I have always been fascinated with Dwight Stones. I felt that, for many years, Dwight Stones was the only guy who got field events in the U.S., and hence, if he was not on a telecast, field event coverage was geared for those with consciousness of a small soap dish.
Stones educated a few generations on field events. In this feature by David Hunter, our fearless scribe encapsulates a four decade long career both as an athlete and a sports broadcaster.
Dwight Stones: The Conscience Of Track & Field
High Jump Legend, TV Commentator Calls It As He Sees It
When older followers of track & field first think of Dwight Stones, they often recall “the Rookie” – the brash young high jumper who embraced the revolutionary Fosbury Flop, was the youngest member the 1972 USA Olympic track & field squad, captured the bronze medal in Munich, and went on to author a truly outstanding high jump career. Yet younger fans see Stones in a different way – as a passionate, informed track & field commentator who does his homework and has earned respect as a true professional from all corners of the sport. Both assessments are right on target.
Raised in southern California, Stones was at the vanguard of the first wave of athletes to tackle the vertical jump as it was undergoing an event-changing transition. “I pretty much showed up when the event was at the very early transitioning point in the high jump with Dick’s [’68 gold medalist Fosbury] success in Mexico City,” offers the two-time Olympic bronze medalist. “A lot of athletes – who had no business – were trying to switch to the flop. They weren’t built for it. They tried to switch to it without much success. There were other guys who probably should have, but didn’t.” But the young Stones was intrigued by what he saw and the unexplored possibilities the new jump technique might provide. “I embraced it in my high school years and just got it. I can’t explain why. It made sense to me. And the very first day I started working with it, it made sense to my coach. And in the absence of any materials or film, we took it apart and put it back together. I added some stuff I thought was workable from the straddle, the double arm approach, and it all seemed to work.” For Stones – aided by his superb technical prowess – the progression was stunning. “I quickly went from being a 6′ high jumper to a 7’1Â½” high jumper. I broke the high school national record. A year later I was on the Olympic team and won an Olympic medal. And a year later I was the world record holder.”
Along the way, the young jumper – upon the realization that he had the capability to significantly raise the world high jump record – embarked upon a campaign to improve the global standard as many times as possible, but by the leanest of margins. “It was simply because of the fact that in those days there was no professional track and we were all paid under the table – including any bonuses for records. So each record needed to well mapped out in order to maximize any bonus money that we might earn.” Some saw Stones as a rascal. Others simply understood him to be shrewd. “With my 7 indoor world records, I would switch from Imperial records to metric records. I would slice the baloney as thin as I possibly could – which drew the ire of my shoe company,” Stones explains. “Finally, my shoe company sponsor said, ‘We’re tired of this with the Imperial and the metric. It’s a metric sport. We’re in a metric country [Germany]. I’ll continue to pay you bonuses, but only if you break records metrically.’ So that is the deal I had to make after 1976. Of course, there were no more world records [by me] after that.”
Perhaps one of the most remarkable – certainly unique – facets of Stones’ storied career has been the uncanny and seamless manner by which he cultivated his parallel avocation as a television commentator while, at the same time, still competing at the highest level of track & field. Endowed with a passion for the sport and a relaxed, comfortable on-air presence, Stones rolled up his sleeves and got to work gaining knowledge – first about the field events beyond his specialty, and then about events on the oval. The 2-time Olympic medalist began his broadcast career in 1977 aided by a special trait he light-heartedly refers to as “my gimmick” – his unmatched stature as both a skillful commentator and a world class high jumper in his prime. “I had done a number of season’s worth of indoor competitions for cable where I would compete and commentate in the same event,” states Stones, who would take a jump, clear a bar, and then scamper back to the broadcasting booth to offer observations about the competition. “For me, it had a way of breaking up the boredom. Standing around and watching a high jump competition is like watching paint dry. I get it – that element of track & field is not particularly exciting. High jumping is a little bit like basketball: it doesn’t really matter until right at the end if the competition is close.” TV and its audiences loved Stones and his dual role. “My producers were marveling at the fact that I could do this. They really gave me probably more credit than I was due for doing these two things.” Reflecting on his ability to wear two hats, Stones adds, “It served me very, very well.”
The zenith of Stones’ athlete/commentator duality was the ’84 Olympic Games where in three consecutive days he: (i) advanced from the men’s high jump qualifying round; (ii) commentated the next day during the women’s high jump final [where American Joni Huntley captured the bronze]; and (iii) competed the following day in the men’s final – finishing just off the podium in 4th.
During a career of high visibility that spans over 4 decades, Dwight Stones has regularly spoken up about track & field and expressed his unvarnished views about the issues that swirl around the sport we all love. The passage of time has tempered neither his willingness to speak out nor the candor of his remarks.
Stones – who was inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1998 – notes the inequity and uneven enforcement among various sports regarding the complicated issue of performance-enhancing drugs and their use. “The drug issue continues to permeate,” Stones declares soberly. “I remember in 1972 we were told at that we would be tested only really for ‘informational purposes’ at the Munich Games and not curatively. So you really could be using performance-enhancing drugs in Munich and get away with it. After that, they started testing, but only in very major competitions – including Olympic medalists usually. And then as time went on and the use of drugs became more and more pervasive with the Soviet Union and East Germany, drugs became a big, big problem – and continues to be a big, big problem to this day,” recalls Stones as he reflects on the emergence of PED’s during his athletic prime. “I just don’t understand why the public seems to be OK when athletes openly and always-blatantly [use performance-enhancing drugs] in professional sports like the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NBA, but they somehow bristle at the idea that Olympic athletes do. I’ve never understood that. I think it is always better to not be cheating at any level. I think cheating is wrong. But as long as there is competition, as long as there is a reward for being 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, there are going to be people who are going to cheat. Unfortunately, it’s a huge, huge problem in our sport. But for some reason, the magnifying glass is on our sport in particular. And it’s sort of almost blown off in the major sports,” states Stones who scoffs at the tepid penalties dished out to violators in the dominant, high-visibility sports. “But in our sport, [the suspension] is 2 years – and they’re calling for 4 years. And for some, if you get caught one time, they are calling for [the violator] to be done forever.”
In addressing the return of PED violators who have dutifully endured the consequences of covert use, Stones struggles with the concept redemption. “As an athlete, you are responsible for what is in your body and how it got there. That’s a big burden and a big responsibility for athletes – but that’s a part of being a professional athlete. So they need to understand it and to conform to it.” The 19-time national high jump champion does not disfavor the concept of redemption for athlete/violators who have served their punishment, have reformed, and then seek re-entry back into the sport under the rules. But he does cite one important and as of yet unaddressed aspect of their former transgression. “Here’s the problem – and this is where I’m torn: There is a lot of evidence out there that guys who were using performance-enhancing drugs and specific steroids are getting a post-use benefit, not knowing how long it might last,” explains Stones, who acknowledges that such evidence, while prevalent, has not yet been deemed conclusive. “We’ve seen this with Justin Gatlin and with Dwain Chambers and a number of others. It is inherently unfair for the people they’re competing against if prior PED violators are still getting a residual, positive effect from having cheated previously. And even though they’ve served their time and even though they came back in under the rules, they’re still [at an advanced age] running as well as or better than they ever did. That’s where the rub is and that’s where the problem is.”
Dwight Stones – twice named World Indoor Athlete of the Year by Track & Field News – has long be an advocate of finding new and entertaining ways to present track & field without diluting track & field’s simplistic beauty of running faster, throwing farther, and jumping higher. “This is something I’ve been talking about, suggesting, and been detailed about for 25-30 years, maybe more. You can’t expect people to just be imbued at birth with the kind of knowledge and understanding of our sport that is required to really enjoy it and follow it at the highest possible level,” he explains. “So what you have to do is bring the sport to the people. It’s one of the first things I believed in,” declares Stones with obvious passion. “And they’ve done some of this – the street pole vault; the street high jump. They bring it to the people. They don’t charge any fee. They just let them stand right next to the high jump apron and the pole vault runway. And people are able to see how high 7’6″ is and how high 19 feet is. And it gives them a different perspective. There are a lot of events that can do this. [e.g. the 150m street dash in Europe] I think that’s something we need to do more and more of.” The 3-time outdoor world record holder in the high jump also sees how a viable team concept can engender broader and deeper interest in track & field. “Develop teams in different parts of the country where you develop a rooting interest, maintain scores, and have different cities get involved with and excited about their track & field team,” suggests Stones while citing World Team Tennis as an example. “These are the ways we were brought up watching sports. We keep score. We root for our city’s teams. And we are going against that with track & field,” laments Stones. “I am happy to share my experiences, my insights, and how I feel things should be different,” states Stones. “I think field event coverage could be very exciting if done correctly. Unfortunately, what I want done costs money – more staff, more equipment, coming in earlier, banking interviews with people that you can insert between jumps and throws. You’ve got to really produce it properly. It takes time and it takes money. Networks don’t want to be spending money on our sport to broadcast it when it costs more – it’s just more off their bottom line.”
Earlier this year, Dwight Stones and his long-time broadcast partner NBC parted ways. While it may well never be known with certainty, “creative differences” and Stones’ outspoken and passionate manner may have led to the well-documented Stones/NBC breakup. At the Rio Games, Stones – working there for ESPN International with whom he has a 2-year contract – took time to blast his former network partner. “My network television career is likely over because I was very, very outspoken during Rio about what happened [with his departure from NBC] and how poorly I think the direction of the coverage was on the Olympic network and the fact that the people running that network from the sports side truly detest track & field and hate field events more,” Stones states frankly. “I have watched their broadcasts to know that. I am intimately familiar with the level of distaste that they have for the sport – I think that’s obvious.” Months after Stones – who has covered every summer Games from 1977 to date – spoke his mind about NBC and the break up, the legendary high jumper has no second thoughts. “I don’t regret it for a moment. My career there was clearly over. Even in the aftermath of regime change, I don’t believe I’ll ever work another day for NBC Sports – and that’s fine. 35 years was fine. I would have loved to have worked a little bit longer. It was not part of my career path to end when I did. And it certainly was not my choice. And I’ve yet to be given a credible reason for why it happened. And, believe me, I’ve asked people who have the answers and they’ve refused to give me the answers. So that’s why chose to spout off from Rio the way I did. I purged myself and ranted. And I am very happy that I did.”
One’s legacy is chronicled by others, but Dwight Stones has a sense of what his might be. “I achieved my goal when I was inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame 18 years ago. That probably is the ultimate acknowledgement of one’s career excellence. So I was pleased with that. I have a very good handle on my place in the sport from a standpoint of performance. I believe my legacy is my ability to have been proficient in the high jump at the highest level and to have parlayed that successfully into what in February will now be a 40 year television career.”
Through it all Dwight Stones has never hesitated to speak out about the sport we love. His career-long commentary knows no bounds as he addresses the good, the bad, and the ugly. His articulate and frank declarations have a certain Cosellian ring to them: they are thoughtfully assembled, brash when necessary, and pull no punches. There are some who may wonder why his expressed views are so fervent, so powerful, so blunt. The answer is not complicated. It is because Dwight Stones has always had a deep love for track & field and he wants the sport to be the best it can be.