The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Friday, December 19, 2008

Alan Webb, Jim Ryun, and Tysonicism

I have just become aware of a relatively new term: Tysonic.
Bill Simmons, a sportswriter for ESPN, coined the term "Tysonic". It refers to Mike Tyson, and applies to anyone who has entered a sphere of existence so bizarre, you will believe any news you hear about them, no matter how absurd. Aside from Mike Tyson, Britney Spears is Tysonic. After the turkey interview, I classify Sarah Palin as Tysonic.

As a native Chicagoan, I say Blogo is definitely Tysonic. If someone told me, "Hear about Blogo? He dressed himself up as Elvis, highjacked an Air Yugo flight from O'Hare to Belgrade, and is now living under the protection of Serbia... And he's formed an exploratory committee for 2016."

I'd pause for a moment and say, "Yeah, that sounds right."

In the world of track and field, few people become so full of themselves as to enter this "Tyson Zone", as the early usage of the term was. However, there are a small number of true head cases, athletes who appear doomed to Bill Buckner-hood.

A story so old that it barely seems like it happened this year is the implosion of Alan Webb. The beginning of his tailspin was the '07 Worlds, but Webb '08 was one of the great bombs in all of American sports history. It made me recall something I'd read way back when I was a junior in high school—the opening to Richard Elliot's unknown classic, The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation For Distance Racing.

People who were at the '67 Drake Relays will tell you. When Ryun got the baton for the last leg of the four-mile relay, he was sixty yards behind Conrad Nightingale, one of the top milers in the nation. An impossible distance—but by the final turn, Ryun was there with him. He blew by Nightingale, hit the tape still driving, and ran 3:59 on a windy day [the WR was 3:51.1]. The next day he anchored his distance medley team to a world record.

For over three years Jim Ryun never lost a mile race. He set world records at 1500 meters, the mile, and the 880. When he ran 3:33.1 in June of 1967, he cut two and a half seconds off the metric mile record and beat the best in the world by thirty yards. Never has an American distance runner so dominated the sport.

In the spring of 1968 Ryun was shooting for a 3:50 mile when he got sick. Out six weeks with mono, he still won the Trials 1500 that summer and made the Olympic team. The Olympics that year were held in Mexico City and 7,349 feet altitude; the rarified air would limit performances in the races over 800 meters. The experts all figured if anyone could run 3:39 in the 1500, he would win—it wasn't possible at that altitude to run any faster. Ryun ran 3:37.8 but finished second.

With that defeat, quite abruptly, he would no longer be the unbeatable and unshakable Jim Ryun. Over the next four years, a drama of frustration would play out to a bewildered cast and audience.

He began his final year of college track the next winter in an indoor meet at home in Lawrence, Kansas. Midway through a two-mile race, he dropped out. As the season went on, a pattern developed—brilliant races followed by terrible ones. Ryun won the NCAA indoor mile, beating Marty Liquori in a sensational duel. Outdoors, at the Drake Relays, he dropped out of a much-publicized race. He followed that with a 3:55 win at Compton. He ended the season placing second to Liquori in the NCAA mile final—and a week later in the AAU Championships, he jogged off the track after two laps.

What was wrong? Ryun shook his head in frustration and told reporters of the minor injuries, the staleness from too many races, and the constant pressure. He didn't run again for a year and a half.

When he returned, he was seemingly better than ever. He ran a 3:56 mile indoors, the a 3:55 in the Kansas Relays. In May came the famous "Dream Mile", the Ryun-Liquori rematch. Ryun lost to Liquori by half a step, both of them clocking 3:54.8. A month later in Europe, Ryun ran a 4:17 mile and discontinued his season.

The Olympic year 1972 went much the same—a 4:19 last place finish in Los Angeles, then a 3:57 win at the Kansas Relays, then a 4:14. By now, everyone concerned was in a state of consternation. The media coverage of Ryun had always been intense, and now the press hounded him for answers.

"No, I don't know what is wrong," Ryun would say. "I felt heavy the first lap, and then I began to tighten up…Maybe it's psychological. I don't know whether it is or not. I'm going to think about is…I know I'll figure it out."

Others joined in, giving rise to what one writer has called a "minor industry of Ryun experts, sort of like Kennedy assassination experts, who claimed to have figured out what went wrong."

Many runners understood the problem, if not the solution. A runner could be physically ready to race well, but he also had to be ready psychologically. If he wasn't, there would be repercussions in his racing machine—the delicate balance of relaxed concentration during maximum effort would be upset. Good racing would not only be hampered—it might be out of the question.

"The difference between what I did today and what I can do is such a little thing," Ryun said.

This story, like many in real life, has no neat and tidy resolution. Jim Ryun ran 3:52.8 in Toronto in July of '72, the fastest mile in the world in five years. He qualified for the Olympic team and went to Munich. There, he ran incredible workouts that had everyone talking. He seemed very ready. Of course, we won't know. In a qualifying round he was tripped up, he fell, and did not advance to the finals.

Ryun's American mile record was broken in 1981; it had lasted fourteen years. Jim Ryun was a runner ahead of his time when he was at his best. At other times, in his problems with the inner side of the sport, he struggled like any other runner. His story makes clear—in a more obvious and dramatic way than is ordinarily seen—the importance of controlling the psychological aspects of performance.

The similarities are obvious, and not just because they're both milers. Both were thrust into the national sports consciousness long before they could possibly have been emotionally ready for it. Both remained with their high school coaches, men whose living was dependent on keeping their prodigies happy. And to be honest, both runners might never have been totally ready for it. Webb's immaturity was made obvious when he turned tail and ran from Ann Arbor after one bad track season. Ryun's immaturity is less well known, but a first-hand description of him in Bob Schul's autobiography reveals a boy desperate to prove himself to the Olympic team…and when you have the swagger of a champion, you know you don't have to prove squat until the gun goes off.

Ryun has shown an inability to admit defeat that is highly unusual in track circles. Everyone gets beat sometime, and it's either because you weren't at your best or because your opponent was at his. But that '68 Olympic race? I've never seen or heard of him admitting that Keino was the better man that day. He always blames the altitude, which was a big factor but cannot explain the entirety of Keino's margin of victory—Keino ran faster in Mexico City than all but three of Ryun's best times at sea level. Similarly, he made no customary concession statement after his 2006 Congressional re-election defeat…one made possible by a conflict-of-interest scandal that more worldly (if less honest) politicians would have kept much harder to discover. Josh Marshall's crew was able to dig up that dirt on him because Ryun either didn't think he was doing anything wrong, or didn't think anyone would challenge him on it.

Will Webb come back and be as good as he was? Occasionally, but not when it really matters. He'll race well from time to time and be unbelievably awful at others. Maybe in a decade or so he'll rise from the dead, make a Worlds team and be an also-ran in the final and talk about how he wish he knew then what he knows now. But as far as being a major factor in an August or September race, forget it. Upstairs he's been broken, and is surrounded by so many yes-men that he won't be able to face the music and fix it.

1 comment:

Curtis Dozier said...

Thanks for a great post, one reason I read your blog is to get some historical perspective on Track and Field since I didn't start following it until recently. It's good to see you posting again.