LONG BEACH — Adrienne Hughes was disappointed last spring when she placed second in regional trials for the annual Arco Jesse Owens Games.
The ninth-grader at Jefferson Junior High School had worked hard to earn a place in the high-jump competition of the national youth track and field meet to be held this weekend at UCLA. But according to the rules, only first-place finishers could compete. So Hughes chalked it up to experience and vowed to do better next time.
Then a phone call changed everything.
The first-place winner in her event, she was told, had dropped out due to a family vacation. Hughes, 14, was back in the race. So she spent the next month performing a strict daily regimen of running, stretching, rowing and jumping.
She raised her second-place regional jump of 4 feet 5 inches to 4 feet 9 inches. And in anticipation of an array of scheduled activities ranging from a trip to Disneyland to a formal banquet at the Hollywood Palladium, her mother bought her, among other things, a new outfit for $80.
"I was all excited," recalls the young athlete, who even had her picture taken by a local newspaper photographer in anticipation of a spread on the only youngster from Long Beach to make it to the games.
Said John Rambo, a 1964 Olympic bronze high-jump medalist who had volunteered to be her coach: "She was starting to peak and everything was coming together."
There was only one problem--it was all a big mistake. An employee of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, which coordinates the program locally, had made a clerical error. When a young contestant had called to say she was dropping out, he had erroneously recorded her as a high jumper instead of the long jumper she was. So Hughes was laboring under the false impression that she had a spot in the competition. And a young long jumper from Lancaster was spending the summer unaware that she really did have one.
"I feel bad about it," said Ron Elliott, the recreation supervisor who later claimed responsibility for the error. "It's just something that happened and it's a shame."
Hughes' reaction, when told of the mix-up two weeks before the meet, was somewhat more severe. According to her mother, Lynda Hughes, the girl spent most of the weekend in her room "crying and beating on pillows."
'How Could They Do This?'
"I felt horrible," the mother said. "All that time and effort wasted. How could they do this to a child?"
Appeals by Rambo that his protege be allowed to compete anyway were to no avail. "We feel very badly for the young lady," said Scott Loll, a spokesman for the Atlantic Richfield Co., which sponsors the event. "But to maintain the integrity of the games, exceptions cannot be made."
Founded by the company 21 years ago to "offer an opportunity for youngsters in the introductory level of track and field to get exposure and proper training in the sport," Loll said, the Jesse Owens Games draw the winners in various age categories from an estimated 500,000 contestants in eight regional competitions nationwide.
"We have to look at this objectively and not emotionally," Loll said. "To allow (Hughes) to compete would set a precedent that we're not willing to set."
The masquerade went on as long as it did, said Elliott, because he did not realize his mistake until the first-place high-jump winner--a youngster from Diamond Bar--called to ask why she hadn't heard from his department regarding registration for the games. "I was totally beat up over this thing," he said of the mental anguish he experienced in trying to sort it all out.
But rules are rules. So Friday, when 192 kids from all over the country gather at UCLA's Drake Stadium to duke it out on the athletic field and begin their three-day fest of fun and adventure, Hughes won't be among them. Most likely, she says, she'll be out playing miniature golf with a group of friends.
'There'll Be Other Meets'
"Now I just want to forget about it," she said philosophically. "There'll be other meets."
Still, the affair has left a bitter taste in more than a few mouths. "I was ready to call the chairman of the board at Arco," Rambo said. But even if he did and the company reversed its decision, he said, Adrienne is no longer mentally in shape to compete. "The air has been let out of her tires," he said. Added Lynda Hughes: "I'm concerned about future kids" finding themselves in similar situations.
According to Elliott, there is little likelihood of that ever happening. "If I'm involved in this again," he said, "I will require written refusal if somebody wants to drop out."
In the meantime, he feels helpless. "It's a simple thing that happened and they're going nuts," he said of Rambo and the Hughes family. "I called them and apologized. I don't know what else I can do."