate, but we were in Chile. President Pinochet was still in power. You just don’t demonstrate when the big, mean dog has his paws on the power buttons.
Chilean jails are not as nice as the hotel we were staying in. I didn‘t want to end up in a windowless cell in Santiago. No one might ever hear from you again, although I have to say that some of my associates would have been happy if that had occurred.
It was a track and field tour of Latin America in 1981. I was associated with a 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. We had already been to Venezuela, Trinidad, Tobago, Argentina and Brazil. I was so hung over I think flies were buzzing me. Chile, fortunately, was the last stop.
I had started out fatigued because to prepare for Latin America I went on a two week binge in Galveston, one in which I was arrested for wearing tennis shoes. Well, it was a case of disorderly conduct and misdemeanor battery, but it started over the tennis shoes I was wearing when I tried to get into a cowboy bar. The dress code wouldn’t allow tennis shoes. One thing led to another. Cops chased me, pulled out guns and took me into custody. But that’s another story.
By the time I got to South America, I had regained some of my balance and energy. I was still throwing 70 feet and there wasn’t anyone in South America who could compete against that. Al Oerter was with us, too, four time Olympic medalist in the discus, so we could put on a good show. He was 10 years older than me and could out throw me in the discus. He was throwing 200 feet in the tour, sometimes 203, and I was throwing 190 or so. But then, I hadn’t practiced for the discus. I just showed up.
We finished competing in Chile, which was a cake walk like the other Latin countries, and we partied all night to prepare for our departure in the morning. Some of the guys were crushing up Ritalin. It’s an amphetamine in addition to being a medication for attention deficit disorder. You can buy that stuff over the counter down in Latin America and so guys were snorting it, along with smoking hashish, and drinking refreshments. I think cognac was one.
We were pretty hungry after our victory celebration so we planned on going to breakfast at the hotel. Our stay was to be paid for by the sponsors of the track meet. We also were to be paid some per diem money and some prize money. Basically it was three hots and a cot. But it turned out that was the cake we didn’t get at the end of the walk.
When we went to breakfast in the hotel, the waiter said we couldn’t have breakfast unless we paid for it ourselves. Well, I thought, that wasn’t going to fly. It was an insult piled on top of my hangover. I was going to do something.
I began throwing bread rolls at the waiter. I’m a thrower, after all, and couldn‘t stop throwing. He was lucky I didn’t throw silverware. And compared to tossing the shot, a muffin was nothing. My track buddies were giggling and saying things like, “You go, Brian.”
The waiter fetched the hotel manager. He confronted us, or me, since I was the only one pitching strikes at the waiter. He yelled that the hotel wasn’t going to give us breakfast. A female employee behind the counter giggled, I remember.
He commanded me to follow him to the lobby. I did. I really wasn’t belligerent or threatening. I was just having fun in my own dumb ass way. The hotel manager picked up an ashtray in the lobby because I think I intimidated him. My hands went up and I stepped forward. It had only been a couple of years since I sparred with Mohammed Ali. It wasn’t anything that Cassius Clay wouldn’t have done and the manager had been the first aggressor, but I didn’t hit him. He ran behind the front desk and called police.
Meanwhile, at the breakfast table, I heard one of my teammates say, “Come on, let’s get out of here.” We went upstairs and got our bags and went down to another room. I think it was Larry Jesse’s quarters. Eventually we had to go downstairs to have lunch and check out. We had vouchers for that. Our flight was at 6 p.m. so we had time to kill.
We were eating beans, rice and sausage when a bunch of guys in suits came up to the table and handed me a note in Spanish. I said, “I don’t read Spanish.” Someone interpreted it for me. The note said, “Please come with us” or words to that effect. They were polite.
I started eating faster because I knew it might be a while before I got any food again. They started asking me things like, “Have you been doing drugs?”
I answered “No, I’m an athlete. Of course not.” I kept eating. One of the guys pulled his coat open and flashed his pistola. They don’t flash no stinking badges in Latin America. I began eating faster. They consulted amongst themselves for a while. Finally I finished, stood up and went with them. One of my teammates’ father was an ambassador in Europe and had connections. He made a phone call.
The policia didn’t handcuff me but they put me in a car and started driving. I said I wanted to go to the U.S. Embassy and they drove me there. I certainly didn’t want them to take me to policia headquarters for questioning.
At the embassy, I met with U.S. officials and was questioned by officials. The U.S. Ambassador may have been there, as I recall. I was pretty well known back then, an international celebrity, so I had a little clout. I wasn’t like your basic American hippie hanging out in a flophouse, smoking hashish. No, I stayed in actual hotels.
In the end, they escorted me to the airport and made sure I got on an earlier flight out of the country. The ambassador also was there. He wanted to make sure I left peacefully.
I guess I overstayed my welcome. It takes extra effort to get thrown out of a country. It’s something of which I remain quite proud.
By Brian Oldfield and George Houde
(this blog was originally posted on 1/9/2012)