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The Day in Sports | Countdown to 2000 / A day-by-day
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May 17, 1940

'Mini-Olympics' Feature Surprise Maki Defeat

May 17, 1999

With war raging in Asia and Europe, there would be no 1940 Olympic Games.

But early that year some coaches and athletes in Southern California hit upon an idea. Why not hold California's own "mini-Olympics," and do it for a good cause? That's what happened 59 years ago at the Coliseum.

It was called the "Champions of 1940" track and field meet, with proceeds going to the Finnish Relief Fund, a way of helping displaced Finns driven from their country after it was attacked by the Soviet Union in 1939.

The headliner was a Finn, Taisto Maki, the world's foremost two-miler at the time. Well, there were a few other headliners too.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy performed a skit for the crowd of 18,000. Mary Martin and Dennis Day sang. And Bill "Bojangles" Robinson danced. . . then ran a 75-yard dash backward in 10.7.

Then, in an upset, the great Maki was beaten in the two-mile.

In 1940, nine minutes in the two-mile got roughly the same attention as a four-minute mile would 20 years later. At the time, only two Americans had broken nine minutes in the event.

When Maki had set the world record of 8:53.2, the next two Finns in the race were under 8:58.

Maki lined up that night with Wisconsin star Walter Mehl and Notre Dame's Greg Rice. It was a much-anticipated event because nearly everyone agreed that anyone close to the fast-finishing Maki with a lap to go could push the fast-finishing Maki to a new world record.

But Mehl took the lead from Maki at the gun lap. Maki tried to pass with 220 yards left but couldn't. Rice then passed Maki in the stretch to take second, Mehl winning in 9:01.0.

*

Also on this date: In 1958, Tim Tam won the Preakness Stakes while Silky Sullivan finished a disappointing eighth.

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