Tuesday, May 2, 2023

On Meeting One's Heroes: The Legends of Gold

                                                      by Mark Cullen 

The Legends of Gold Dinner, held in conjunction with the 2001 IAAF World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, brought together twenty-six of the greatest living track and field stars from around the world. For many in attendance, this proved to be the highlight of these or any other championships. The evening began with a reception at the Shaw Center in downtown Edmonton, followed by seating at dinner tables for the introduction of the Legends.

Each Legend was introduced with video highlights of his/her career, accompanied by music provided by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Each was paraded through the cavernous dining area to cheers and applause, and then was seated at a designated table for the feast to follow.

The rules of the road were this: leave the Legends alone during dinner, but they would be available afterwards for autographs in a meeting room downstairs. The magnificent printed program - with photos and career summaries - provided plenty of room for autographs.

The lines at the autograph tables were lengthy, and I had time to reflect on the encounters to come: what would I say to make this more than just an autograph-collecting venture? How could I honor the Legend in front of me, to give him or her something to take away from this exchange, just as I assuredly would?

The answer, of course, was that it was impossible to find the right thing to say twenty-six times in an evening. But four of my encounters stand out as most memorable.

                                                Frank Shorter, United States

Marathon gold medalist in 1972, silver medalist in 1976 

As I arrive at the front of Shorter’s line, he is talking about the performance-enhancing drug, EPO. “EPO makes a difference of four minutes in the marathon,” he is explaining to a disbelieving fan. The fan isn’t convinced. “The answer to EPO is this,” Shorter says, “DUH-DUH-DUH.” The fan backs away, a bit embarrassed, and Shorter extends his hand to me.

“Nice to meet you,” he says.

“Actually,” I say, “it’s been 23 years – a long time since the West Seattle Diet Pepsi 10k run.”

“Oh, NO!” he laughs.

“Oh, yes!” I reply.

“I know, I know - my PW – my personal worst!” 

He finished 40th that day.

As he signs, I say, “There’s something else.”

He looks at me, expectant.

“I wonder,” I ask him, “if you still have the photograph I gave you a week after Steve Prefontaine died. It’s the one I took one of you and Prefontaine jogging together on the infield at Hayward Field after his last race.”

His head and shoulders slump.

You gave me that photo?” he asks incredulously. “It means so much to me to have it to this day.”

                                                    Alberto Juantorena, Cuba

Double gold medalist in the 400m and 800m in 1976 and the only man ever to win both events in the same Olympics.

As I approach Juantorena’s table, I turn to the woman behind me, hand her my camera, and say, “If he’s willing, would you be so kind?”

“Just as long as you’ll be so kind,” she says, handing me hers.

Juantorena signs and I ask if he’d stand with me for a photo. He agrees eagerly, his legendary energy and enthusiasm apparent.

He wraps his huge arm around me, pulls me towards him, and as the woman is about to click the camera he interrupts, “Wait, wait!” He lunges forward, grabs his gold medal off the table, and puts it around my neck. “Now we take the picture!” he says, triumphantly.

Stunned, I hold the shimmering medal - apparently he polishes as well as he runs - and stammer, “I have never touched a gold medal before.”

He beams, even more pleased.

The photo is taken, we shake hands, and it’s time for others to get their chance. I begin to turn away when Juantorena says, tentatively but quite politely, “Ahh… I would like my medal back now, please!”

                                                Nawal El Moutawakel, Morocco

Gold medalist in the 400m hurdles in 1984, she was the first North African woman to strike Olympic gold. An unknown entering the Games, her win is widely regarded as one of the most unlikely in Olympic history.

Even though Herb Elliot, Peter Snell, and Kip Keino were among the Legends I met that night, I was most thrilled to see the name of Nawal El Moutawakel on the program. I had long held a special place in my heart for her. 

I have always enjoyed entering the Track and Field News Olympic Prediction Contest. In 1984, I noticed early in the collegiate season that a young woman from Iowa State was running exceptionally well in the hurdles… and you can guess the rest; she remains my favorite pick to this day.

I approach her table. She is elegant, serene, and delightfully open and approachable.

I introduce myself and say, “I’m going to say something to you that not many can say.”

“What’s that?” she asks in impeccable English.

“I picked you to win in 1984.”

She is astonished. “What is your secret?” she wants to know, and I explain how I came to make her my golden choice.

We have a delightful conversation - longer with her than with any of the other Legends. She takes her time signing my program, seemingly not wanting the conversation to end.

“I have traveled in your country,” I say.

“Really,” she says with surprise and interest. I describe my trip, which I took just before going to the ’99 World Championships in Seville, and indicate my plan to return.

“When you return you must visit me,” she says emphatically, and writes her phone number underneath her autograph.

Actually, I hadn’t planned on going to Casablanca next time, but I do believe my itinerary just changed.

Parry O’Brien

1952 and 1956 Olympic Champion; 1960 Olympic silver medalist

As I sat down at my dinner table, I was thrilled to see a placard with O'Brien's name on it. I was considerably less thrilled when, moments later, someone plucked it off our table and moved it to an adjacent one. In a hall filled with 26 of the most notable track and field gold medalists, ours was, sadly, a table without a legend.

Each legend was given a rousing introduction by the emcee, Canadian television broadcaster, Brian Williams. When he introduced Dick Fosbury, he said that Fosbury held the singular distinction of being the only athlete in the room to have transformed an event.

After dinner, O’Brien sat leaning forward at his autograph table; it gave him a hunched effect: shoulders forward, head down.

O’Brien struck me as a shy man of great depth.

Humble, certainly.

We exchanged greetings, and as he signed my program, I said, “Mr. O’Brien, many of us cringed tonight when the announcer said that there was one person in the building who transformed an event. Everyone knows there are two.”

I had not anticipated how much this would touch him; I think I had given voice to what he thought but could not say.

With great feeling he said,

“Thank you.”

He looked down quickly and then up again.

“Thank you.”

He is trying to tell me something important.

“Thank you very much.”