Many believe that the greatest thing about track and field is that nothing can be taken away from you if you earn it. What you accomplish is yours, whether clocked or measured, and if someone does not like your smile or the shape of your hips it is their problem, not yours.
That is one reason track and field attracts individualists. That attitude is necessary in the sport which, more than any other, combines the spirit of the mind with the drive of the body to send athletes higher, faster and farther.
The world clamors for records. Nations become accustomed to sports bringing prestige. Money-making businesses demand glorious statistics in return for their investment. So it is now, more than ever, that athletes must depend on the honesty of officials who measure and mark a meet.
They travel wherever necessary and usually arrive early. Wearing the usual: gray pants, navy blazer, red-white-and-blue tie with a The Athletics Congress pin stuck in the middle--these everyday people carry on the tradition of officiating track and field. These are volunteers who take pride in putting on their white, straw-knit hats trimmed with a patriotic headband.
Wesley Taylor feels that pride. The former Delaware State sprinter and long jumper has been a certified track and field official for almost a decade. He describes himself as trustworthy and dependable.
"Otherwise, I couldn't be here," Taylor says as his eyes sweep over the Coliseum track. "It takes guts, and sometimes you make enemies or never totally shake off a criticism. But violate the trust as little as one time, and athletics are never the same."
Taylor was in charge of the wind gauge one year when Evelyn Ashford ran the 100 meters in less than 11 seconds for an American record. There was no wind. In a subsequent heat, Chandra Cheeseborough also ran the 100 in less than 11 seconds, but this time a gust of wind blew away her hopes for even a personal record.
"Decisions such as this are hard to tell to athletes, and they stay with the official forever," Taylor said. "One appreciates the athlete but has to protect the integrity of the sport for everyone."
For an athlete, an official's unbending devotion to the rule book is hard to take.
In 1972, an official went far beyond the call of duty when he carted my discus to the L.A. County Department of Weights and Measures and disallowed a 189-foot record throw. The thickness in the middle of the discus was one-hundredth of an inch thinner than it was supposed to be. How do you negotiate with a government caliper?
It's similar to a situation in Czechoslovakia, before there were cement rings and portable metal frames were placed on the dirt for a discus circle. On rainy days, athletes prayed to throw early so that those who followed would slide into her footsteps.
The rule book says that the portable ring has to be perfectly round, but that is nearly impossible to maintain. I threw a personal best one day when a dent was discovered in the ring. The official gave it a good kick, a successful repair job.
What followed was a debate that lasted for hours about the propriety of an official kicking the dent out of a rim. The molecules that comprise an athlete's self-esteem having been thoroughly dismembered, I rushed to the next meet and improved on that mark in order to maintain the reputation of Czechoslovakian athletics.
Only in retrospect can one appreciate an official's steady effort. A brief stop at a local high school on a hot, Thursday afternoon will find the same folks running a track meet today who ran it 15 years ago.
The L.A. Olympics was the peak experience--and the peak of experience--by which many officials will measure their career. In fact, quite a few retired after the Olympics. Some, who spent decades in the sport, did not want to return to the developmental baseline. Several withdrew because of a broken heart over not being invited to participate in the Olympics.
Only a few experienced the elation comparable to Peter Clentzos, who represented Greece as a pole vaulter in 1932 and, 52 years later, worked the pole vault as a deputy manager of Olympic officials.
Some volunteered as ushers. And Ralph Ayala, an official for 18 years, was assigned to make 100 sets of red-white-and-blue flags that tell an athlete in international language how he or she is doing. Said Ayala: "I felt like a king."
In the late 1940s and early '50s, track officials did not feel like they were exploited. But as the number of participants increased and the serendipities decreased, officiating became sheer work. But the older generation still instills newcomers with idealism.
Nick Carter, once a formidable opponent to Paavo Nurmi and now in his 80s, travels to track meets every weekend from Santa Barbara. He's not alone in his dedication.
Jim Hanley, a former world-ranked race walker, says he spends about $2,500 each year in personal expenses to organize walking events.