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BEST OF SPORTS / TRACK AND FIELD

The Long Run

Track and Field in L.A. Has a Storied History and an Uncertain Future

December 29, 1999|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the 1930s, Lou Zamperini of Torrance High was a national headliner. He'd taken the national high school mile record down to 4:21.2 and made the 1936 Olympic team.

He became one of the nation's major track stars during a USC career, before entering World War II military service.

In the South Pacific, he endured first one of the great survival events in maritime history, and then endured daily beatings for nearly three years in a Japanese prison camp.

Zamperini's plane crashed while on a rescue mission in the South Pacific in June 1943. His life raft drifted about 1,500 miles in 47 days and when he was captured by the Japanese, he weighed 70 pounds and couldn't stand.

Not until his 1945 release did anyone know he'd survived it all.

At 82, he still runs his neighborhood hills in Hollywood.

STORY OF THE CENTURY

No track and field story of the 20th century tops this. In fact, it may be that no sports story tops the story of Bob Mathias in 1948.

On Nov. 17, 1947, Tulare High track coach Virgil Jackson suggested to his hurdles/sprint star, Mathias, that he begin thinking of working other track events, like the jumps, shotput and pole vault.

Two hundred thirty-two days later, in London, he won the Olympic Games decathlon gold medal.

Consider:

* Two months before the 1948 Olympics, Mathias had never attempted a pole vault and had never seen a javelin.

* Two months before the Games, he had not only never competed in a decathlon, he had never competed in six of the 10 events.

He soon won two decathlons, the second one at the Olympic team trials. His third was for the gold medal, at 17.

He won it again in 1952. He also became a Stanford football star and later a member of Congress.

PELL-MEL

They called Mel Patton "Pell- Mel." And when the Los Angeles University High product ran history's first 9.3-second 100-yard dash at Fresno on May 15, 1948, they were calling this latest Trojan speedster the "world's fastest human."

At the 1948 London Olympics, Patton won a gold medal in the 200 meters and was fifth in the 100.

Patton, 74, is retired and lives in northern San Diego County.

THE WHALES

After the Patton era and USC's "world fastest human" claim had passed, the Trojans next suited up the two greatest shotputters of the era.

First came Santa Monica's Parry O'Brien, who in 1954 became the first man to crack the 60-foot barrier. He won two Olympic championships, in 1952 and '56, and a silver medal in 1960. He was fourth at Tokyo in 1964, where the gold medalist was another Trojan, Dallas Long.

Long came to USC from Phoenix and eventually boosted the world record in the event to 67-10.

O'Brien became a banker after he retired. Long retired from competition after the Tokyo Olympics and became a dentist.

A STAGE DISAPPEARS

In the last quarter of the century, track and field has been dying a lingering death. It was a sport that lost its stage to its master, football.

The Coliseum track was first removed when the Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn. The Dodgers played at the Coliseum from 1958 through '61, while Dodger Stadium was under construction.

But that didn't kill track and field here, not yet.

In fact, Coliseum track events bounced back big time. With the new track, the Coliseum Relays--a major event here from the post- World War II years through the last meet, in 1966--continued to draw upwards of 50,000 people.

The UCLA-USC dual meet was a Page 1 event, as were international meets such as the United States vs. the Soviet Union, the Olympic trials and, of course, the 1984 Olympics.

The Coliseum's final meet was the 1990 UCLA-USC meet.

The track was removed for the last time in 1993, so the football field could be lowered to enhance seating for the old stadium's two football tenants, USC and the Raiders.

What happened?

"It was a combination of a lot of things," longtime Southland track promoter Al Franken said.

"At a time when a lot of new sports were coming on TV, there was no national marketing program for track and field. Sports got spread out all over the landscape, and a sport's popularity was based on its time on TV, and track never did have much of a TV presence.

"It just kind of went into a downward spiral."

UCLA and USC still have spirited dual meets on their campuses, but for old-line track nuts, it could never be the same without the Coliseum.

But the memories live on:

In 1956, as an added attraction to the UCLA-USC meet, the great Australian miler, John Landy, was scheduled to run a special mile race against an assortment of collegians. Landy was the world record holder, at 3:58.

But another Aussie, Jim Bailey of the University of Oregon, passed him on the final turn and beat Landy in 3:58.6, Landy running 3:58.7. It was the fastest mile ever run in the Western Hemisphere.

The great race overshadowed the UCLA-USC meet, in which Rafer Johnson won three events.

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