A Vintage Lee Evans Profile — Part I

In the inimitable setting at Lake Tahoe’s Olympic Trials, Lee Evans edges Larry James in World Record time. (DON CHADEZ)

THIS WEEK’S PASSING of Hall Of Fame quartermiler Lee Evans deserves more than just cut-and-dried obituaries, so here’s our contribution. T&FN ran many stories on Evans from the mid-’60s through the early ’70s, but none of them captured him better than a long piece which ran in the I April 1969 edition titled “Evans, To Run Or Not To Run.”

T&FN’s Managing Editor at the time, Dick Drake, was a good personal friend of Evans and elicited some deep and personal revelations when he sat down with him in February of that year for an extended chat in the wake of all the happenings at the Mexico City Olympics some 5 months earlier. Here’s the first of two parts:

by Dick Drake
TO RUN OR NOT TO RUN, that is not a question of moral importance weighing on the consciences of most Olympians the morning of their Olympic final, but it was the desperately agonizing dilemma Lee Evans grappled with literally hours before the 400-meter final, October 18 in Mexico City. It was a race, you’ll recall, Lee eventually won.

From a near suffocating mass of tears and confusion before lunch to Olympic gold medalist in World Record time by dinnertime, therein lies a story of greatness.

The Olympics, more so than to most participants, became an ultimate test of so much that is Lee Evans. In the final track analysis, it is a performance — in its total perspective — that must rank Lee as one of track & field’s greatest competitors. Like most Olympic sagas, this one began long before that day.

With Lee Evans, it’s not a difficult one to extract. Conversation with Lee is easy and flowing. A tape recorder caught 3 hours of discussion ranging over a variety of subjects but basically directed at revealing his competitiveness — often against frightening odds.

On the track, Lee’s record had been quite definitive and statistics speak for themselves. In the 3 years leading up to this race, he had lost only one quartermile race of importance while healthy. And that was to Tommie Smith in World Record time. The evidence that a great competitor was emerging began mounting before he even entered San José State with each new challenge he conquered. That head-wobbling, pigeon-legged, arms thrusting style of Lee’s became a familiar sight breasting the finish tape — in remarkably fast times.

In March of ’68, Evans gets a victory ride from his San José State teammates after a dual-meet win over Cal. (STEVE MURDOCK)

Beginning with last season’s NCAA title race, his uncanny ability to win when down became almost unreal. In the collegiate championships, he came from yards back to win in 45.0 as Larry James and Ron Freeman ran 45.4. Then things got tight. In the remaining three races before the Olympics, Evans won by the slim total margin of 1-tenth of a second. And he turned back the challenge of three different runners.

In the AAU, it was Evans 45.0 and Vince Matthews 45.0. In the Olympic Semi Trials, Emmett Taylor threw the challenge, and it was Evans 45.1 and Taylor 45.1. In the Final Trials, James broke the World Record with 44.1 but Evans fought to win again in 44.0. Each time, he gave up at least 2y coming off the final curve only to come back a winner.

Off the track, it is not possible to compartmentalize so easily the personality of Lee Evans. Basically, Lee wants to be his own man, and in many respects he is just that:

“I’m Lee Evans, I’m in the [civil rights] movement, everybody knows this. I’m all for helping Black people in the Black community but I’m also thinking of myself. I’m not going to be the victim of anybody. I’m not going to screw myself to help anybody else. Hell, I talk to everybody. I’m not considered a Black nationalist because I speak to everyone. Linda [Evans’ wife] is more militant than me, she’s a Black nationalist. She won’t have much to do with most white people. That’s not me.

“I talk with Payton Jordan, US Olympic coach, and Wayne Vandenburg [UTEP coach who suspended 9 Black athletes]. Our political beliefs are different but we still talk track. I don’t talk Black power to Payton. I just like to talk to everybody. This is me. I got to know most of the white athletes on the US Olympic team, and I have respect for all but one of them.”

Lee loves track. He will go out of his way to discuss the subject for hours. He drives periodically to Track & Field News, a 30-minute trip, just to talk track. And now that he has met the challenges of the quartermile, he is experimenting with the halfmile and even the intermediate hurdles And he’s willing to train hard for his success.

Lee is a strong advocate of individual, human and civil rights. His efforts toward fostering an understanding and an equal place for the Blacks at San José State as well as his involvement in the Olympic Project for Human Rights attest to his commitment. Just as the decision to become involved in promoting individual rights was basically his own, the burden of determining the role of Lee Evans weighed heavily on him when Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended from the U.S. team for their Black power victory stand demonstration.

“I was most concerned with what the Black community would think about what I did or didn’t do. These are the people I have to live with.”

The pressures that enveloped Lee — who had been a promoter of the Olympic boycott from its outset in late ’67 — when Tommie and John were dismissed from the team would have consumed most mortal men. But Lee won the race of races that day that started so uglily for him.

And the Olympics were important to Lee. “When we came to Mexico, Tommie and I were thinking more about winning than what we were going to do on the victory stand. We had discussed possible alternatives first at Sacramento, then in LA, Tahoe and again in Denver before coming to Mexico.

“After Tommie had run one of his heats in the 200, we were sitting in the stands watching a Victory Ceremony for another event. He asked me, after watching Avery Brundage shake an athlete’s hand, ‘What are we going to do if Brundage shakes our hand?’ So we decided to get some Black gloves that we would put inside our pants and take out at the victory ceremony if Brundage wanted to shake our hand.

“But then Jim Hines said he would refuse to shake Brundage’s hand, and Brundage never participated in any more victory ceremonies for track. After the 200 final, Tommie gave Carlos his left glove from a pair our wives bought downtown and kept the right one. When they did their thing on the victory stand [bowed heads and raised clenched Black glove fists during the national anthem], I was doing the same thing in the stands. And people really got down on me. They really got excited.

“And once again I began fearing for my life. I remembered a dream I had had shortly after the boycott got started that Tommie and I had gotten shot at a meet in San Francisco. Nothing more than a few boos went against us there. But when we got to Mexico, we started reading about the Mexican students getting shot down and then I saw the way people reacted in the stands. I got scared. Really scared.

“After the 200, there were two days until the final of my race. My heats had already begun. I knew a lot would be expected of me now in the Black community. Nothing much was said about anything, but I could tell the officials and coaches were worried particularly about what I was going to do.

“Then, the next night after my quarter and semifinals, we were told at a meeting that the IOC wanted the US Olympic Committee to take some action against Tommie and John. It was supposedly resolved by the athletes at this meeting that the IOC had gotten the wrong impression from what Tommie and John did on the victory stand. It had not been against the Mexican government or against the U.S. flag. It was a demonstration to show Black people all around the world that their medals had been won for them and that they, Tommie and John, were proud to be Black.

“We wrote a statement formed by the whole team in defense of Tommie and John. Jesse Owens was to take this to the USOC who would get it straightened out with the IOC. Owens said he didn’t think the USOC would kick the two off the team. And so I started getting excited again about my race. I was tired from my 44.8, and so I went to bed early, thinking that everything was great and that Owens would take care of the mess.

‘The next morning, when I was walking downstairs, Vince Matthews told me that the USOC had suspended Tommie and John and was sending them home. ‘Oh my God,’ I said as I suddenly realized a lot was expected of me as far as what I had to do this day. For example, Linda thought the least I could do was burn down the victory stand. The impact wore on me gradually. Now I knew I was going to catch hell from whites and Blacks no matter what I did.

“Then I saw [veteran discus thrower] Olga Connolly, and she asked me what were the Black athletes going to do? My first reaction was to tell her that I wasn’t going to run. She wanted to know what we were going to do because she intended to do as we were going to do. I told her to go ahead and prepare herself mentally as if she were going to compete because I couldn’t tell what was going to happen by the end of the day.

“I was surprised, happy and warmed to hear her response that she wouldn’t compete if we didn’t. But it only got me more boggled. I went to the dining hall but I couldn’t eat anything. And then I saw [triple jumper] Art Walker just standing alone in the dormitory, looking sad. Everything was building up inside me. By this time, tears were swelling my eyes because I didn’t know what to do.

“I was really crying now, and I pushed this other official.”

“I was about ready to go up the elevator when an Olympic official came by and said, ‘Hi.’ That’s all he said, but I grabbed him because I was in a terrible mood. I asked him, ‘How can you speak to me after what you guys did to Tommie and John?’ He looked surprised, and I grabbed him again. He took off and ran for his room. Then another official told a girl reporter to get out, I guess because he was fearing what I might do next.

“I really began crying now, and I pushed this other official. That’s when Bud [Winter, his San José State coach] came into the dorm and grabbed me, and took me up one flight of stairs. I was crying so hard that I suggested to Bud that we take a walk. We went outside, and there were about 80,000 reporters and photographers. We walked and ran. Bud was fighting them off and I was crying.

“We finally got in a bus for the Japanese team, and the driver took us around to the back of the dormitory and I ran upstairs. Bud was really helpful and reassuring. I told him I didn’t think I was going to run. He said he knew I would do what I thought was best. He did think that I should run but he didn’t pressure me to compete. He just wanted me to talk with him and to relax on the bed. I was really tensed up.”

Evans beats Olympic-teammates-to-be James and Freeman for the ’68 NCAA title. (RICH CLARKSON)

All the while Lee is telling you about the tension he was enduring at the Games, he is squirming about in his seat as though he is feeling the agony all over again. Some of the details have blurred, and when pushed for facts he lets his head drop back, his eyes close and his brow furrows. Rarely has an Olympic athlete been forced to consider the moral correctness of competing. And then Lee relaxes.

“Finally, late in the morning, Carlos ran upstairs and said he and Tommie wanted us to run — to do our thing. He said they had run and won their medals and done their thing and that we should too. The way I was thinking at the time I don’t think I could have run without one of them saying to run. The pressure was hardly off but I made up my mind I was going to win that race.

“I started thinking about strategy. I was so mad that I wanted to hit the 200 in 20.6. I was so tensed up that I had to let go. I wanted to kill that first 200. Then, of course, I realized that I might get to the 300 satisfied but I’d be physically drained as well. As it developed, I ran faster than I have ever before but it was still restrained.

“When the three of us 400-meter men got to the stadium, [U.S. sprint coach] Stan Wright was talking to us calmly Just three minutes before we were to go inside the stadium, [USOC President] Doug Roby and two of his assistants came over and tried to talk with us. You can imagine, it’s the Olympic Games and they want to talk to us. I normally can’t understand what anybody is saying this time of a race-day anyway.

“Stan was irritated, told them they weren’t to talk to us, and nearly got into a fight with them. But they were nearly as nervous as we were, and they wanted to talk. I think he was trying to tell us that there had been an edict passed down from the IOC stating that any further demonstrations would have to be similarly handled as with Tommie and John. Finally, Ron Freeman had had enough and grabbed me. My mind was already blown. Stan was most helpful before the race. I know that Stan and I disagreed politically, but he didn’t say anything about what to do or not to do after the race or the victory stand.

“When I walked into the stadium there was a ceremony going on. I didn’t need any distractions by now. I walked down the ramp and sat down to put on my shoes when I heard the crowd sucking in air. I looked up and across the stadium to see Bob Beamon flying. I saw him at his peak and at his descent I saw that great jump, and I think I heard the mark announced as 29-2½ but it never registered on me until we got back to the Village.

“At the starting blocks, I thought about this one being the last race, the Olympics. I was thinking about how I had been winning for so long, that the Olympics was something that I had worked hard for a long time, and that if I had come this far behind the boycott and didn’t win, well I wanted to win as much for Black people in the US as I did for myself. I was really feeling badly, because at the time I felt the only friends I had were Black people. These were the only people I could communicate with on a human level.”

Lee made a serious attempt to reveal what makes him such a great competitor, and this explains why his discussion of the Olympic final gets diverted. “Normally, I start thinking about a race the day before competition. My main concern is to run an important race by swinging the final curve [to run even or no more than a yard behind the competition, according to Lee’s definition]. In previous years, I had had to make up 5y or so on the competition coming off the final turn. I’m rarely ahead coming off the turn, but I try not to lose ground to anyone on the backstretch. Except to Vince Matthews. I figure he’s going to come back anyway so I let him go. And he wasn’t in the Olympic final anyway.

“So my strategy in Mexico City was to run the first 70y hard, then go as fast as I could relaxed through the 200. When I come into the straightaway having taken off fast, I ask myself several key questions about my relaxation. ‘Are my hands flapping?’ I check it out. Is my forehead loose? Are my jaws going up and down? A fast time usually comes when I have done my checkout. I consciously think about these things.

“Often I have to correct myself, and did change some things in Mexico City. I call this stage on the backstretch my Winnipeg Tip, because at the Pan-American Games when I came into the straight I did my check-out and found everything was right. I was relaxed. That’s when I knew I was going to have a fast time. Because it was so effortless. But in Mexico City, I had to alter some things as the result of my checkout. So I was surprised my eventual time was so fast.”

The backstretch strategy brought to mind his one major loss to Tommie Smith during their heralded duel in a spring race in ’67. “I think one of the main reasons I lost that race is because I broke a lot of my own rules. I ran fast enough in the backstretch but I wasn’t relaxed. Possibly I could have beaten him that day with a different strategy but we wouldn’t have a World Record.

“We had agreed before the race that we would go for a World Record, at least that’s what I told him I would do and he said he would too. But he just ran off me. If I had been inside of him, maybe he would have gone out and I would have followed. But I doubt I’ll ever have another chance to race Tommie at this distance because he isn’t training for the quarter anymore.”

Tomorrow, in Part II, Evans picks up the dialogue as the Mexico City World Record final runs its course.