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A sprinter frustrated by politics in '72 and '76 is back

By LArry EldridgeSports editor of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 1980


The Olympics always seem to succeed in spite of themselves, and if you want a good example of the reason, think about the courage and determination of an athlete like James Gilkes.

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Denied his chance at both Munich and Montreal because of politics -- the latter time after a desperate bid to compete as a "man without a country" -- the great Guyanese sprinter could hardly have been blamed for throwing in the towel. But here he is in Moscow, ready once more for the big chance and exuding confidence that he can still win the medals he never got a crack at before.

"I may not be as fast as I was in 1976, but I'm stronger now," says the former Southern California star, who has lived in the United States for seven years but still competes for his native country. "Also, I know how to conserve myself better. I'm very confident I can win both races."

That's no idle boast, either. Gilkes (pronounced jilx) was one of the top favorites at Montreal before his country walked out in support of the African boycott, and he has continued to race well in the interim. The 200 meters is his No. 1 event, but only a couple of months ago he showed his speed in the 100 when he lost by a hair to Stanley Floyd in the US nationals.

There are many other great sprinters here, as defending champions Hasely Crawford of Trinidad (100) and Don Quarrie of Jamaica (200), Pan-Am hero Silvio Leonard of Cuba, European champion Pietro Mennea of Italy. Allan Wells of Great Britain, and several Eastern European speedsters, but Gilkes has shown that he still belongs right up there in that group. And in view of all that has happened to him, he certainly ranks at the very top as the sentimental favorite.

The saga of Gilkes's Olympic tribulations begins in August of 1972, when several black countries were threatening to boycott the games unless Rhodesia was expelled because of its racial policies, as South Africa had been earlier. In view of the uncertainty of the situation, Guyana, a small country in South America, sent only three athletes to Munich. The rest of the team, including Gilkes, stayed home to await word -- and when Rhodesia was in fact banned on the eve of the games it was too late to get them to Munich in time.

"I would have had a chance," Gilkes told me as we sat in the Olympic village here looking back over his career on the eve of his long-delayed debut in the games.

"It was nothing like Montreal, though," he added. "Montreal was mine. I feel I definitely would have won the 200 and I had a good chance in the 100."

James was certainly one of the top favorites in '76 after a starry career at USC, including the NCAA 200-meter championship in 1974, and of course this made things much tougher for him than for most athletes caught up in the boycott.

"The whole thing was a nightmare," he recalled, "especially since my country was the last one to pull out -- right before the games started. All that training down the drain. And it was so close. I had seen my heat sheets -- even planned my heats. It was really tough."

Even this wasn't the end, though. Grabbing at a straw, he applied as an individual, only to be frustrated when the International Olympic Committee, in its typical fashion, managed to effectively refuse him by dragging its feet until his events were over and the question became moot.

What Gilkes didn't realize, of course, was that the IOC, in its imperious way , is interested primarily in maintaining the status quo power structure and probably believes, to paraphrase the old political saying, that the games are too important to be left to the athletes. Even though it had brought up the idea in the first place, therefore, the committee quickly decided it wanted no part of opening the door for athletes to compete as individuals (it made the same decisions this year in the case of the US-led boycott).

"I had hope when I applied," Gilkes recalled. "They had made the announcement on TV. It was in the news. I thought they were telling the truth. I didn't know they were just making an offer and hoping nobody would take them up on it.

"I applied the day our team pulled out, but they never replied to me until it was too late. I tried to go to meetings but I was prohibited. I wrote them every day. Then, when my events were going on, they said, 'We're so very, very sorry. We tried to get in touch with you. You should have applied earlier.'