The symbolic treasure here this week is a T-shirt. It shows several atheletes running one direction and a defiant President Carter running the other, with the caption: "U.S. Olympic Trials and Tribulations."
The tribulations took another ironic twist today, though Carter was blameless. This was the sort of idiocy that perhaps never will be completely washed from the amateur sports, bureaucracy at its worst, a runner not allowdd to run because of a rule no longer meaningful.
All the best 110-meter hurdlers in the country were at Haywood Field around noon today for the first round of qualifying heats. Red Milburn was the only one not allowed to compete. While Skeets Nehemiah and the others glided over portable hurdles off in the distance, Milburn argues sensibly -- but futilely -- against an unseen barrier too difficult even for his special skills.
More than track devotees know Milburn. Rangy and powerful, he won the hurdles in 1972 at Munich and held every record worth mentioning until the child who once idolized him -- Nehemiah -- grew to athletic manhood.
After Munich, Milburn and many other exceptional track and field atheletes joined a pro tour. For a change, they were paid above the table. But after three years, in 1976, the venture failed. Four years later the pro odor remains too strong for many important U.S. amateur officials to stomach. o
Milburn and some others, among them shot putter Brian Oldfield, pole vaulter Steve Smith, hurdler lance Babb and sprinters John Smith and Warren Edmondson, have been forgiven almost everywhere, except this meet, for the sin of turning pro.
Their ban here would make sense if the competition was Olympic in more than name.
One of the stipulations when the international governing body for track and field reinstated Milburn and the others as amateurs was that they could not compete again in the Olympics. Which they accepted. They would not be here hoping to be more than spectators if the U.S. team chosen here were going to Moscow.
But when Carter decided American athletes would boycott the 1980 Games, Milburn and Oldfield decided the small print on the entry form for the U.S. Olympic Trials no longer applied.That said that anyone who completed here must be eligible for the Games.
As Milburn reemphasized while Nehemiah was flying down the track today: "Nobody here is elible for the Olypics." The first three finishers in each event here will be given trinkets and unending thanks from Americans; they will not go to Moscow.
Since he is eligible for every other domestic and international meet, Milburn reasoned, why not this one? He even was willing to let U.S. officials keep him off the "team" and award that distinction to the fourth-place hurdler if he was among the top three in the finals.
Although he did not mention it, Milburn surely was burned that he was banned from this meet and high jumper Dwight Stones was not.
Stones also was ruled a pro and later reinstated. And although his case was different, Stones has all but admitted he took more money under the table as an amateur than Milburn may have earned as a pro.
How much more blatant must this hypocrasy become before someone moves to change it?
Milburn said he complied with all the registration rules, that he was told by the executive director of the U.S. track and field governing body, Ollan Cassell, earlier in the year that he could compete, and that the U.S. Olympic Committee even paid his way here.
A USOC official later said the host Oregon Track Club gave Milburn that prepaid plane ticket. The program here, published by that club, lists Milburn as one of the favorites in the 110-meter hurdles.
He would have been, if local officials had been able to persuade national officials to act wisely. Why not let these six try and be ineligible for Moscow as anyone else here?
This is a fine meet that would be enhanced by Milburn and Oldfield. They cannot contaminate anyone internationally. At 29, Milburn still is a world-class hurdler, certainly fit enough to make the final. Oldfield might be three feet better than any other U.S. shot putter.
Milburn was denied an entry today; he decided not to press the issue, to make a scene. Oldfield is enough of a character to at least think about barging right into the shot-put competition Wednesday morning.
From afar, Milburn judged Nehemiah to be in top form. And when he walked by on the way to a press conference later, Milburn called out: "Strong." It was the best one-word description for that best-winning effort of 13.5 seconds.
"I feel like my old self," Nehemiah said, alluding to the winter ankle injury that had been so troublesome. "I'd been hitting some hurdles lately, five of 10 sometimes, even six of 10. I didn't hit a one today.
"I want to concentrate and be smooth and fluid, like last week (when he won the Athletics Congress meet in 13.49 seconds). The biggest obstacle is mental. A lot of people thought I was down -- and maybe I was. I want to run each race faster than the one before.
"When you're No. 1, everyone's your friend. When you have problems, you know who your friends are. And I had physical and scholastic problems (at Maryland). And promotional problems, companies wanting me to use their equipment.
"So I went back to my (New Jersey) roots, to my high-school coach. My attitude this week is optimistic. The last time I was there (1978) I lost. I have a history of winning the next time in places I lost. Pain. Hitting hurdles. Diving.Whatever it takes, I really want to win these trials. It's good to be back in front."
Nehemiah first ran against his idol, Milburn, May 3 in Houston. He described it as unsettling, because, "I'd never even met him before and all of a sudden he's in the next lane. I was awed, so much so he almost won the race. I rallied from the eighth hurdle on to win."
But Milburn beat him in the next race, when Nehemiah finished fourth behind winner Greg Foster. Nehemiah won the third battle, last week. There will be no fourth for the moment. And apparently no gesture of more than vocal support for his hero.
Milburn said he considered asking the other hurdlers to run their best times in the semifinals and let up in the championship round, to almost walk over the hurdles as an indication of protest for his not being allowed to compete.
He decided against the request, that a boycott during an event to select a team that will boycott the Olympics would be too staggering. And the athletes might not have supported him anyway.
"I'm biased," Nehemiah said. "He's been to the Olympic trials before. I haven't. I want this bad."