In early 1938, 20-year-old Payton Jordan was sitting in his room at the University of Southern California when one of his fraternity brothers handed him a letter that had just arrived from the Soviet Union. Jordan, a junior, was a star on the Trojans track team and one of the world’s top sprinters. The letter was from a young Soviet runner, Gavriel Korobkov, who had read about Jordan in a German magazine.
“Dear Paton [sic],” the letter began, “I am a sprinter in Soviet Union and would like to know very much what you do. I beg of you, please give me your training program. I’d be gracious to you forever if you help me.”
Jordan put the letter aside for a few days then responded. He described in detail his daily training regimen, his diet, and the strengthening and flexibility exercises he used. He sent the letter off to Korobkov and didn’t think about it again for 20 years.
In 1958, the American national team was invited to Moscow for a dual meet with the powerful Soviet squad. Jordan, who a year earlier had been named head coach at Stanford after building a national-championship program at Occidental College, was a member of the American coaching staff.
When the U.S. team arrived at the airport, a member of the Soviet entourage walked up to Jordan and introduced himself. “Do you remember receiving a letter from a Russian many years ago?” the man asked. It was Gavriel Korobkov, now coach of the Soviet national team.
That moment kindled a friendship that four years later produced what the San Francisco Examiner described as “the greatest track meet of all time.” During two remarkable days in July 1962, only weeks removed from a Cold War confrontation that would threaten the world, athletes from the United States and Soviet Union competed at Stanford Stadium. For two days, the specter of nuclear war was replaced by the spectacle of international brotherhood. Tens of thousands of fans who came to root for the red, white and blue ended up cheering as enthusiastically for the Reds.
In early 1961, Stanford’s athletic department was reeling from a disastrous 0-10 football season the previous fall. Fans had stayed away in droves, leaving the department $100,000 in debt, a huge deficit at a time when a football ticket cost $3.50 and the entire athletic budget was less than $1 million. Athletic director Al Masters desperately needed a new source of revenue.
He approached Jordan, who a year earlier had organized the successful U.S. Olympic track and field trials at Stanford Stadium, and asked about the possibility of bringing the Soviets to Stanford for a dual meet against the U.S. team.
“It’s possible,” Jordan said. “I have some good friendships. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can put on a meet that will make money, particularly with the mystique of the Russians.”
Jordan knew he first needed the approval of the U.S. State Department. Unfortunately, the timing could not have been worse. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in an ideological and political stare-down. Both countries had amassed huge nuclear arsenals, aimed mostly at each other. Several months earlier, the Soviets had shot down and captured U.S. spy plane pilot Gary Powers, provoking an international crisis. In Berlin, the Soviets were preparing to seal off the city and erect a wall that would symbolically and literally separate East from West.
In this climate Jordan contacted Harold Howland, a deputy assistant secretary of state he had worked with in 1955 when Jordan had spent three months in Athens advising Greek track and field coaches and training Greek athletes for the ’56 Olympic Games. (A year later, the Greek team broke seven national records in their best Olympic performance since 1896.) Howland pledged his support for what he described as a “cultural exchange.”
Jordan’s other concern was the bias of the Amateur Athletic Union, then the governing body for track and field in the United States, which favored Eastern cities for high-profile meets. The only previous U.S.-Soviet meet on American soil, held in 1959 in Philadelphia, had been a disappointment. It had drawn only 54,000 people over two days and lost money. Jordan feared that if he used his influence to get the Soviets to come back, the meet might end up on the East Coast instead of Stanford. He needed leverage, and called on his Russian friend for help.
“Gabe, I want you to come to Stanford for an international meet between our two countries,” Jordan wrote Korobkov. “I’m going to extend the invitation through the AAU, but I need you to tell them that you will only come to Stanford, because sometimes they want to keep these meets in the East.”
A few weeks later, Jordan got his reply. “We will do this,” Korobkov wrote. “We will do this.”
Armed with the support of the State Department and the knowledge that the Soviets were in his camp, Jordan took his plan to the AAU. He invited Pincus “Pinky” Sober, the organization’s track and field chairman, to see what the University had to offer. He introduced Sober to school and community leaders and showed him Stanford Stadium, where Jordan’s dual meets routinely drew 10,000 to 20,000 fans.
Before Sober left, Jordan made a groundbreaking request. Typically, the AAU paid all meet expenses and retained all proceeds. Jordan told him the Stanford athletic department was putting on the meet to pull itself out of debt. He said Stanford would agree to pay all the costs if the AAU would split the net profit 50-50. “I guarantee you we will fill the stadium and make money,” he told Sober.
A week later, the AAU “reluctantly” agreed to the deal, with the proviso that before the split, Stanford would cover a $53,000 debt the AAU had incurred the year before to transport the national team to the U.S.S.R.
Planning began. Associate athletic director Bob Young was put in charge of operations and security; assistant athletic director Chuck Taylor handled arrangements for the athletes; ticket manager Eunice DuPrau was responsible for ticket sales; and sports information director Don Liebendorfer promoted the event.
In the weeks leading up to the meet, Jordan received a flurry of questions from Korobkov and his superiors, Victor Sadovski, the honorable federal secretary of light athletics, and Leonid Khomenkov, the Soviet Union’s minister of sport. How high above sea level is the stadium floor? What are the typical temperatures and humidity in mid-July? How strong are the winds? What angle does the sun assume? What is the composition of the track?
Jordan had earned a reputation for attending to such details, and was known in the press as “the P.T. Barnum of track and field.” Among his innovations: introducing athletes over a loudspeaker prior to an event; putting athletes’ names on the backs of their jerseys; erecting rotating signboards so spectators could follow the results in field events; and ringing the track with colorful pennants.
As the meet neared, Jordan worked until 3 or 4 o’clock every morning preparing meticulous instructions for the meet’s judges, timers, inspectors, marshals and meteorologists.
He recruited one of his Stanford athletes, incoming freshman Bob Stoecker, to be a so-called implement retriever. The job required Stoecker to collect and return the shot, discus, hammer and javelin after each throw, but with a twist. Because all the field events were held on the stadium’s grassy interior, Jordan was concerned that the competitions would mar the appearance of the field. Whenever a divot was made after a throw, Jordan instructed, Stoecker, ’67, MA ’71, was to run over, fill the hole with sand and spray-paint it green.
Donald Kennedy, then a second-year biology professor at Stanford and later the President of the University, signed on as a lap counter. “I was terrified,” Kennedy recalled recently. “There had been a terrible incident at the previous meet in Philadelphia. People were lapping each other and the lap counter got mixed up and lost track of how many laps some of the runners had completed. In our meet, Pyotor Bolotnikov ran away with the 10,000-meter run. We had to keep straight who was in second and third place, when most of the field had been lapped. Fortunately, we got it right.”
The demands of television posed another threat to Jordan’s preparation. ABC’s Wide World of Sports would carry the meet to a national audience. Producer Roone Arledge wanted to position cameramen and announcers all over the field, but Jordan refused. “Remember, my first obligation is to the athletes,” Jordan told Arledge. “My second is to the fan who pays money coming in the gate. I’ve seen what TV can do to a track meet. It clutters up the field and destroys the whole atmosphere, and blocks the view of the crowd. I’m not going to let that happen.” ABC was limited to two roving cameras on the field. Arledge would later send Jordan a congratulatory note for “a beautifully run track meet.”
Elsewhere, the world looked on anxiously as the United States and U.S.S.R. edged closer to confrontation. A summit meeting between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had gone badly. Soon after that Kennedy wrote in Life magazine that the U.S. government was examining public buildings suitable for use as fallout shelters. In early July, days before the track meet at Stanford, a team of Soviet technicians was dispatched to Cuba to oversee the installation of nuclear missiles aimed at U.S. cities. Those sites, when discovered by American reconnaissance aircraft two months later, would result in a naval blockade of Cuba and a perilous 13-day standoff known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But no enmity faced the 61-person Soviet team and its coaches when they arrived at Stanford on July 14. The next day, a group of Stanford students invited some of the Soviet athletes to play softball in the parking lot outside Stern Hall, where both the U.S. and Soviet teams were housed. Over the next several days, the Soviets attended the Ice Follies in San Francisco, went to the top of Nob Hill, drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, and ate lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf. They visited a Ford plant in Milpitas to see an American assembly line.
The Soviet and American athletes mingled throughout the week. They danced in a Stern Hall lounge and swam in the Stanford pool. They played soccer, attended banquets, sat for press conferences, and enjoyed dinners in private homes.
Although four KGB agents accompanied the Soviet team, there was little concern over security. Event sites were not screened in advance, and the athletes were allowed to go to private homes unaccompanied. There were no demonstrations or picketing at any of the events and practices or during the meet itself.
Jordan recalled in an interview recently that he and his crew sought to create an atmosphere of trust and friendship. “Our philosophy was, let’s entertain these people. Let’s treat them like human beings, like we want to be treated. It was a week of innocence and joy. People came with openness and without suspicion.”
The enthusiasm for the meet and the resultant ticket sales exceeded even Jordan’s high expectations. A two-day pass was priced at $6. Ticket lines in front of the athletic department stretched out onto the street. Crowds of up to 8,000 attended the teams’ practices at Angell Field. Anticipating a near sellout, Hal Williams, the stadium concessionaire, ordered 200,000 soft drinks, 50,000 hot dogs, 80,000 ice cream bars, 40,000 malted milks, 50,000 frozen orange juice sticks, 20,000 pennants, 6,000 hats and 100,000 programs.
Williams guessed right. On July 21, a Saturday, 72,500 fans showed up for the first day of the meet. The next day, another 81,000 poured into Stanford Stadium. It was the largest two-day total in history for a non-Olympic track meet.
The spectators—and more than 150 reporters—had come to see U.S. stars like sprinter Wilma Rudolph, broad jumper Ralph Boston and “Bullet” Bob Hayes, a sprinter who would later be a star receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. But the real draw was the Soviets, led by long jumper Igor Ter-ovanesian and high jumper Valery Brumel, both world-record holders. Brumel, a 20-year-old physical education student from Siberia, had not lost a competition in more than two years and he would go on to win the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Prior to the meet, he had dazzled coaches while performing “kick-ups” at Encina Gym, leaping high enough to put his foot into the basketball net, nearly 10 feet from the ground.
The high jump started at 4 o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Brumel passed at the opening height, 6-4 3/4, and again at 6-7. He cleared the next four heights on the first jump, missed once at 7-2 then cleared it easily on his second attempt. By this time every other competitor had been eliminated.
Brumel used the then-standard method known as the “straddle,” in which the jumper led with one foot and belly rolled over the bar. The revolutionary Fosbury flop, in which competitors arch their back over the bar with their legs trailing behind, would not be introduced for another six years. Brumel cleared 7-3 on the first try, and the bar was moved to a new world-record height—7-5, 16 inches higher than the top of Brumel’s head.
Anticipating the moment, the crowd went quiet. Brumel loped toward the jumping pit, gathered himself and leaped. He went up and over, barely brushing the bar. The bar quivered, then held. Brumel sprang out of the pit, arms raised in triumph, and the crowd exploded into a standing ovation that lasted more than five minutes.
American hammer thrower Harold Connolly set the meet’s other world record. Connolly had finished a disappointing eighth at the 1960 Olympic Games, and many experts thought he was washed up. But at Stanford he broke his own world record with a throw of 231-10.
Rudolph delighted the crowd with a victory in the 100 meters and a stirring come-from-behind anchor leg to win the 400-meter relay. Boston, whose world record had been eclipsed by Ter-ovanesian only months earlier, defeated his Soviet rival in the broad jump. Hayes sped to victory in the men’s 100 meters.
Soviet Tamara Press won both the shot put and discus, and provided one of the meet’s humorous moments. During the medal ceremony, Harold Berlinger, the 5-foot-3 head of the Pacific Association AAU, struggled to reach all the way up to Press as she stood on the first-place platform. She bent down, grabbed Berlinger under the armpits, and held him up while he put the medal over her head. Then she kissed his bald forehead, and the crowd went crazy.
Boston and Brumel were honored as track and field athletes of the year and took a victory lap to a warm ovation from the crowd. Now 65 and living in Atlanta, Boston recalls the electricity that accompanied that jog. “Here our countries were enemies and there was all this tension in the world, but there was no tension between the athletes,” Boston says. “Most of us felt that we were the true ambassadors. We forgot about our two governments and their shenanigans.”
The American men won by a score of 128-107. The Soviet women won 66-41.
After paying all the expenses and the AAU’s share, the Stanford athletic department netted almost $150,000. “It was the turning point for the department,” associate athletic director Young recalled years later in an interview with Campus Report. “It was the first big money we ever made.”
The plan for the closing ceremonies called for the teams to parade off the field and out of the south end of the stadium in separate lines. The two flag-bearers, American high jumper John Thomas and Soviet javelin thrower Viktor Tsybulenko, met in the middle of the field, shook hands, and started to lead their teams out. Then Tsybulenko turned to Thomas and said, “We go all way ’round, yes?”
The men embraced, and then the two lines of athletes did the same. Soviets and Americans waved their flags, blew kisses to the crowd and walked arm-in-arm in a spontaneous, unrehearsed celebration. The crowd stood and cheered the athletes all the way around the track. In the stands and on the field, people wept unabashedly.
Nobody wanted to leave. For nearly an hour, the Marine Corps Band played on—“Pomp and Circumstance,” the Soviet national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “God Bless America,” then, having run out of pre-scripted titles, improvised with several more festive tunes.
“It was probably the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen in sports,” remembers longtime Stanford play-by-play announcer Don Klein, who covered the meet on radio. “Two enemies ready to shoot missiles at each other were walking side by side, with their arms around each other, the full crowd rising. It was a tremendous emotional experience for anyone there.”
Jordan was standing off to one side of the field when Bob Brachman, a crusty old sportswriter from the San Francisco Examiner approached him, tears streaming down his face. “I’ve been covering sports for a long time,” he said, “and this is the first time I’ve ever cried at an athletic event.”
A Soviet sprinter tore off the team emblem from his running shirt and gave it to Kennedy, who gave the Russian his AAU judges’ patch. “It was just extraordinary,” Kennedy recalls. “We’re talking a serious phase in the Cold War here, and there was this magical moment of camaraderie.”
Bob Stoecker, the 18-year-old kid with the bucket of sand and green spray paint—who three years later would win the NCAA discus title—watched in disbelief. “It was mind-blowing,” he recalls.
Boston and Ter-ovanesian remain friends to this day. “That meet was a very, very important part of our lives,” says Boston. “Even after we stopped competing, we always talked about it.”
Ter-ovanesian, now first vice president of the Russian Athletic Federation, reflected on the meet in a recent phone interview from Moscow. “It was not two teams [that day],” he says. “It was one team.
“Today it sounds very sentimental. But in those days it was much more serious. Russian rockets were going into Cuba. We were two steps from war. Suddenly, such a warm meeting. It was a real example of how we can live in friendship; that we can compete and still live together.”
Jordan, 88 years old and living in Santa Barbara, Calif., says the lessons are still valid. “In this terrible time of hatred and mistrust in the world, there was this oasis of camaraderie. And out of it came an understanding that somehow had escaped us—that there is more good in man than bad, that we should try to embrace the best in everybody. I think the thousands who came to that meet were enriched and ennobled by the experience. In those two days, we opened a lot of minds and we opened a lot of hearts.”
GARY CAVALLI, '71, a former sports information director at Stanford, is a writer and executive director of the Emerald Bowl, a college football game played in San Francisco. He lives in Los Altos.