One of these awakening days, when the world is ready to admit that Ralph Nader really does not have his mitt in some till and that Tuesday Weld is a fine actress despite her noisome name, Valery Borzov will be recognized as one of the finest sprinters who ever left scorch marks on a track. By the John Birch Society, even.
Borzov is the Soviet Union's double gold medal winner of the last Olympic Games, a handsome 23-year-old short-distance burner from Kiev who has not been beaten in any important race for the last two years. Superbly trained and keenly conditioned, he has run down everyone with a speed that quickens as the tape comes on. Unfortunately, he is remembered for the sprint showdown that never was—the Munich 100 meters cursedly conspicuous for the absence of the United States' Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson, both disqualified when they failed to reach their heats on time.
Speculation then and now says that Hart, who ran 9.9 to win the U.S. Olympic Trials, was a cinch to beat Borzov and that Robinson well might have. It is an easy supposition if one chooses to ignore that during 1972 the European champion went undefeated through a dozen 100-meter races and seven others at 200 meters, or that in three previous outdoor competitions against American runners Borzov won them all. His status as "the world's fastest human" is suspect to all but the knowledgeable—and certain of his rivals.
Among the latter exclude Herb Washington of Michigan State, the swiftest sprinter working the indoor circuit this season and winner at Toronto in a world-record-tying 50-yard time of five seconds fiat. Also the world indoor recordholder at 60 yards, Washington had never lost to Borzov in three matchups on the boards. In the 60 at the Los Angeles Times indoor games last week, Borzov's first competition since Munich, Washington said, "Give him credit. He was the best of those who were there. Borzov is a strong finisher. At this meet, though, he's going to have trouble. He doesn't get out that well. He begins to run at about 70 yards. The strongest part of my race is my start, and next it's at the 40. That's where I shift gears and begin to lift again. Indoors I feel I'm the man. I react to the crowd."
February 19, 1973
Washington also felt the time difference (11 hours between Moscow and Los Angeles) was definitely going to handicap Borzov. The Russian, who beat Washington outdoors two years ago, agreed. "To compete after flying so long I must have some practice somewhere," he said. "Competition will go slowly. Maybe by New York and the AAU championships [two weeks away] I'll be ready to run."
Borzov seemed a safe bet to at least qualify for the finals of the Times meet despite Washington's confident forecast. His heat, to be sure, included Chuck Smith, a fifth-placer in the Munich 200 meters, but the other two entries were Willie Deckard of USC, who has run inconsistently for the last year, and Jim Kemp, a 28-year-old quarter-miler who was making his debut in a race that seemed 300 yards too short for him.
The distance, it turned out, was about 10 yards too short for Borzov, whose start is mediocre at best: while closing some ground on Kemp, he did not show his usual lift in the stretch. Borzov finished one place ahead of Deckard but ended his evening with a nonqualifying 6.2 while a lot of folks were still trying to find a parking place outside the Forum. Washington, on the other hand, exploded from the blocks both in his heat and the final, twice got his predictable lift at the 40 and won the whole thing rather easily, at six seconds flat, to equal the meet record.
"I did not get good start," Borzov said afterwards. "It was my first race in long time. This is practically training competition for me."
"I wasn't as high as I would have been with Borzov in the final," Washington said. "It made the showdown anticlimactic. He adds a lot of color and a lot of rep, but I wanted this one very bad. I was going to dedicate this race to Eddie Hart because I don't think he's running anymore; Robinson still is."
It should be pointed out that Borzov took two months off from his training regimen after Munich, that the time difference was a real detriment (his internal clock read 6:30 a.m. during his race) and that had he won it would have ranked as a bigger Soviet stunner than that nefarious basketball game.
Washington's performance was perhaps a good omen that the U.S. could be returning to the kind of sprint supremacy it once took for granted. A 22-year-old from Flint, Mich., Washington plans to move to the West Coast soon for better tests of his considerable track talent and to further his career as a TV sportscaster. He has been talking away of late for WJIM, a CBS affiliate in East Lansing.
"I'm the fastest man in the world indoors," Washington said. "I'm just beginning to come outdoors. In order to be a really renowned world-class sprinter, I need the weather."
Weather of a different sort—Oregon's drear mixture of rain and fog and sog—was behind the meet's other outstanding performance, by Steve Prefontaine in the mile. He won it in 3:59.2, leading from wire to wire and holding off Italy's Gianni Del Buono and Marty Liquori on a frenetic last lap. It marked the 33rd consecutive lap on Los Angeles indoor tracks that Prefontaine has paced his opposition through two races, but the leading role is not all that endearing to the young Webfoot.
"It doesn't feel that good when you're ahead the whole way," Prefontaine said. "It's hard to run a mile when you're not a miler and to kick when you've led all the way." His last quarter was turned in 57.6 and he looked for the scoreboard clock as soon as he broke the thread at the finish line.
Steve Smith, for the ninth consecutive meet, won the pole vault, but his 17'6¾" triumph came only after Kjell Isaksson forced him into a jump-off at that height. The Russian contingent got some solace out of the night when Vladimir Abramov, supposedly its second best high jumper, set a meet record at 7'2¼", then missed three times at 7'5".
As for Borzov, he is looking for no misses in his next American meets, which is a matter that Washington should keep an eye on.