Fifty years ago — on June 29, 1972, to be specific — Hayward Field’s first hosting of a full United States Olympic Trials fired up. Though the storied venue on the Oregon campus had played host to a separate decathlon trials meet in 1960 — replete with a World Record performance from the great Rafer Johnson as he defeated archrival C.K. Yang — the ’72 hosting went a long way toward setting Eugene, Oregon, in motion as TrackTown USA. The Willamette Valley town has hosted 6 Trials since, including last year’s burner of a meet in an ultra-modern, revamped Hayward.
As Eugene prepares to host the first US.-soil outdoor World Championships just over two weeks from now, track nut extraordinaire Mike Fanelli has penned a birthday celebratory paean to the first brilliant Eugene OT a half-century ago. Read on!
When early American settler Eugene Franklin Skinner first laid eyes on the verdant valley snuggled between two buttes at a bend in the Willamette River he proclaimed, “It’s so beautiful, surrounded by these hills, reminding me of a bird’s nest.” Shortly thereafter, in July of 1846, Skinner filed his land claim and Eugene City, as it was initially referred to, was incorporated in 1862.
Alas, while the town, its main thoroughfare, and even a butte are named after the intrepid Mr. Skinner, the city’s track & field complex is named after Bill Hayward, the longtime coach (1904-1947) who preceded Bill Bowerman.
The original cinder six-lane oval facility which doubled as a football stadium was built in 1921 and served both sports until 1967, when the helmet and shoulder pad sorts moved to Autzen Stadium and the tracksters laid sole claim to the complex. In the fall of 1969, the facility underwent a major overhaul when a new state-of-the-art Pro-Turf track (made of urethane that was impregnated with Columbia River sand) was installed and two additional lanes added.
Fast forward to August of 1971, one year in advance of the Munich Olympic Games, when a site selection committee awarded the 1972 Olympic Track & Field Trials hosting rights to the acclaimed University of Oregon facility in a resounding 39–6 vote of confidence and a landslide victory over Los Angeles. The LA bid offered a 2-day-only affair, citing doubts about “profitability” in staging a lengthier contest. Eugene, on the other hand, promoted the athletes’ best interests first and foremost, and an 11-day schedule that was reminiscent of the Olympic athletics timetable.
Beginning on June 29th and concluding on July 9th — a half-century ago — this top-3 “do-or-die” affair was to be laden with nearly as many tribulations as triumphs. Reigning World Record holders and Olympic champions were given no quarter. A classic example of such contrast took place in the shot put, when a practical foregone conclusion to make the team, Randy Matson, was instead usurped for 3rd place by the flamboyant upstart, Brian Oldfield. While Matson had the biggest put in the qualifying round, his timing was off in the finals. Instead, the chain smoking upcomer Oldfield bedecked in a page from Delano Meriwether’s style catalogue, Speedo bathing suit and all, had the finest competition of his career to punch his ticket to Munich.
Speaking of the Baltimore based hematologist, Dr. Meriwether, a strong candidate to make the 100-meter squad, he alternatively finished dead last in just the quarter-finals. That event’s final produced some of the most explosive fireworks of the entire meeting, with both first and second placers, Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson, each clocking in at 9.9 seconds to tie the World Record. A bit later in the week, one more World Record was equaled (800 meters) and another new World Record (pole vault) set.
By the time the two-lap finals rolled around, it seemed de rigueur that key protagonists would not toe the line. Surprisingly, neither Juris Luzins nor Mark Winzenreid, both hampered by foot ailments, would survive the qualifying rounds.
In a quite electric final, Tommy Fulton led through the first lap with splits of 25.2 and 52.0 before Jim Ryun charged early with a blazing fifth 100 of just 11.5 seconds. With 200 meters to go, only orange singleted Bowling Green mid-D man Dave Wottle was able to keep pace.
Out of the last turn, Ryun, who had apparently moved a touch too soon, began to tighten up as Wottle eased by with near perfect technique that he’d carry across the finish line, reached in 1:44.3. Both Rick Wohlhuter (1:45.0) and Ken Swenson (1:45.1) managed to slip past the slightly fading Ryun (1:45.2). Wottle’s impressive negative splits of 52.9 followed by 51.4 equaled the WR standard established by Peter Snell in 1962 and later matched by Ralph Doubell in 1968.
Then there was the brilliant pole vault, easily the best competition that said event had ever witnessed. In an affair that took 2-plus hours longer to determine a champion than the marathon race, three athletes successfully cleared the 18-foot barrier, two for the first time.
When the smoke finally cleared, 1968 Olympic gold medalist, Bob Seagren had escalated the World Record to a dizzying height of 18-5¾ (5.63). Newcomers to the 18-foot club, Steve Smith and Jan Johnson both scaled 18-½ (5.50) to finish 2nd and 3rd respectively.
In addition to the aforementioned WR-setting spree, a number of American records were also accomplished.
The triple jump witnessed an astonishing 10¼ improvement when Bay Area Striders standout Dave Smith landed a wind legal 56-0 (17.07) that was good for 2nd place to John Craft, whose winning leap of 56-2 was aided by a windy 2.4 breeze. Smith’s leap surpassed Art Walker’s 55-1¾ from 1968 as the AR.
(The preceding March Craft had 3-bounced 55-5 for the indoor AR in a USA–USSR dual to top a field that included WR holder/TJ legend Viktor Saneyev)
The second national record was registered in the 400 hurdles by the clear pre-race favorite, Ralph Mann. His 48.4 over the metric lap hurdles was the second fastest ever chronicled worldwide, and would thereby include him as a medal favorite in the upcoming Games of the Olympic varietal.
In a meeting with as many near misses as makes, other climaxes included the Jim Ryun redemption race, AKA, the 1500. Having abruptly retired from the sport in 1969, his comeback trail had been a rocky road. Fresh off a non-qualifying 4th in the 800, Mr. Ryun looked like his previously dominant self when he zoomed from 8th place at the bell to a 0.8 second win at the tape, leaving a 51.2 last lap in his wake.
The visual of Ryun basking in simultaneous relief and joy while crossing the finish line was compelling enough to land him on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the sixth time in his storied career.
Two other crowd-pleasers involved local boys. The first such instance focused on prodigal son Jon Anderson, bred in Eugene itself, who opted for Cornell over Oregon for his college days. Upon returning to the city of his birth, and the one in which his dad, Les, was the current mayor, Anderson signed up to represent the locally based Oregon Track Club in the 10,000.
Seemingly relegated to 4th behind the Florida Track Club trio of Frank Shorter, Jeff Galloway, and Jack Bacheler with less than a mile to go, Anderson was taken upon the shoulders of the locally biased crowd with the most vociferous clamoring of encouragement. Although a full 60 yards out of 3rd place with just a lap and a half to go, Anderson, buoyed by the hometown support, began a long sprint that in one lap, chewed up nearly 50 yards of the delta between him and Bacheler. With momentum on his side, he was shoulder to shoulder (literally) with Bacheler midway down the final straight, then, with one last surge, was 10 meters ahead at the finish.
Bill Bowerman would call it, “The single greatest example of the crowd taking things into its own hands I’ve ever seen.”
On the concluding day of these Trials, a crowd that was 23,000 strong turned out in large part to experience the very final track event, the 5000 meters. You see, these were Pre’s people, and the legendary Duck icon aimed to please.
Steve Prefontaine dutifully followed early leaders through a pace that averaged 66 seconds per lap before he took over the role as leading man. After Pre’s upping the ante with laps of 64.7 and 65.1, only George Young and Len Hilton were in close contact by 2 miles. Pre dropped another couple of 64- and 63-point laps before Hilton peeled off, but George Young remained fully intact with the front-runner.
By now, the stadium’s decibel level was perhaps the most deafening ever registered at Hayward Field. Then Pre reeled off a 61.5 lap that finally weakened the Olympic bronze medalist Young… but Prefontaine was not yet quite done with his masterpiece.
Covering the next circuit in an eye-popping 58.7 seconds created plenty of daylight between the two warriors, thereby allowing Pre to cruise the remaining half lap while admiring his own handiwork. In the end, his impressive 13:22.8 sliced a meaty 6.8 seconds from his own Collegiate and American Records and provided a very satisfying “cherry on top” conclusion to one remarkable Olympic Track & Field Trials.
So successful was the burgeoning track capital of America’s first hosting of these Olympic Trials, Eugene has been awarded them six more times: 1976, 1980, 2008, 2012, 2016, 2021.
And, they helped pave the way for this city of just 170,000 inhabitants to proudly follow in the footsteps of such host cities as Helsinki, Tokyo, London, Beijing and Berlin in welcoming the highly coveted World Athletics Championships to Oregon’s Emerald City later this summer.
Click here to view the ’72 Olympic Trials results as presented in our Track Newsletter publication.