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JIM MURRAY

The Man Who Missed His Golden Moment

February 15, 1990|JIM MURRAY

All his life, or so it seemed, Eddie Hart had prepared for this one week in 1972.

All the wind sprints, weight lifts, stretch exercises, practices, interval training, going to bed at 9 p.m., fueling on carbohydrates--all the things that go into the making of the world-class athlete--had been pointing to these two days in Munich.

He had gotten plenty of fresh air, health food, rest and recreation. He was ready.

These were to be the two days that would make Eddie Hart famous. The rest of life would be downhill. A rose garden. That special sports page accolade, world's fastest human, would be his. He would go up on a pedestal occupied only by the American greats--Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, Charley Paddock. It was to be his "Chariots of Fire," the culmination of a dream.

All he had to do was win the Olympic gold medal in the hundred. No big deal. He had run off a world-record 9.86 seconds at the trials that year. Half hand-timed (the finish) and half electronically timed (the start), it was listed as 9.9 but even that tied the Olympic and world record set by Jim Hines at Mexico City in 1968. And Hines did it at almost 8,000 feet. Hart did it at sea level.

There was hardly a cloud on the horizon that week in Munich. Oh, there was this Soviet sprinter, Valery Borzov, with some good times run in Minsk or Omsk or some other questionable place, but hey, everyone knew Soviets run in galoshes and fur coats most of the year. Unless it snowed, Hart was a cinch. A piece of cake. Where's the victory stand?

No, it was clear Hart's competition, if any, would come from teammates on the United States team. Reynaud Robinson had a 9.9, too, and Robert Taylor would be in the photo.

All they had to do was show up.

That was the trouble. That was the hard part.

The 100-meter heats were held the first day of the track and field competition. Hart had no trouble with his. He flamed to a win eased up, beating most of his field by daylight.

What happened next is an embarrassment to America to this day. Anyone who was there can never forget it.

I was unwittingly a part of it. I was walking into the on-site ABC television headquarters known as "Barnathan's Bungalow." I was there to interview Roone Arledge when I stumbled on a bigger story.

As I was walking in, I was almost bowled over by three of the most frantic-looking young athletes you ever saw. They looked as if they had just seen their own ghosts. Behind them, wringing his hands and moaning over and over, "It's an American tragedy!" was broadcaster Howard Cosell. "What is, Howard?" I asked, logically enough.

"These sprinters missed the start-line in their heats!" groaned Howard. "We've handed the 100 to the Russian!"

We jumped in a car to follow them over to the stadium. They were too late. Hart and Robinson had missed their quarterfinals. Taylor barely had time to strip off his warm-ups and toe the blocks. Borzov beat him that day--and the next.

What had happened? Well, at the time it seemed clear the American coach, Stan Wright, had misread the international 24-hour clock: 1615 did not mean quarter after six, it meant quarter after four.

At quarter after four, our three 100-meter sprinters were lounging in Barnathan's Bungalow watching what they thought were reruns of morning heats. What came on the screen were quarterfinal heats, live and in living color.

"Hey!" shouted Eddie. "Those are our races!"

The incident was later seen abroad as a textbook example of American athletes' over-reliance on their coaches, even when Wright later explained he had been working off a year-old schedule that had not been revised.

I never saw Eddie Hart again after that day--until this week when I caught up with him as he was preparing for a race in Friday night's Times/Eagle Indoor Games at the Forum.

Except for a slight graying along the temples and a slight wrinkling when he smiles, Hart doesn't look too much different from the young runner I saw pouring out of the ABC viewing room that day more than 17 years ago. A teacher, at Laney College in Oakland, and a father--a daughter who has a birth defect is his constant companion at Special Olympic meets--Hart is a man of monumental dignity who bears nobody grudges.

Did he think the Incident robbed him of his gold medal?

Eddie smiles. "Sometimes, I think I'm almost as well known for not winning that gold medal as I would have been for winning one," he says. "Besides, you must remember, I got a gold medal (in the 400 relay). I didn't come home empty-handed like Rey Robinson."

Wasn't the fact that he defeated Borzov--who won the 100 and 200 meters at Munich--on the anchor leg of the relay proof enough he could beat the Soviet sprinter?

Hart smiles and says: "Gerald Tinker ran a fantastic third leg. Borzov couldn't catch up."

Actually, Hart ran a fantastic fourth leg--9.2--and the team ran a world-record 38.19.

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