The 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany were filled with riveting stories, the most prominent one being the tragic death of eleven Israeli athletes at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. In addition to that horrifying event, there was American Mark Spitz’ six gold medals in swimming, the Russians’ stealing of the Olympic gold medal from the Americans in men’s basketball, and the infamous nonchalant behavior of Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett on the medal stand during the playing of the National Anthem after their 1-2 finish in the men’s 400 meter dash. Somewhat lost amidst all of these and other gripping stories was the victory of American Rod Milburn in the men’s 110 meter high hurdles. Milburn set a new world record in that race, but because it took place on the same day as the 400 meter final, and only two days after the terrorist attack, Milburn’s outstanding performance went more or less unnoticed, and has never been acknowledged for the phenomenal achievement that it was.
Recently, while doing research for the book I’m going to write on Milburn, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Tom Hill, who finished third to Milburn and France’s Guy Drut in that 1972 Olympic final. If not for Drut, the Americans would have swept the event, as they ended up finishing 1-3-4, with 1968 gold medallist Willie Davenport finishing fourth. Hill, who currently works as the Vice-President for Student Affairs at Iowa State University, discussed the Olympic Trials and Olympic Games of 1972, providing perspective on that magical period of time from someone who was actually there.
Going into the Olympic Trials in July of 1972, Milburn was the owner of a winning streak that dated back to the previous year. In 1971, Milburn, a sophomore at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had established himself as the dominant high hurdler in the world, having garnered Athlete of the Year honors from Track & Field News by going undefeated for the entire season. Having missed all of ’71 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Hill was not intimidated by Milburn’s win streak, and did not feel that Rod was unbeatable. “Rod’s win streak didn’t affect me,” he said. “I felt if I had been running , he wouldn’t have been undefeated. I looked at it as he lucked out that I was injured. Coming back from the injury, my goal was to run everywhere I knew he would be running. I knew that eventually I’d get ‘im because, having an undefeated competitor in your event, that’s not cool.”
Hill felt his edge as a hurdler was his height – 6’2” with a 36” inseam – and his leg speed. “I felt as far as my technique was concerned, it wasn’t very good, but I knew that my technique was sufficient to negotiate the barriers. I’m long-legged, so my clearance of the hurdles was good.” At the trials, the two competitors Hill was most worried about were, of course, Milburn and Davenport. Milburn because of his speed and power, and Davenport because of his proven track record as defending Olympic champion. “Rod had great technique. He had the double-arm lead, and he was a very powerful runner. Willie had great technique, and he was the kind of guy who felt he could beat your butt any day of the week.”
In the finals of the Olympic Trials, Hill defeated both of his fellow Louisianans in a time of 13.5, effectively putting an end to Milburn’s outdoor winning streak, although many observers felt that Milburn would have won if he hadn’t clobbered a couple hurdle late in the race. Milburn almost didn’t make the Olympic team at all, as Davenport also defeated him, and he barely out-leaned Charles Rich of UCLA and Jerry Wilson of USC for third. Hill made the following observations about the race: “I remember getting a good start, and running the whole race well. Usually, because I was long-legged, getting started presented a challenge for me. If I’m with you at the fifth hurdle, you’re gonna have a problem with me, because I’m comin’ in the second half of the race. This time I got a good start. I used to judge the first half of my race by the distance I was behind the leaders. If I could minimize that distance, the second half of the race was mine. It was a good race, things were clicking, I felt good from start to finish.”
Hill acknowledges that “I wasn’t expected to win it, which was okay, because after coming off the season he had [in 1971], he was clearly the guy to beat. After being out a solid year, there were some question marks as to whether I could recapture the old form. That’s why you run the race, though. When you go to major competitions like the Olympic Trials, you’re on a mission, you stay focused on what you came to do. And that’s what I did. I’m really clear about that.” Buoyed by his victory in the Trials, Hill went into the Games confident that he could duplicate his first-place finish. “Absolutely,” he said. “Actually, I went into the Games expecting to win. I was at a point in my career that, whenever I stepped on the track, I expected to win.”
After training in Brunswick, Maine and then competing in some tune-up meets in Europe, the American hurdling trio of Hill, Davenport, and Milburn entered the Olympic village in Munich in September primed to sweep the medals. However, the terrorist attack, and the bizarre, gut-wrenching aftermath that came in the form of a botched rescue attempt by German authorities, ruined the festive mood of the Games and delayed the beginning of the hurdling qualifying rounds, making many athletes question whether the Games should go on at all. The Games did go on, and the hurdlers were forced to re-focus and to do their best to block the tragic events out of their minds as best they could. “You had planned to run on a particular day,” Hill explained, “but you understood what was going on and put it in its proper perspectives. These people had lost their lives, and they had just come to compete the same as us. Then, once you know the Games will continue, you think it through and rationalize it. I said to myself, I’m not the only one going through a delay; everybody in my event is going through the same thing. I think we were all anxious to run, because that’s what we were there for. But [waiting to compete] was nothing compared to losing lives.”
Hill breezed through the early rounds quite easily, and his confidence was at an all-time high heading into the finals. He did not get a favorable lane, however, as he was placed in lane eight, next to Drut of France in lane seven. Milburn was in the middle of the track in lane five, and Davenport was on the other side of the track in lane one. Hill described the race as follows:
The first four finishers in the ’72 Olympic final are visible in this photo. From left to right, Hill (3rd place), Davenport (4th place), Drut (2nd place), and Milburn (first place).
“We got out [of the blocks], and to my surprise, I had my classic slow start. Rodney was gone. From the very beginning. When you can see somebody [in your peripheral vision], that means they’re in front of you, because if they’re even with you, you can’t really see ‘em. You can feel ‘em, but you can’t see ‘em. I saw Rodney from the very beginning. At about the second or third hurdle, Drut went by me. I recall thinking, and I remember this vividly, how on Saturday mornings I used to watch cartoons, and they had one about a guy marooned on an island, and he’d be seeing hallucinations of hamburgers on wings. As I was running, I could see the gold medal with wings on it, flying away. The silver medal, the bronze medal, same thing. Then I thought, you better get your butt in gear if you wanna get on that medal stand. I was able to cover some of the ground. Willie Davenport was in lane one, and I knew he was out there, but I couldn’t see ‘im. And I couldn’t turn my head to look, because that’s how you break your stride, hit hurdles. After the last hurdle, I sprinted, leaned, and then I turned my head, because it was safe by then. It was funny, because when I turned my head, Willie was in the exact same position. He was looking across the track too, to see what place he was in. Our eyes met. When we finished, we asked each other, ‘Did you get it?’ ‘Did you get it?’ They delayed the announcement of the medal winners because there was a photo finish between myself and Willie. They put Rod’s name up, they put Guy’s name up, then when they put Hill in the third slot, I bet I jumped twenty feet in the air. But there was no question who won it. Rodney was gone. He had a classic Rodney Milburn start. Really fast. He hit that first hurdle before you knew it.”
Meanwhile, the gracious Hill gives Drut his just due for breaking up the American sweep. “We were disappointed we didn’t sweep it because that was our intent. But Guy Drut had some other ideas. We did get one-three-four, though.”
For more on the 1972 Olympic Trials and Olympic Games, particularly from Milburn’s perspective, you’ll have to wait until the book comes out. In the mean time, what you have read here can serve as a good preview of what to expect once the book is done. For now, join me in thanking Dr. Tom Hill for helping us to remember that which we would otherwise forget.
© 2005 Steve McGill