Scanning the internet I just came across the news that Olympic gold medalist Lee Evans is set to undergo surgery on a tumor in the pituitary gland area of his brain. While it doesn’t seem to be getting much play this is big news for the world of track and field – at least for those of us old enough to remember cinder tracks and hand timing.
Evans was a member of the San Jose State track team and the Santa Clara Valley Youth Village Track Club – the precursor to clubs such as the Santa Monica Track Club (featuring Carl Lewis); H.S.I. (featuring Maurice Greene) and the Racers Track Club (featuring Usain Bolt). The SCVYV was one of the first clubs to feature a stable of super sprinters that included Bill Gaines, John Carlos, Ronnie Ray Smith, Tommie Smith and Lee Evans – better known to fans as “Speed City”.
While many remember the ’68 Mexico City Olympics for the “Black Power” salute of Smith and Carlos on the 200 meter victory stand, the Games was also the gateway into the modern era of sprinting. Held on an “artificial” track, instead of cinder for the first time in the Olympics, sprinters and hurdlers turned in superlative times, and Evans had a hand in two WR setting performances that held up for TWENTY years!
First he circled the track in his signature 400 meters in 43.86 seconds – obliterating the 44 second barrier. That WR held up until Butch Reynolds finally lowered the mark in 1987! To this day, forty three years later, only nine men have broken the 44 second barrier and Evans still stands as #7 All Time. He ended the meet by running a 43.9 anchor leg on the U.S. 4×4 that finished in 2:56.16 – dropping the then WR by a whopping 3.5 seconds! That mark wasn’t approached until a Reynolds anchored squad tied the mark at the 1988 Games, and it was not until 1992 that the record finally fell – to an all-star Olympic squad that included Michael Johnson, Quincy Watts, and Steve Lewis, all Olympic 400 meter gold medalists!
After his retirement from competition, Evans went to Africa to lend his knowledge and expertise to those less fortunate on the continent – showing that he was not just a tremendous competitor, but also a great humanitarian.
For those growing up around track in the ‘60’s, 70’s and into the late 80’s Evans was an icon and the gold standard for the 400 meters. His marks were legendary on the order of Bob Beamon’s 29 foot long jump. Evans’ name evoked images of something surreal, on the order of Usain Bolt’s Beijing runs. For us “old timers” Evans in still a legend and an icon, and I’m sure the thoughts and prayers of many go out him. Too often we forget those that came before until after their passing. Evans is still a young man at 63 years old, and I wish him success in his surgery and a full recovery. I want this to be praise for a great life and career that he will be able to read and enjoy. Our prayers are with you Lee.