A sprinter frustrated by politics in '72 and '76 is back
Moscow — 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.
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.'
"Well, I applied as early as I could -- and they had time. They had three or four days before the 100 started, and even if they couldn't do that, they had a whole week before the 200."
Not too surprisingly, Gilkes has some strong opinions on the whole question of politics and sports.
"These aren't supposed to be political games," he said. "But it keeps getting worse all the time. Look at the Taiwan issue. When they tell a country what flag and name it can use, I think that's political. They forget that the athletes are what it's supposed to be all about."
There's a bit of irony here, since Gilkes competes these days for the Jon Carlos Youth Foundation -- and Carlos, of course, is best remebered for being part of the black protest at Mexico City in 1968. But James doesn't see that in quite the same light.
"He was just trying to make a statement," Gilkes said. "When Valery Borzov won in 1972, the Russians made a white-black thing out of it. He put his hands up in the air and they wrote articles saying white men were faster than blacks. But nothing happened to him or to them."
After Montreal, Gilkes went back to Los Angeles and embarked upon some difficult times. He had graduated earlier in the year with a degree in business administration and was working as manager of the university's copying center. But he couldn't bring himself to get back on a track, and he knew there were now problems at home because of his "man without a country" bid.
"I was bitter," he said. "I thought of all that wasted time. And as for going home to visit, I knew there would be trouble. Not with the government or my association. I haven't had any problems with them. But I've gotten into a lot of arguments, and my younger sisters were hassled at school by kids yelling things like 'Your brotherhs a traitor.'
"But that's all past now. I stayed away for nearly a year but I've been back several times since then, and nobody says anything anymore except those who agreed with me in the first place."
By 1978 Gilkes was married, working full time, and had started work toward a master's degree in public administration. He had also been away from running for an entire year. Not many men in this position would have had the inner strength to go through all it takes to try for the top again, but James is obviously not your ordinary man. He made the big push -- earning the No. 3 world ranking in the 200 in both 1978 and '79, and is now getting ready for the attempt to climax his career here.
"They key for me is the start," he said. "I could always accelerate in the second half of a race, but the start was my problem. I've been concentrating almost entirely on my starts here and I'm much better now. If I can stay with these guys at the start, I should win.
"I may not have as much speed as some of them for one race," he added, "but I can keep doing what I can do over and over agin. And in the end, whatever it takes to win the final, I think I can do it."
This question of stamina is something casual observers don't think about in the dashes, but it's important because the 100 and 200 aren't single races -- each one consists of four races packed into two days of intense competition, with the semifinal and final just a couple of hours apart. And this is where Gilkes expects his strength to pay off.
Whether it does or not, either in today's 100 final or next weekhs 200, on would assume that this is Gilke's last shot but he would be wrong.
"I plan to be back in 1984 -- probably running the 400," he said. "I'll be 31. But the European athletes keep going that long regularly. The only ones I see quitting early are the Americans. If you take care of your body and have the right temperament, it doesn't matter that much. Age is a state of mind. I'm 27 now, but I feel 16.
"Look at Willie Davenport. He competed at 31 and won a medal. And look at Irean Szewinska [referring to the 34-year- old Polish marvel seeking to win a medal in a fifth consecutive Olympics]. Why should I quit? I want to compete in two Olympics. One isn't enough. I want two medals here and two more in '84.
"After all," he said with a smile, "I figure they already owe me one. At least one."