The last time the Olympic Games were contested in Los Angeles, in 1932, the United States dominated track and field competition, with the men collecting 11 gold medals and the women five.
Off recent performances and the usual boost from home cooking, it is not a pipe dream to contemplate similar success in 1984. Despite the gains made by other nations and the effects of the 1980 boycott, U.S. runners and throwers are looking good.
In the Track and Field News rankings, U.S. men were listed first in eight of the 21 individual Olympic events. In three others, they had the top performances of 1982. That indicates far better prospects for next year than the meager six gold medals won in 1976 in Montreal, a total that included both relays.
While U.S. women continue to trail Eastern Europeans in many events, they should benefit from the addition of the 3,000 meters and marathon to the women's program in Los Angeles.
The first World Track and Field Championships, set for Helsinki Aug. 7-14, will provide a key reference point for U.S. athletes, something that has been lacking because of the Moscow boycott. All of the top athletes are expected, although Larry Ellis and Brooks Johnson, the U.S. Olympic coaches, cautioned that it will not be the same as the Olympic Games.
"The world championships is the best meet next to the Olympics, but it's hard to assess, because it hasn't gained notoriety yet," Ellis said. "Traditionally, the Olympics are the ultimate event. Every nation sends its best athletes to the Olympics; for Helsinki, there is a lot of talk about whether smaller nations can afford to send their best."
"The world championships eventually can approach the Olympics for the athletes, but this time it is more of a preview kind of meet," Johnson said. "And there is no guarantee that even the U.S. will have its best at Helsinki. This is a free society and there may be an irresistible attraction to compete in earlier meets, with the possibility of injury or whatever."
NBC plans 12 hours of coverage from Helsinki. That is hardly Olympian, but for a sport usually relegated to taped highlights weeks later it isn't bad.
"When it's on that little black box, something insignificant becomes a big deal very quickly," Johnson said. "If TV covers it, a lot of people will think more of it. That's got to help this meet, although it certainly won't get anything like the Olympic hype."
The U.S. team for the world championships, as well as the Pan American Games, will be chosen according to the results of the TAC/USA Championships in Indianapolis June 17-19.
From a coaching standpoint, considerable importance is given to the World University Games in Edmonton in early July, since Ellis and Johnson will guide the U.S. team and also select its members from eligible athletes. It gives them a chance to test potential Olympians.
"We've learned it's excellent competition for developing people," Ellis said. "It's similar to the Olympic format, not like the one-day meets most of our athletes are used to. We had a very fine team in 1981 (high jumper Leo Williams of Navy and steeplechaser John Gregorek of Georgetown were among the U.S. champions) and I foresee a good showing this time."
Although both coaches felt the 1980 boycott hurt U.S. track, especially with regard to publicity and the opportunity to influence International Olympic Committee decisions, they say it is possible it could prove beneficial to the 1984 effort. Some athletes who might have retired after the 1980 Olympics are still around, determined to make the four-year wait worthwhile.
"People who made the team in 1980 hoped divine intervention would get them there," Johnson said. "You can't train that hard and not be upset because of your inability to compete.
"Truthfully, though, I think we were going to have a horrible Olympics in 1980. Americans don't travel well in Communist countries. We're too free-spirited to survive in a place like Russia for anything over three or four days. We would have been wiped out by the eighth or ninth day."
Some Americans, accustomed to past domination of track and field, consider winning less than half the available medals a wipeout. Ellis thinks it is time to be more realistic.
"The U.S. will never reach the level of dominance in track and field it used to have, because the rest of the world has caught up in athletics as it has in technology," Ellis said. "But we're better here than anywhere else and if you compare us to other countries, we'll be on top. It's ridiculous to compare us to the rest of the world.
"We had great performances in 1982 and if we continue on that level, we should compare favorably to any other country. In the pole vault, we're right on top again, and the shot put, too. We had been down in those events. In the sprints and hurdles, the U.S. is fantastic, and in distance running we're very strong."
The U.S. failed to earn a 100-meter medal in Montreal, but now U.S. sprinters hold the top five positions in the world, as well as the top three at 200 meters and seven of the top eight spots in the high hurdles.
Other top-ranked U.S. athletes include Bob Roggy in the javelin, Billy Olson in the pole vault, Carl Lewis in the long jump, Alberto Salazar in the marathon, and Henry Marsh in the steeplechase.
Additionally, the best performances of 1982 were by Sunder Nix in the 400 meters, Sydney Maree in the 1,500 meters and Dave Laut in the shot put. Edwin Moses is back in competition after being injured and figures to regain his eminence in the 400-meter hurdles.
The only events in which U.S. men seem outclassed are the hammer, decathlon and 20-kilometer walk.
The women, able to earn only two silvers and a bronze in Montreal, are showing considerable improvement across the board. Johnson expects good medal opportunities at 100 meters, 200 meters, the 400 hurdles, the marathon, both relays and "whatever Mary Decker runs."
Johnson attributed much of the U.S. gain to the sanction of training trust funds by the International Amateur Athletics Federation.
"Part of the reason Mary Decker runs so well is her support system," Johnson said. "Instead of worrying about money, she can concentrate on what she does best. Billy Olson would already be at 19-6 if the support had been there before. The trust funds have helped the athletes and they're fair.
"Our country, as the leading example of capitalism, ought to be concerned about people getting paid for what they do best.
"If Mary Decker brings pleasure to people, and honor and prestige to her country, she ought to be rewarded with more than a medal. There's no question the new rules are keeping a lot of athletes in the sport who would have been forced to quit."