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By Photo courtesy of Track & Field News
BY CATHERINE MERLO Contributing writer
Those who were there still remember the buzz that whipped through the crowd that night at Bakersfield College's Memorial Stadium.
It was June 23, 1967. The world's sporting spotlight had zeroed in on 20-year-old Jim Ryun, the University of Kansas runner who had been setting mile records -- and breaking the four-minute mark -- since high school. Already, Ryun had competed in the 1964 Olympics and had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated four times. The magazine had even named Ryun its Sportsman of the Year in 1966.
About the author
Catherine Merlo is Western and online editor for Farm Journal Media and a trustee of the Kern County Museum Foundation. You can reach her at email@example.com.
"Ryun was so dominant, everyone in the stadium was on their feet. People were going nuts."
-- Larry Knuth, a longtime Los Angeles track and field coach who was at Memorial Stadium that night.
How to contribute
To contribute to the Memorial Stadium Track and Field Revitalization Campaign, contact the Bakersfield College Foundation at 395-4800 or visit bcfoundation.net and click on "Donate Now."
And now he was here in the national Amateur Athletic Union men's track and field championships, looking to set a new world record on Memorial Stadium's dirt track.
Broadcaster Jim McKay, announcing for ABC's Wide World of Sports, was there. So were members of the news media from around the world, including Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press. Reporting for The Bakersfield Californian was sportswriter Phil Klusman. All were aware that, with the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City just a year away, every track and field contender would be pushing for a world-class performance.
A crowd of 11,600 fans filled the stands of the 12-year-old stadium. They were not only eager to see if the lean, dark-haired Ryun could break his own 3:51.3 world mile record, set a year earlier. They had also come to watch the meet's other top-ranked athletes, including future Olympic competitor Marty Liquori, a high school senior who had already broken the four-minute mile, and the University of Southern California's Paul Wilson, who would set a new world pole vault record of 17'8" that night.
The crowd's anticipation rose as the mile runners stepped up to the starting line. Almost from the moment the starting pistol fired, Ryun took the lead. He sprinted as though he had only a single lap -- not four -- to run. By Ryun's third time around the track, he had opened up a 15-yard lead over the other nine runners.
"Ryun was so dominant, everyone in the stadium was on their feet," remembers Larry Knuth, a longtime Los Angeles track and field coach who was there that night. "People were going nuts."
By his fourth and final lap, Ryun was so far ahead of the pack, the announcer described him as running the race "all by himself."
The crowd roared as Ryun pounded for home. He crossed the finish line 40 yards ahead of the second-place runner, setting a world record of 3:51.1. (Initially called at 3:50.9 in film footage of the race, Ryun's final time was recorded, under meet rules, at the slowest of the three stop watches that clocked the race.)
Cheering from the sidelines were Ryun's parents and U.S. congressman and former Olympic champion Bob Mathias. Also watching Ryun's thrilling victory from near the finish line was Bakersfield College head track and field coach Bob Covey. He had helped organize the event along with Gil Bishop, who was Bakersfield College's athletic director and meet announcer.
"After the results were announced, (Bishop) asked me to ask Ryun to run a victory lap," recalls Covey. "Ryun did, and it was to a standing ovation of the 12,000 fans -- and the first victory lap ever in Memorial Stadium."
Covey considers Ryun's race that night to be "the most famous and memorable performance in the history of Memorial Stadium." Astonishingly, all top seven places in that night's race broke the four-minute mark, spurred by Ryun's blistering pace. His 3:51.1 world record would stand unbroken for eight years.
Ryun would go on to greater glory. A few weeks after his Bakersfield run, he set a 1,500-meter world record in Los Angeles. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Ryun won a silver medal in the mile, calling it "one of the highest achievements of my life."
He later became a U.S. congressman from Kansas, serving from 1996 to 2007. For the last 40 years, he has directed a running camp, working with young athletes from all over the U.S. Today, at 66, he still remembers his race in Bakersfield.
"That was an unusual race because we had all had to run a preliminary race the night before to qualify," says Ryun. "We weren't completely rested."
Starting from the inside lane in the June 23 finals, he remembers having two choices to avoid the crush of the runners' pack: take the lead or slip to the back. Ryun chose to move into the lead. As the race progressed, "I was totally stunned that no one tried to challenge me," he recalls. "When I finished, it felt like the easiest race I had ever run."
The Bakersfield meet continues to hold a special place for Ryun, who ran hundreds of races during his running career. "There are a handful of runs that define you, and that race was one that defined who I was," he says.
Ryun's record-setting night took place during what many consider the golden era of world-class amateur track and field. Memorial Stadium was often center stage, with a track that was considered among the nation's best. From 1956-1979, Memorial Stadium held more national track and field meets than any other city in America, Covey says.
Yet the heyday of those high-caliber meets at Bakersfield College began to dim in the early 1980s as track and field competition transitioned from an amateur to a professional sport. Bids to win contracts to host the meets skyrocketed, as did athletes' appearance fees.
"Bakersfield College just couldn't come up with the $50,000, $75,000, $100,000 it took to run a track meet of that caliber," says Covey, who retired in 2005 after 42 years as Bakersfield College's head track and field coach. He is writing a history of the school's athletic program.
Memorial Stadium hasn't held a major international track and field meet in more than 30 years. If Bakersfield College can raise $1.5 million to completely refurbish its track, Covey believes the big meets could return. Until then -- and maybe for always -- Ryun's 1967 record-breaking mile run remains a pinnacle in athletic history and a justifiably proud episode in the city where it happened.