This is Mike Fanelli’s column on Day 7 of the 1968 Mexico Olympics athletics schedule. The women’s 800 meters and Decathlon were two of the iconic events from Day 7.
AMAZING GRACE…The oval and infield at Estadio Olimpico Universitario was busier than a desert cobra at a mongoose convention on this seventh day of Olympic Track and Field. There’d be many relay heats qualifying for both men and women in either the 4 x 100 meters baton carry or the lengthier 4 x 400 metered version. Decathletes would pick right back up from where they’d left off on a preceding day, while the women raced around the track for an astonishing two entire laps.
The distaff 800 was first held in the 1928 Games of Amsterdam, but while a number of the competitors had collapsed upon completion, there’d be a half-mile Oly hiatus until the event was re-instituted in 1960. It was deemed “unhealthy” for women to run quite so far. Doctors agreed that endurance racing would make women “old too soon.” One of those ‘when the fact is stranger than fiction moments for sure. One might note that the 800 meters would be the furthest that women would run at the Olympic Games until the 1500 meters was added in 1972. And the addition of the marathon would take yet three more Olympiads.
Growing up in the downtrodden inner city of Cleveland, Ohio, a young Madeline Manning was diagnosed at an early age with spinal meningitis. She spent an enormous part of her upbringing being quite sickly and was awkwardly shy because of it. Not at all athletic, the young Manning’s talents were first discovered during one of President Kennedy’s Council on Youth Fitness tests. Much to her own surprise and delight, Madeline could run…really run. She’d be recruited to anchor the sprint relay for the Cleveland Rec and Park track team in 1964, where it soon became evident that she was speedy and had certain stamina too. Her first effort over 440 yards resulted in an eyebrow-raising time of 59 flat. At the ripe young age of just 16, she’d turn a full lap in 55.0 seconds…it was unheard of. Two years later, she traveled on a Greyhound bus to Nashville to attend the college originally known as the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State Normal School for Negroes, when first established in 1912. At Tennessee State College, Madeline was delivered into the welcoming arms of legendary coach Ed Temple. Under his tutelage, Madeline Manning would blossom into one of the greatest Tennessee Tigerbelles…ever.
Just before these Games, at a meet in London on July 20th, Yugoslavian middle distance standout, Vera Nikolic, set a new world record over 800 meters in a time of 2:00.5. Manning, the American record holder, owned a PB of 2:01.6. She and Nikolic had met once before. In that contest, the Yugoslav intentionally elbowed her Yankee competitor so hard that Manning had been relegated to the infield. But not for long. Miraculously, Manning got back on track, literally and figuratively, chased down Nikolic, and then nipped her for first, right at the finish line tape. Mexico City loomed as a grudge match between the two.
The semi-finals were held on Thursday, with finals scheduled for Saturday. There were four heats. Nikolic was in the first one, while Manning drew the fourth. Inexplicably, 300 meters into her race, Nikolic ran off the track, through the tunnel, and out into the streets due to some sort of mysterious stress. A bewildered Manning who had witnessed this oddity kept her focus and eye on the prize while easily qualifying through to the finals. Fast forward two days, and Manning, in lane eight, anxiously awaited to get things started. ‘How sweet the sound’ was the starting pistol’s eventual booming resonance. The actual running of the race was quite anti-climactic, as Manning easily took the lead at will and powered home convincingly with a ten-meter margin of victory…oh, and the Olympic record plus her third American record at a said distance (2:00.9).
Madeline Manning would go on to win a second Olympic medal (4 x 400-meter relay silver in 1972) and make the USA Team a total of four times. The athlete cum chaplain cum gospel singer was inducted into the USATF Hall of fame in 1984. In 2005, she was inducted into a prominent Jazz Hall of Fame where appropriately enough, she sang ‘Amazing Grace. And if you were as fortunate as I to be in the stadium at Hayward Field at the 2008 Olympic Trials when the 1980 Team was being honored, you’d have heard her deliver a version of our National Anthem that gave me goosebumps for nearly a week, possibly two…truly and utterly amazing indeed.
While Manning was busily becoming the first (and to date, only) American woman to take 800-meter Olympic gold, the titans of the decathlon were deep into day two of their ten-event marathon. Former University of Colorado Buffalo, Bill Toomey, came into the day with a hefty 115-point margin over a pair of Germans, one Eastern, one Western. First up was the hurdles, where, due to a sore leg, Toomey’s barrier hopped conservatively to a time of but 14.9, some 6/10 of a second off his PR, but good enough to maintain his lead. Second and third places remained unchanged.
The seventh event, the discus throw, was a bit of a scare for the leader. He strained his right groin during the platter chuck and was awarded just 757 points, while both Kirst in second and Walde in third closed the scoring gap…but just marginally. Then there was the high-flying pole vault. Toomey’s best ‘in competition’ standard was 13′ 9 1/2,” although he had cleared more than 14 feet in recent practices. On this day, he narrowly escaped disaster after missing twice at the paltry opening height of 11′ 9 3/4″. He thoroughly nailed it on his third effort and successively cleared the next five heights on his first attempt at each. He was pleased to cash in his chips at a PR equaling 13′ 9 1/2″ and the affiliated 859 points that went with it. In the javelin toss, Toomey was disappointed with a throw of just 206′ 1/2″. More importantly, the world record holder Kurt Bendlin chucked a whopper of 247′ 5′, which catapulted him into second place…just 56 skinny digits behind the American.
Rain showers dampened the final final, the dreaded 1500 meters…made even more daunting by the elevation at which it was being contested. Despite the exhaustion from the preceding nine events and the altitude to boot, Bill Toomey led from the start and won his heat in a highly credible 4:57.1. Meanwhile, Hans – Joachim Walde’s 4:58.5 moved him into the silver medal spot, while Bendlin’s 5:09.8 scored a mere 356 points…still good enough for bronze.
The ultimate tally for Toomey was 8193 points, which was 29 shy of his all-time best. In so doing, he easily lifted Rafer Johnson’s Olympic record, set in 1960, by a margin of 192 big ones. While Toomey’s extraordinary Olympic victory impresses mightly, for me at least, the aftermath just boggles my track fan mind. In 1969, Iron Man Bill would compete in an unprecedented total of TEN decathlon competitions, and eventually, like an early Christmas present, upped the world record by nearly 100 points (8417) on December 11, 1969, in a contest at UCLA’s Drake Stadium. It remains the facility record to this day.
Postscript: to place a near-perfect bow on all of the aforementioned, just a week after crushing Kurt Bendlin’s world record, Toomey married three-time UK Olympic medalist Mary Rand (1964 long jump gold, pentathlon silver, and 4 x 100 relay bronze). Together they had two daughters, Samantha and Sarah, in a marriage that lasted 22 years.