At 4:10 p.m. Friday, three hours before the paying customers pour into Cole Field House, the University of Richmond two-mile relay team will compete in the National Invitational indoor meet. The Spiders could threaten the meet record of 7:28.2; then again, they might not break 8 minutes.
The Richmond team consists of three Kenyans and an Englishman, only one of whom has ever run on a board track. All have broken 1:50 for 800 meters outdoors, but the tight turns of a 160-yard banked-board setup can do awful things to such credentials.
It is for such reason that meet director Gerry McGee consigned the Spiders to afternoon oblivion. Coach Fred Hardy figured it might be for the best, so he acceded to McGee's decision, hoping his runners absorb instant experience and are able to use it to advantage in Saturday's East Coast Invitational at Richmond Coliseum.
Hardy has seven foreign athletes on the Richmond track team, but he denies harboring any plans to become the UTEP of the East. Texas-El Paso has won four NCAA indoor titles in five years, using foreign athletes almost exclusively.
"I have an ambivalence of feeling about it," Hardy said. "I'm kind of repelled by the Texas-El Paso thing, although I don't presume to tell them how to run their own operation. I think we have a nice mix here, with seven foreign athletes among a team of 35. And the seven is an unusually high figure.
"I think it's a healthy situation. The foreign athletes are a joy to me. They've broadened my perspective. They help us and they teach us. As they approach down the hall, you feel that here comes not a problem, but the answer to a problem.
"An American kid can come here and complete the curriculum and marry another American girl and settle down in a middle-class situation and the university experience will have little effect on him. But when you come out of a grass hut in Kenya, you make the most of your opportunity. To Sosthenes Bitok, this is the whole ball of wax. The Kenyans have much greater motivation."
Bitok and Henry Kimalel are freshmen from Kenya, Barnabas Kipkorir is a sophomore from that nation and Julian Spooner is a freshman from England. Only Kipkorir has ever run on boards, since the Richmond team has no indoor facility and must train outdoors.
Hardy's overseas connection began by accident. "Kip Keino is an old friend of mine and six years ago he wrote me about a cousin, Francis Kollum, who was a 1:51 half miler and wanted to go to school in the U.S. I figured if Kip Keino recommended him, he was okay with me, so I told him to come.
"He ran 1:51, just as he promised, and eventually got down to 1:49. He took a double major here, was an outstanding scholar-athlete and now has a fine job in Nairobi. After he graduated, he invited me to visit him and I did. I saw Keino and he introduced me to Barnabas Kipkorir. That's when we sort of drifted into the foreign student thing on a larger scale.
"I went back last year -- it's a fun trip and my wife likes to travel. We talked with track folks and just bumped into people. And we wound up with four or five athletes, in Kenya, England and Ireland.
"That's a phenomenal situation in Kenya. There are so many great runners. I went to pick up Hilary Tuwei (Richmond's fine Kenyan steeplechaser) and out of the hut steps Amos Biwott, the Olympic steeple champion from Mexico City (1968). We talked for awhile and he introduced me to a youngster named Francis. I asked Francis if he was a runner and he said, 'I run a little. I can do 800 meters under 1:50, but my cousin Eugene here, he's really good. He can run 1:47.'
"I looked around and found two or three who could fit our life style. My feeling is that as long as a studentathlete can be confident in your situation and make a contribution in the multifaceted atmosphere of campus life, then I don't care if they come from Africa, India or Washington, D.C."
Foreign athletes are not permitted to take jobs off campus, so the Kenyans spent the holidays mopping halls and doing other janitorial work. The school cannot pay their transportation, so their $5,000-plus scholarships at Richmond, a private school, cost no more than a scholarship for an American.
"I doubt that we're depriving any American kids of scholarships," Hardy said. "If a kid can run 1:52 for 800 meters, he'll get a scholarship somewhere."
Depending on overseas competitors can create some unusual problems, however. Spooner, the European junior 800-meter champion, went back to London for the holidays and has not yet returned, although he has kept the school informed of his tribulations.
Ice at Heathrow Airport has forced cancellation of many flights. In addition, Spooner's luggage was stored outside and covered with snow. His latest telephone report informed Hardy that the British Army was in the process of digging it out.
It sounded like Cole Field House on National Invitational night.