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What do John Daly, The Blues Brothers, & the Olympic Games Have in Common?
Not a whole lot, except for a small city in Oregon.
John Belushi, one half of the Blues Brothers, starred in the breakout movie "Animal House" which was filmed in the Eugene area. The scene that pulled this column together involves the ROTC cadets doing calisthenics under duress.
Incidentally, when are calisthenics ever done NOT under duress?
Back to the story…
Two Delta House guys are teeing up in a field on the 'Faber College' campus. They drive a ball into the flanks of Cadet Niedermeyer's horse, prompting said horse to drag the Nazi wannabe through the mud. In the background are some odd-looking spectator stands, very distinct in appearance.
That would be Hayward Field, home of four Olympic Trials, including the 2008 version. I wanted to see this town since I was 10 years old and first wore pillows disguised as running shoes. After moving to Central Oregon from New Jersey in 2007, I saw a notice that Eugene would be hosting the 2008 Trials. I would have run track as a youngster at UO but for two missing components: speed and endurance. So I did the next best thing, signing on as a volunteer for the Trials and spending eight glorious days there last summer.
As thanks for committing to help, volunteers were given one day's admittance to the Nike employee store in Beaverton; now that's what I call your fringe benefit. Next time, maybe they'll restrict the visits a bit because I began hyperventilating halfway through. So much to buy, so little time.
Day 1: June 27th
Volunteer assignment: Gerlinger Hall
Drove to Eugene 130 miles west of my Central Oregon home. A friend graciously let me stay in his house while he and his wife were overseas; their generosity allowed me a berthing not four miles from Hayward Field. Since my wife and daughter were staying behind in Central Oregon, I could eat, drink, and breathe the Trials around the clock if I desired. And, oh, did I.
At 3 p.m. on Opening Day, the Festival adjacent to the track was packed. The Trials organizers invited the last Olympians selected from Eugene; this was the boycott team of 1980 getting some well-deserved recognition. There's Steve Scott, national record-holder for two and a half decades in the mile. The man ran under four minutes in a whopping 136 races, but his most significant achievement was off the track. He once completed 18 holes of golf in 29 minutes, all on foot. Twenty-nine minutes! That's faster than it takes my daughter to brush her teeth. Let me clarify; he didn't just run tee to green, he holed out every time. Think about that the next time you're stacked up like pancakes during a six-hour round.
Day 3: June 29th
Volunteer assignment: none
Good thing I'm not working today: a friend from my town is an even bigger track fan than me, having attended Trials for decades. His wife had some errands to run, so they gave me the extra ticket (thanks, Jay and Yvonne!).
Then it is prime time at Hayward and the men's 100 meter final. Tyson Gay sets an American record in the semis, then comes back with a vengeance in the final. My brain registered 9.88, pretty good time. Wait a sec, why all the noise? Crap, that's a 9.68!!! Fastest anywhere, anytime, ever. No man has gone faster except with gasoline or a rear sprocket. But right in front of me is a small digital screen reading "+ 4.1." As in meters per second, above the allowable 2.0 mph limit. Wind-aided, record disallowed. Gilda Radner's character Emily Litella would say, "Never mind."
And a couple of guys nearly as old as me made the pole vault squad. Warms the heart, that does.
Day 4: June 30th
Volunteer assignment: Valley River Inn
After my shift, I hustle over to see the 800m final. The race has three local guys, including some UO sophomore just hoping to be competitive. If luck holds, one of the three will make it, most likely Nick Symmonds. But he'll need every inch of the track. Halfway down the backstretch, the Oregon guys are boxed and far back. I start motioning with both arms spread wide and pushing upward, "Now, Now, Now."
Symmonds finds a hole and does a linebacker move to get through, hammering home with a defiant roar. The college kid Wheating seems mired in mud with second place up for grabs. Then the crowd goes into overdrive, and so does Wheating as he takes second with wide eyes. This is nuts; he's two years out of high school and now he's going to the Olympics? And he probably has until the 2016 Games before he hits his peak. Wow.
Meanwhile, third place is anyone's guess, and it's a crapshoot with 10 meters to go. At the tape, it's a chaotic desperation dive. Christian Smith takes it, Oregon sweeps the three spots, and Hayward Field adds yet another definition to the word "loud." I walk away, shaking my head.
No events: July 1-2
Volunteer assignment: none
These are rest days for the athletes, and I could use a few myself. Since the events ended at 10 p.m. last night, I decide to stay in Eugene an extra night before driving home the next morning. Better to get a good night's sleep and read the local morning paper than drive through Cascade Mountains alone at midnight.
Someone mentioned that Mackenzie Pass was open for traffic. This is the most direct path between Eugene and my Central Oregon residence. Great, I'll get home sooner. On the way, though, I call the traffic hotline to confirm. No dice, there's feet of icepack still remaining. It's freakin' July, and roads aren't clear. I should hire a Sherpa.
Day 6: July 4th
Volunteer assignment: Bicycle Valet
My 2 p.m. work assignment was a novel one; complimentary parking and storage of bikes. The organizers wisely offered free parking for bicycles and skateboards only one block from Hayward. This was a hoot: people on all sorts of bikes would pull up to the corral, hanging their helmets on the handlebars along with anything else they didn't want to carry.
Once the shift was done, I ran over to the security checkpoint. Being a volunteer has its advantages; my badge lets me jump to the front of the line. Wait a minute, now some guy in dark clothes gets waved through. I was about to say something, then realized that the man in black is Phil Knight, a guy who started a little company now known as Nike. Uh, okay, you can cut in front of me, Phil.
Day 7: July 5th
Volunteer assignment: Hilton Hotel
At the Hilton lobby desk, I run into Christian Smith (heroic third in the 800-meter final) and congratulate him on making the Olympic "Diving Team." He shows me road rash worthy of a professional cyclist.
Then I turn around and see Bernard Lagat, one of our best middle-distance runners. He trains in Tucson at the same track as the 12-year-old son of a high school friend of mine. Sue had sent me a picture of Lagat with her son, and I brought the picture with me to Eugene. Now, I hurriedly grab the photo and shove it in Lagat's face (politely, of course). His eyes grow wide: "I know this boy from Tucson!" Got a picture of Bernard holding the picture of himself and young Brandon.
Talking with fellow volunteer Paul, I point out Al Joyner, brother of Jackie, husband of Flo-Jo, and 1984 Triple Jump winner in L.A. Paul says, "You mean the guy who just left his half-empty Dasani bottle on the lobby table?" Sigh.
Had a late-night thought about that classic 800 meter race. Alan Webb, one of our best runners, decided not to compete, giving his slot to alternate Christian Smith. Kind of similar to the 1991 PGA Championship where Nick Price canceled, putting a long shot from Arkansas named Daly into the field for a huge upset victory. The difference is that Christian probably doesn't gorge on M&M's during his event, as Daly does during his.
Day 8: July 6th
Volunteer assignment: Hilton Hotel
Last day of this great event. I left some gifts for my hosts, including a case of Deschutes Brewery's best. My wife works there, and she knows of good beer: her sorority at the University of Washington was renowned for out-drinking even the frat boys.
Drove to the Hilton for my final shift. A transplanted Somalian, Abdi Abdirahman, walks through the lobby with some fellow athletes. If you've ever seen Abdi, you know he'll never need Weight Watchers: the man is thin. Lauryn Williams, a blocky sprinter, looked at Abdi's skinny calves and laughed, "My ARMS are bigger!"
Hyleas Fountain, heptathlon winner, walks by; she should be a model. Later, Lolo Jones wins the 100 hurdles, same reaction. Where were these women when I was young and impressionable? Then I remember Mary Decker. Belay my last.
I later see New Jersey native Ms. Decker, asking if by chance she was born at Hunterdon Medical Center like me, and she confirms. Too funny.
John Carlos presented the medals for the 200. He was third in the 1968 Mexico City 200; he and winner Tommie Smith did the "Black Power" salute on the stand and got kicked out of the Olympics. I wondered if he'd acknowledge the Eugene crowd with a raised fist a la '68, but he simply waved.
If you ever get the chance, find the six-part BBC documentary, "Black Power Salute," on the internet. Those men (Smith, Carlos, Lee Evans, Ralph Boston and Harry Edwards) tell the story with grace, pride, defiance and conviction. And they were right. Avery Brundage, the irascible president of the International Olympic Committee, said that the Olympics are not a place for political demonstrations or discrimination. Meanwhile, Brundage was a member of a Santa Barbara country club whose membership charter stated, "No Jews or Negroes need apply." And he was instrumental in awarding the 1936 Games to Hitler.
The last words on that documentary give me chills. Ralph Boston (gold, silver and bronze winner at three Olympics) says, "Those guys (Smith and Carlos) did more to change this country than we could ever realize." Pause. "And I'm glad they are my friends."
Now the track meet is over.
On the way home, I pass through the small, SMALL town of Dexter. Not much there except the Dexter Lake Club, scene of Animal House's infamous road trip with our introduction to Otis Day and the Knights. "OTIS, MY MAN!!!"
Kenny Moore, University of Oregon graduate and twice an Olympian, said his coach Bill Bowerman would tell the team to finish their workouts "exhilarated, not exhausted."
Right now, I'm both.