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Original Issue


Perhaps more than in its remarkable feats, the spirit of the sports year is embodied in its human events, great and small. This article recalls a few of those occasions when pain, courage, selflessness and a tumble in a clothes dryer added up to more than the final score

Margaret Murdock, a plump 33-year-old student nurse from Kansas, needed two bull's-eyes on L'Acadie rifle range outside Montreal to become the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in shooting.

"My emotional control is based on anticipation," she had said. "I think out how I'm going to react, how I'm going to resist extraneous thoughts, how I'm going to deal with somebody coming up and telling me I'm behind or ahead. I prepare for all of this, so the adrenaline doesn't go up and I stop thinking. One or two bad shots, and you're out of it."

The leading shooter in the small-bore three-position competition at that point was U.S. Army Captain Lanny Bassham, a silver medalist in the 1972 Games. He had completed his rounds with a total of 1,160 points. Now he waited patiently for the final scores to be posted.

Bassham's undisputed lead did not last long. Werner Siebold, a West German chef who was shooting at the same time as Murdock, also finished with a score of 1,160 points. That put Murdock in position to pass both men with her last two shots. She waited for a capricious wind to subside, then fired quickly and calmly. Two bull's-eyes. She packed her gear in a blue cardboard suitcase and tranquilly awaited the official announcement of the triumph of her life as a markswoman.

The shooting was over, but not the scoring. Closer scrutiny of the targets resulted in a change in the tabulations, giving Bassham an extra point and, apparently, sole possession of the silver medal. Still later, it was announced that a clerical error had been made—a judge had credited Bassham with a nine when he should have been awarded a 10. He and Murdock had tied for the championship with 1,162 points apiece. The method of breaking a tie in shooting is to compare scores for the last 10 shots. It was found that Bassham had scored 98 on his, Murdock 96 on hers. He would receive the gold, she the silver.

On the victory stand, seconds before the playing of the national anthem, Bassham extended a hand to Murdock on the step below him and helped her to the top. They stood together as The Star-Spangled Banner was played. Said Bassham, "There was no way she deserved to stand lower."

She began life as Richard Raskind, growing up in—of all places—Forest Hills, N.Y. In high school she played end on the football team, swam the backstroke and, as the leading hitter and pitcher on the baseball team, was good enough to attract the notice of professional scouts. But tennis was always her game.

She was a member of the Yale varsity, and after graduating from the University of Rochester Medical School in 1959, she continued playing the game seriously, winning the New York State clay-court championship in 1964. She also had a successful practice as an eye surgeon, and in 1970 she married. She fathered a son. In 1975 a divorced Richard Raskind underwent a sex-change operation in New York and became Renee Richards. With that name the doctor would become famous.

As Renee, she moved to California and, at age 42, began entering women's tournaments. When she won one in La Jolla, a local newscaster looked into her past, during which, he soon discovered, she had been a man. "O.K., now damn it," Richards recalls saying to herself, "they're putting my personal life out in the street. I'm going to pursue every right I possess to prove I'm a woman and a tennis player."

When she insisted on playing in the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, the Women's Tennis Association was pushed into an unprecedented controversy. Does a transsexual have the right to play in a women's tennis tournament? Can a transsexual be considered a woman? Those questions posed a dilemma for the WTA, which had fought so fiercely for equal rights on the courts. The firebrands who had championed the women's cause now were confronted with the aspirations of a new minority, albeit a minute one. Would the revolutionaries turn reactionary?

"As far as I'm concerned," said Rosie Casals, a WTA charter member, "Richards is still physically a man and that gives her an unfair advantage. This has to be stopped. Tennis is my profession and this is a threat to it."

Countered an amused male observer, Ilie Nastase, "Now you see how strong the women players are. She could be their mother, yet they complain. They're afraid."

As a middle-aged, 6'2" woman, Richards is nearly 40 pounds lighter and not nearly as strong and has far less endurance than she had as a younger man. In the semifinals of the $60,000 Tennis Week Open at South Orange, N.J. in August, she wilted in a blazing sun and lost to an unheralded 17-year-old girl.

He crashed in flames in the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring and lay near death for almost a week. His face had been burned terribly and his lungs were seared from swallowing fire. "Goodby, my friend," said a priest as he administered last rites. Doctors told his wife Marlene he would not live the week. Still he hung on. Temporarily blind, he concentrated on listening to voices as a means of staying awake. Consciousness was nearly unbearable, but at least he knew he was alive. By the sixth day doctors said he was out of danger. Six weeks to the day after the accident, Niki Lauda, badly scarred and weakened, finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix to stay in the race for the World Driving Championship he had won in 1975.

"A lot of people have said I am crazy to go back to racing so quickly," the Austrian driver told his friends, "but they don't understand. It is the job I have. It is the risk I must take."

Lauda's quest for the driving title, eventually won by a single point by England's James Hunt, ended on a rain-soaked course in Japan. He started third in the race, but during the first two laps 18 drivers passed him in a downpour that caused cars to skitter across the track like aquaplanes. Lauda pulled his Ferrari into the pits and told his mechanics, "It's too dangerous out there. It's suicide. There are more important things in life than winning the World Driving Championship."

Niki Lauda knows that as well as anyone.

I just quit my job, that's all. What's wrong with that? Other guys do it every day. Nobody makes a big thing out of them."

Sure, why not? You're bored with the old nine-to-five, the hustle-bustle, the chase for the almighty dollar. Why not chuck it? Something else is bound to turn up.

Fine, but if you are the center for the champion Boston Celtics, good enough to have been the NBA's Most Valuable Player three seasons ago, earning a $280,000 salary and only 28 years old, people will probably wonder what's eating you. And they did just that when Dave Cowens abruptly left the Celtics only nine games into the season, saying he had lost enthusiasm for the game.

"This wasn't something sudden for me," Cowens explained. "I'd been thinking about it for three months. I even thought seriously about quitting before the season started, but I figured I'd try it and see how it was. And then I just didn't have it. Nothing. When somebody drives right by you and you shrug your shoulders; when you go down and make a basket like a robot; when you win or lose a game and it doesn't matter either way; when you can't even get mad at the refs—then something's wrong. I couldn't do anything about it. When there's nothing left, there's no use making believe there is."

Enthusiasm had been Cowens' game. His breakneck style had set a pattern of mobility for a new generation of centers. Still, he must have suspected that the juices would eventually stop flowing because two years ago he had a clause written into his contract that would permit him to take an unpaid leave of absence. And to the utter amazement of his teammates, Coach Tom Heinsohn and General Manager Red Auerbach, he exercised that clause. "What could I say?" a bewildered Auerbach asked, speaking for them all.

You're losin'!" Muhammad Ali's brother Rahaman bellowed at the champ during the late stages of his bout with Jimmy Young. "You're losin'!" Herbert Muhammad quickly silenced Rahaman. "People hear that and they start believin' it," Ali's manager said. "Now keep quiet."

Ken Norton trailed the champion across the ring after the 15th round of their fight. "I beat you! I beat you!" he called to Ali. Then he turned to his own corner and leaped triumphantly into the arms of his handlers.

But Ali still had his title. He had it, that is, if he wanted it. And he had it despite four uninspired defenses—against Young, Jean-Pierre Coopman, Richard Dunn and Norton—and a farcical exhibition with a Japanese wrestler.

In Istanbul three days after the Norton fight, which others besides the challenger thought Ali had lost, the champ announced yet another retirement. "It has been my lifetime dream to become a champion and retire from the ring and then use my influence for Allah," he said. "I have many people advising me to fight a few more times. I do not want to lose a fight, and if I keep boxing I may lose. I may gain much money, but the love of the Moslems and the hearts of my people are more valuable than personal gain. So I am going to stop while I am still winning."

But soon there was talk of his defending his title against Duane Bobick. Or George Foreman. Or Norton. Or....

As a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, Tony Dorsett was so shy he wanted to quit school and go home to Aliquippa, Pa. As a senior he gave a Pitt tear-away jersey to Gerald Ford and, after a pleasant chat, remarked that the President "seemed like a nice person." Football may not always build character, but it certainly can do wonders for the social graces.

Dorsett's self-assurance shot forward with each astonishing performance on the gridiron, and by the time he had played his last regular-season game—a socko finish against Penn State—he was walking comfortably, if not with kings, at least with heads of state.

In four years of running with the football for Pitt—first as the timid 157-pound freshman, finally as the 190-pound presidential pal—Dorsett set 13 NCAA records, tied three others, established 27 school records and became the college game's alltime leader in rushing and scoring. In his senior year he ran for 1,948 yards, a record-setting effort that earned him the Heisman Trophy. He had surpassed Archie Griffin's career ground-gaining record by the seventh game of his final season, and with his 224 yards against Penn State he became the first college back to rush for 6,000 yards. Dorsett simply ran past all the other prolific runners and scorers in history—Griffin, Glenn Davis, Ed Marinaro—to a spot in the statistical columns all his own. And it appears that's what he had in mind all the time, or at least ever since he conquered the freshman whips and jingles.

"Every time I do something that a lot of people recognize, I'm going to take pride in it," he said. "And no matter how long I've been in this game, I'll take pride in every record I set. I wanted to be known as No. 1, and I want to be known as that as long as I live."

Cincinnati Reds Shortstop Dave Concepcion had tried showering before games as a means of washing away a batting slump. This time he decided that drying himself off first might be more effective. So, just for laughs, he crawled into the huge clubhouse clothes dryer before a game with the Chicago Cubs. Teammate Pat Zachry thought the gag might be improved if he pretended to turn the machine on. But somehow the machine did go on. Concepcion was spun through a dozen or so revolutions before he was rescued. Singed, dazed, but certainly warmed up, he took the field—and lined out three hits.

You feel you've got a lot going for you now?" an interviewer asked the Bird.

"Well," the Bird replied, "my car's still going good."

During a baseball season when most of the talking was done by lawyers and agents, it was nice to have the Bird—Detroit rookie Pitcher Mark Fidrych—around to show that there are still some innocents abroad. The Bird's eccentricities, coupled with an unsuspected ability, made him a drawing card comparable even to Sandy Koufax. Games that the Bird started drew an average of 33,000 customers. And the 21-year-old Fidrych was good enough to win 19 times, against nine losses, and become the American League's Rookie of the Year.

The Bird talks to baseballs: "Flow, gotta flow now, gotta flow"; to himself: "C'mon, gotta keep it down. Let it fly!"; and to almost anyone in a language pretty much his own. "It gives me a rush!" is one of his favorite exclamations. He kneels to pat the mound smooth of imperfections left there by opposing pitchers. He shakes hands with his infielders after they have accomplished something he deems worthy of acclaim. And he is not inhibited by an audience. Once, while warming up in the bullpen before a game, he discovered that an item was missing from his apparel. He reached into his back pocket, withdrew his plastic protective cup and, in full view of the spectators, dropped his trousers and installed the device in its intended location. "I forgot," the Bird explained.

The Canada Cup was unabashedly devised as a means of establishing once and for all the superiority of Canadian hockey. Five other nations—the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, the United States, Finland and Sweden—were invited to compete in a two-week tournament. For the occasion, Canada assembled its "greatest team ever," which included Guy Lafleur, Denis Potvin, the various Bobbys—Orr, Hull and Clarke—and 21 other top professionals. Said the tournament managing director, Sam Pollock, referring to past embarrassments at the hands of Soviet teams, "This time we'll have zero excuses if we don't win."

The Canadians were embarrassed early in the proceedings when Czechoslovakia shut them out 1-0. Then they rallied to defeat the Soviets and reach the best-of-three finals against the Czechs. Canada won two straight, the second in overtime, and walked off as the first winner of its own cup.

If the tournament did not clearly establish the superiority of Canadian hockey, it did point up once more the appeal of international competition. "Let's face it," said Team Canada Coach Scotty Bowman, "people are going to demand international hockey."

At 22 he was the youngest golfer on the professional tour—tall, blond, supremely confident. If he was not always properly deferential to his elders, Jerry Pate had an explanation: "When people say I'm cocky, I ask them, 'Where would I be if I didn't believe in myself?' " And as he stood in the rough, among the pine trees alongside the 18th fairway at the Atlanta Athletic Club's Highland course, Pate had to draw on every ounce of that self-belief.

It was the 72nd and final hole of the U.S. Open, and he needed a par 4 to become the first tour rookie since Jack Nicklaus in 1962 to win the tournament. But he was in the rough, among the pines, and the green was 190 yards away, protected, it seemed to him, by a water hazard with the dimensions of Lake Superior. Only minutes earlier John Mahaffey, the tournament leader entering the final round, had also driven into the rough, then dropped his second shot into the drink. His chance to win went down with the ball, so he stood nearby waiting to see how Pate would respond to the same predicament. The Open leaders now were veteran players Tom Weiskopf and Al Geiberger. They, too, waited for Pate. A bogey, which seemed inevitable under the circumstances, would leave the three of them tied and precipitate a playoff the following day.

It was growing dark as Pate sized up the situation. The huge crowd of 30,000 in grandstands bordering the green seemed ominously quiet. Pate would go for broke as Mahaffey had done before him; he would gamble on clearing the water. "I had to," he would say later. Pate reached for his five-iron. His ball cleared the hazard and headed for the flag, rolling dead within two feet of the hole. It was one of the best and most dramatic shots in the 76-year history of the Open.

On his walk to the green Pate inquired of USGA officials if, indeed, it was true that he could take two putts and still win. Yes, he was told, that was true. He needed only one.

It was once the passer's game. Baugh's game. Graham's. Waterfield's. Van Brocklin's. Unitas'. Tarkenton's. But no more. Now it is the runner's game, and 1976 was testimony to the change from hand to foot. With O.J. rambling to the fore after some early-season dreadfuls and with a herd of remarkably swift and agile new running backs afoot, pro football had made the transition from artillery to infantry. It had done so possibly because of the high mortality rate among the cannoneers. A score or more of quarterbacks suffered injuries of varying gravity during the year, and one of the finest and newest—Atlanta's Steve Bartkowski—was out for the season before it began.

The plague of injuries emphasized the peculiar vulnerability of the quarterback. With his arm in the air and his feet planted on the ground, he is as exposed to disabling attack as an overturned turtle. In recent seasons a stress on defense, where the best and the biggest now play, has compounded his defenselessness. And the league's crackdown of late on holding violations has deprived him of even that illicit protection.

The sack, in which the quarterback is pounced upon before he can release the ball, has become a crowd pleaser, and the sackers relish their newfound celebrity. "When I get a sack, it really fires me up to get another," says Baltimore Defensive End Fred Cook. "I guess I get myself into a sadistic state of mind."

But it would be unfair to suggest that the runners have stolen the spotlight by default. No, there are simply too many good ones for that to be the case. In 1976 a dozen surpassed 1,000 yards, once the province of Hall of Fame candidates. In addition to Simpson and the young veterans—Baltimore's Lydell Mitchell, Minnesota's Chuck Foreman, Pittsburgh's Franco Harris and Los Angeles' Lawrence McCutcheon—such tyros as Chicago's Walter Payton, San Francisco's Delvin Williams and Washington's Mike Thomas all crossed the 1,000-yard barrier. Payton, whose late-season duel with Simpson for the league rushing title highlighted a modest comeback season for the Bears, was properly deferential in such company. "It's an honor competing against O. J. Simpson," he said. "Or a challenge. It's a whole lot of stuff mixed into one."

Pressure defines the essential nature of athletic heroism. If an athlete cannot contend with it, neither strength nor skill will avail him, and few athletes have borne a greater burden of pressure than the 22-year-old Austrian skier Franz Klammer in the Winter Olympic Games. As he crouched in the starting hut at the top of the 3,020-meter course down the face of Patscherkofel above Innsbruck, he carried not only the weight of his own reputation as the world's premier downhill skier but also his nation's as the world capital of the sport. The fate of the host country's winter tourist industry was said to rest with him. Only a gold medal would satisfy such critical needs and Klammer knew it.

Klammer had won a downhill race on the Patscherkofel in 1975, but the course had been altered for the Olympics. Now it had flatter turns that made it approximately 10 seconds faster. To add to his burden, Klammer had drawn starting position No. 15, last among the top seeds in the downhill. All of his principal competitors had preceded him down the icy and irregular slope. The 27-year-old Swiss skier Bernhard Russi was the leader at 1:46.06, fulfilling a Klammer prophecy that Russi was the man to beat.

Klammer almost literally flew out of the start and careened down the hill like a bouncing ball. Still, he was .19 of a second behind Russi's pace after the first half of the run. He took even more chances in the next section but slipped farther behind the pace. In the last 1,000 meters he was confronted by the Compression, a jump followed by a dip that had proved breathtakingly dangerous to his predecessors. The Johannesweg turn lay beyond that, and it had already claimed two skiers. As he ripped through this part of the course, Klammer nearly went out of control, but he regained his balance to execute the turn. Then he sailed over the last jump and sped to the finish where Russi, hands over his eyes so he could not see the timer, was waiting. It was a daring run, but was it fast enough? Yes. The timer showed that Klammer had beaten Russi by .33 of a second. The mountain exploded in an avalanche of cheering.

He was born prematurely in 1931 in a farmhouse at Fabens, Texas. He weighed 2½ pounds. "He's going to die," the doctor told Willie Shoemaker's parents. "We'll make the arrangements in the morning." But the Shoemakers would not hear of it. His grandmother placed the baby in a shoe box. She lit the oven and put the box inside, leaving the oven door ajar so the child could breathe.

Shoemaker survived, but he never did grow very big. At 45 he weighs less than 100 pounds and stands only 4'11", but in the world he inhabits, the jockey's world, he is the biggest man alive. On March 14, 1976 at Santa Anita, aboard Royal Derby II, the Shoe rode to his 7,000th victory, a racing achievement so prodigious it is not likely to be equaled. "I was at Arlington Park the day Shoe got his 3,500th," recalls a fellow jock, Johnny Sellers. "He walked in from the winner's circle and threw his whip on a bench. The other jockeys were watching him. He stretched and said, 'I hope the next 3,500 come as easy as the first 3,500.' Everyone chuckled. The notion of 7,000 wins was unbelievable."

What Shoemaker has accomplished in 28 years of racing is almost unbelievable. He has won 687 stakes races, 133 more than his nearest competitor, Eddie Arcaro. His winning average (.240) is the highest among all topflight jockeys, and he has won nearly 1,000 races more than the next biggest winner, Johnny Longden.

Shoemaker rode the first of his nearly 30,000 races in April 1949 at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, Calif. He was 17 then, and his first victory came in his third race. He was riding only because Trainer George Reeves convinced the stewards that he was an apprentice deserving of a good mount. "He has a touch with horses that few have," Reeves said then. And the Shoe has never lost it.