Publish date:


Bill Toomey says it's kind of tragic, being the best decathlete in the world and (sob!) not being allowed to compete

On a recent weekday evening Bill Toomey, the 1968 Olympic decathlon champion and world-record holder, was having dinner in his new home in Goleta, Calif., near Santa Barbara. Always ebullient, Toomey was in an especially fine mood. In his morning workout at the University of California (Santa Barbara) he had run 330 yards in 33.4, which, he exclaimed more than once between mouthfuls of spaghetti, was "fantastic." His wife, the former Mary Rand, who won a gold medal in the long jump—and set a world record—for Great Britain in the 1964 Olympics, listened patiently for a while. Then, as wives will do, she decided to take her husband down a peg.

"By the way," she said sweetly, "I heard that Russ Hodge did his best ever in the 100 meters. A 10.2, I think."

For years Toomey and Hodge have been rivals in the decathlon and for years Toomey has consistently beaten him. Still, you can always get a rise out of Toomey by suggesting that Hodge has surpassed him in some respect. Now, almost before the words were out of his wife's mouth, Toomey had grabbed a telephone and asked the operator to ring Hodge's number in Los Angeles.

"Hello, Hodge," he said. "I'm ready for you, you hear?"

Toomey was only half serious. He is 32 now, and since winning his gold medal in Mexico City his life-style has drastically changed. Where once Toomey was known in track circles as a sort of international good-humor man, he has now settled down, more or less. Besides a wife, Toomey has an infant daughter, Samantha, and a slobbering Great Pyrenees, Lady Jane. Since last April he has been an executive of The Drackett Company, a division of Bristol-Myers, and he also works for the Peace Corps, the National Food Council, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and both ABC and CBS ("That's got to be a first," says Toomey). One of his duties at Drackett is to make radio commercials for Nutrament. While this has helped Toomey support his family and buy a home, which has a swimming pool and a heated whirlpool bath, it has also ended his career as an amateur athlete. After getting a load of Toomey's Nutrament spiels, the AAU told him he was a professional.

More's the pity, because Toomey still yearns to compete and is still the best decathlete in the world. Before he retired in December 1969, he won five straight AAU championships and set the existing world record—8,417 points. Since then his athletic endeavors have been confined to giving clinics for the Peace Corps and to irregular workouts in Santa Barbara. Toomey wryly refers to himself as the "workout king" and "the best-trained spectator in Santa Barbara."

The track where Toomey trains is located near the Bank of America building, which student protesters burned in 1970, but it is isolated from the campus by a ring of tall eucalypti. The track is quiet and peaceful, the main sounds being the chirping of birds and the thump-thumping of runners' feet. About the only people who work out there regularly are a few hippies, members of the Santa Barbara track team, an occasional professor and the decathletes who have come from all over the world to train with Toomey, who is considered the guru of the event. With the recent addition of Rumania's Andrei Sepsy, the first Iron Curtain athlete ever allowed to train in this country, there are now a dozen decathletes from six countries working out in Santa Barbara. Among them are Barry King of England, Jerry Moro and Gordon Stewart of Canada, Louie Jourdan of Ireland and Dan Denache of Haiti.

Before a workout Toomey is generally loose and laughing, but let someone pull out a stopwatch or a tape measure and his competitive juices start flowing. Besides his "fantastic" 330, Toomey has lately done a 9.5 in the 100, with no blocks; was under 21 in the 220, with a running start; high-jumped 6'5", vaulted 13'9" and ran a 440 in 46.8.

"I think it would only take me three weeks to get in good enough shape to go over 8,000 points in the decathlon," he says. "I guess if guys had exceeded my score and were far superior athletes, I might be content to sit back and watch them peck at my records. But this country hasn't really produced anybody who can beat me. So how can I go out on the track and knock off some good times and not wish I were still eligible? It's kind of tragic, isn't it?"

Sometimes Toomey gets so carried away by the tragedy of it all that he entertains the idea that the AAU might be persuaded to restore his eligibility. His hopes were raised last December when he was allowed to run a 300 in San Francisco. Matched against three other Olympic gold medalists, all over 30, Toomey won easily in 32.8.

"The AAU calls me Joe Commercial," he says, "but I don't feel like that because I really do something for Drackett. When I was hired, I told them I didn't want a job where I was just a trophy, because that's strictly a no-future thing. So I'm an executive and also one of their main advertising figures. It's not a typical endorsement scene where you say somebody else's words for a product you don't use. I actually used Nutrament when I was at the University of Colorado and I studied journalism. I studied to do what I'm doing now, so I feel I'm pretty legit. But you know the AAU. They want the amateur athlete to be so protected from what happens in real life that he becomes unprepared for anything that isn't measured in time or distance. So now I'm the man without a country in sports. Wonder if Canada needs a good decathlon man?"

After a few moments of such bittersweet reverie, Toomey will laugh and apologize. "I don't mean to sound like sourgrapes," he says. "I really have reconciled myself to the fact that I probably won't compete again." For Toomey this might be easier than it would be for some, because he not only achieved almost all of his athletic goals but had a good time doing it.

"I was interviewed once and this guy asked me about the grueling decathlon," he says. "Well, hell. Grueling. I've never really thought about it that way. I've always enjoyed the decathlon and I think this might have been the key to my success. There are too many athletes who don't really enjoy their sport."

Toomey has worked up his joyous life and times as an itinerant decathlete into what could serve as a passable nightclub act. The heroes of Toomey's routine are usually himself, 'naturally, and Dave Thoreson, decathlete, schoolteacher, cohort. Some of his funniest stories are those that convey his sense of outrage at the various idiocies of the AAU. One night last month Toomey climbed into his whirlpool, parked a bottle of Red Mountain Vin Rosé nearby and told the one about the AAU's uniform rule.

"This was in 1967, when we went to Winnipeg for the Pan-Am Games," he began. "There was a guy named Larry Young, who was a walker, and he was Thoreson's pal. We went to get our uniforms—you have to wear your travel uniform to travel in, according to AAU rules—and, really, Young's uniform would have fit Jackie Gleason. When you consider that Young is a little guy, about 5'8", 130, he looked like a used-clothes salesman who wasn't doing so well. He had his pants doubled over and a rope holding them up, just so he could obey the AAU rules, right?

"So we got off the plane and here was Thoreson having a heavy conversation with these guys at the terminal. All of a sudden I see Young being interviewed by Thoreson's pals. 'Hi, there, Bill,' they say, 'how do you feel?' Hmmm, I thought, that guy isn't Bill. I'm Bill. That's Larry. Then I realized that Thoreson has passed off this little guy in baggy pants as me. So here was Larry Young being interviewed by the Canadian press about the decathlon and Thoreson is lying on the floor laughing. If somebody wants an interview, Thoreson always will oblige."

Then there's the one about the weight men trying to live on the AAU meal allowance, then $2, now $3 a day. This story is usually told in a deep voice, with a Slavic accent of indeterminate origin.

"In 1969, on my last big trip for the AAU," Toomey said, "two weight men, Jon Cole and George Frenn, took film all during our little junket. They said they were going to make an international gangster movie, so they kept shooting each other coming out of banks, wearing Clyde hats, hustling chicks. It was sort of like James Bond Comes to Muscle Beach. One of their props was this rather realistic rubber gun.

"Well, we got to Warsaw, and all of a sudden these guys were in trouble. They couldn't get enough protein on $2 a day to keep their weight up. They would drop from 270 to 255 and tell each other they looked like skeletons. There are all kinds of things you can do on $2 a day, you know. Like making a phone call or buying an ice cream cone.

"Finally, John Pennel and I got a CARE package from home that had some cheese and other protein in it. Frenn and Cole tried to con us out of it, but we wouldn't give. They brought out the rubber gun and tried to hold us up. Well, Cole threw the gun to Frenn and he missed it and it went out the window of my room on the 11th floor of the Metropol Hotel. We looked out and here's this gun lying in the middle of the street. Guns are illegal in Poland, you know. Then, while we're watching, here comes this guy in a raincoat, ambling along in Spy Gear, salivating over the gun. He went into Getaway Gait, which is faster than Spy Gear, and he made this box around the gun. Finally, when he was about 30 yards down gun, he swooped in, put the gun in his coat and ran off. We couldn't believe it. The worst thing was, here was a real spy scene, and Frenn and Cole didn't even film it. They got our cheese, though. Those guys aren't as thick as they look."

One of Toomey's favorite stories concerns The Great Sullivan Trophy Fiasco. Each year the AAU gives the Sullivan Award to the outstanding amateur athlete in the U.S. Toomey won it in 1969, but he still doesn't have the trophy—and nobody seems to know where it is. As Toomey tells it, the whole mess began in late 1969, when his name was missing from the list of nominees for the Sullivan Award. A friend of Toomey's, Frank Dolson of the Philadelphia Inquirer, noted the omission and wrote a letter to Jesse Pardue, then president of the AAU. Pardue replied that Toomey hadn't done enough to deserve it. As Dolson pointed out in a column, the AAU's position was rather ludicrous. At that time Toomey had just broken the American record in the decathlon, he was undefeated in world competition, he had been named the California Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press and he had received similar awards from France and Italy.

"Finally they put me on the list," Toomey says, "and I won the Sullivan. Later on they were going to hold a dinner in Los Angeles to honor Avery Brundage or somebody and they also were going to present me my award. I said fine, but that fell through. It got to be March and April and finally May. I was getting ready to leave for Africa for the Peace Corps when they called me up and said they would give me the award at a track meet at the Coliseum.

"Thoreson drove me to the Coliseum. I had my bags packed because I had about an hour to catch a plane. The ceremony consisted of this: a quick handshake with an exit by me to Africa. Nobody in the stadium knew what was happening. For all practical purposes, I got the fastest awarding of the Sullivan trophy in history.

"Well, I left the trophy there with an official so I could dash off to the airport. I haven't seen it since. And I mean, like this is no small trophy. It must weigh 25 pounds and it's got my name engraved all over it. Who would keep a trophy with somebody else's name on it? There's still a big space over our fireplace for the trophy. Mary keeps dusting it."

All Mary Toomey needs is another trophy to dust. Whenever she wants to cut her husband down to size, she reminds him that most of the trophies in the den belong to her, a fact Toomey cannot dispute. And whenever Toomey starts dropping the names of presidents and kings ("I met the King of Siam once—it was a great thrill for the king"), Mary puts him down with descriptions of her visits to Buckingham Palace.

"I just hate dust," Mary says, "I've got this thing about it."

"And that, folks," says Toomey, "was Mary Toomey, the most dynamic housewife in the Goleta, Calif. area."

The Toomeys' life together has hardly been dull. When they first started dating before the '68 Olympics, Mary was married to Sydney Rand, an English businessman. After word of the romance got out, the British press turned it into a cause cél√®bre. Mary donned dark glasses and a wig to slip out of the country, photographers popped out of the bushes at the home of Toomey's parents.

The pace has slowed only slightly since their marriage in December 1969. The day after they were wed, Toomey flew to New York to be on Wide World of Sports. Says Mary, "I'm probably the only wife in history who had to share her honeymoon with Howard Cosell." When they moved into their new home, Mary had to supervise the entire operation because Toomey was playing tennis with the Kennedys in Hyannis Port. Says Toomey, "I called her and said, 'Hi, honey, how you doing?' As I recall, her reply was something like, 'Get your fanny home and help me move.' "

Toomey spends a lot of time making speeches to various groups around the country. At first he didn't charge a fee, but now he usually asks anywhere from $250 to $1,000. "After you win a gold medal at the Olympics, everybody wants to use your body," he says. "Everybody wants to have an Olympic champion, along with their resident pro football player, their local golf champion, their local tennis champion and the kid who won the Little League batting championship. They even invent awards to get you there. This is the typical phone call:

" 'Hi, Bill, hi. This is Fred Schwartz in Minneapolis. Get my telegram?'

" 'Yes, Mr. Schwartz, I'm delighted to learn I'm your athlete of the year.'

" 'Well, Bill, heh-heh, actually you're our track athlete of the year....'

"When you get to the banquet you find you're one of 25 guys sitting on an unsteady dais. And then it comes down to Award No. 400, the track athlete of the year, and by this time the applause sounds like the end of Laugh-In. You know, clap...clap...clap. When it's over, the cats hand out white envelopes to the pros and when they get to me they say, 'Have a nice dinner, buddy?'

" 'What's in the envelope?'

" 'Oh, that's for the pros. You don't want that, Bill. Naughty, naughty. You're an amateur athlete.'

"Another thing I don't like about banquets is that athletes are commercialized to the point where you're expected to be Instant Morality. Add four glasses of water to a prime rib dinner and—shazam!—you're supposed to begin talking about God. But in my speeches I would rather tell stories or answer questions. Preaching is a dangerous game. Athletes have no credentials to preach, no right to tell people how to live. You can't present a simple formula: eight hours sleep, good food, don't drink, smoke or be naughty and you'll win the Olympics. That's simply not true. I know some athletes who are real criminals. They do all the things that you're not supposed to do and they still win because they have a God-given ability. I think we should inform kids that not all athletes are the greatest examples of human dignity."

Toomey's friends think he has the looks, intelligence and personality to go into show business or politics. "He's losing his hair, though," says Mary. "He has to comb it just so, to cover his bald spots." Toomey is intrigued by show business, and he has already appeared on several TV talk shows ("I did the decathlon with Johnny Carson," he says. "I guess that was my first professional meet"). When ABC's Wide World of Spoils covered the NCAA indoor track and field championships recently Toomey was the color man, and this summer he will do several meets for CBS. His dramatic debut came opposite Efrem Zimbalist Jr. As Toomey tells it:

"One night I came home beat to death after a workout. My body was moving like a Paramecium into the dining room, where I was going to absorb vast amounts of food and wine. The telephone rang. It was Warner Bros. They wanted me the next day to do a guest shot on The FBI.

"I froze. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and me. Just like I always dreamed. They read me my lines. Both of them. I wrote 'em down and hung up. Thoreson happened to be handy and he began to coach me. The rest of the evening I worked on my two lines. I had 'em cold, so smooth I could hardly believe it myself.

"The next morning I had to get up at 4:30 to answer the makeup call. Another decathlete friend, Louie Jourdan, drove me to the studio. All the way down I'm practicing my lines. We go to the studio and all of a sudden they started barbering my hair off. I haven't got that much hair, folks, so I inquired how much more they were going to cut off. They told me I had to look like an agent. What's J. Edgar Hoover look like? I never saw the guy. He's a roommate of Howard Hughes. I went to the studio. They said, hey, man, you didn't get your hair cut. You're kidding, I said, they obliterated my hair. I had to get more hair cut off. The floor of the barbershop looked like there had been a big fight between a couple of bears.

"Finally it was time to roll 'em. Then they threw me a curve. My last line, instead of ending with 'they spend most of their time in the mountains hunting and fishing' was changed to '...hunting and trapping.' At that particular time it was a complete devastation of my mind. I had to learn my lines all over again. All the cats in there are coming up to me:

" 'Hey, you're Bill Toomey, aren't you?'

" '...hunting and trapping, hunting and trapping....'

" 'How're ya doing, Bill?'

" '...hunting and trapping, hunting and trapping....'

"The director was a very hang-loose guy, which was good. So here I was finally, digging the whole scene, and he said, 'O.K., Toomey, start your lines.' All of a sudden it was cold turkey. I forgot my lines. I said, 'Hey, what's my lines?' Everybody cracked up. On the decathlon scale, I fouled out."

Throughout all his ventures, Toomey manages to find time for training. "I'm not sure why I keep working out," he says, "unless I'm following through with the neurosis that pushed me to an Olympic victory. After the Olympics, I kept telling everyone that I wasn't going to run track anymore. But the funny thing was, I always had a track suit packed in the back of my car. I'm like an alcoholic, you know, who had one hidden everywhere: one in the closet, one in the car, one in the beach house. One side of me would say: 'Hey, Bill, you're not going to run today, are you? When are you going to grow up and give up track?' Then the other side: 'But what about that track suit out in the car? It's clean, you know, and just think, you can break out that shirt with the block Olympic rings on it.' I can work out anywhere. Anyplace where I can move my legs four times in succession is a place to work out.

"Once Ron Whitney, the 400-meter hurdler, and I warmed up for a relay in a parking lot in Mexico City. I would run from the Mercury to the Lincoln and back to the Volkswagen. Another time I put up a bar across my bathroom door so I could practice pole-vaulting technique. Except the damn thing busted and I went into the toilet."

Toomey gets letters or calls from decathletes around the world who want to come to Santa Barbara. Many of them still believe he is an amateur and they want to know if he has started training for the '72 Olympics. Whether he is eligible or not, Toomey keeps working out, just in case, and he is still a keen student of the decathlon, so he encourages everyone to join him.

"I don't guess I'll ever get used to being a spectator," he said the other day. "I'll be sitting in the stands as an old man and saying, 'Gee, I wish I could do that.' "

Later, at home, the subject of Hodge was brought up again. An evil smile crossed Toomey's face, his eyes brightened and he went into his Hodge impersonation. This means throwing out his chest and lowering his voice several octaves.

"Ah, Rooooos Hodge," said Toomey. "Perhaps we can schedule a little competition. Not a regular workout, you understand, just an unofficial little workout. Hodge is a nice guy, a friend of mine, but I would clean his clock."

And then the King of the Workouts poured himself another glass of Red Mountain Vin Rosé.


TENDER MOMENT at whirlpool bath finds Mary Toomey (formerly Rand) consoling hubby.