They are links in the Olympic chain, separated by nearly 50 years. Both contributors to Atlanta’s long tradition of foot speed.
The times they ran were very close, the difference measured in fractions of a second.
The times in which they ran, though, were quite different.
A member of the 2016 4X100 sprint relay team, Christian Coleman knew nothing about Mel Pender, but was eager to learn. A rising junior, he’ll be taking 16 credit hours at Tennessee this semester. But there is always room from some added education, even if it doesn’t fit on a transcript.
Having run the same event and winning gold in 1968, Pender knew just enough about Coleman that he, too, was up for a meeting. He had seen the kid finish second in the 100 and 200 at the NCAA Championships and declared then that Coleman was an Olympian in the making.
Being at their common core competitors, of course there would be some sizing up to do first.
Given a magic claim check to regain his prime for just a moment, wouldn’t Pender love to run against this slick newcomer?
“Oh, yeah,” he said.
“I think I could give you a run for your money,” Coleman said softly.
“Oh, I think you could,” the elder replied, for a moment forgetting the long list of worn-out joints and his winning battle over blood and prostate cancers. “But you better get out of those blocks quick and don’t let me get ahead of you, baby.”
Coleman, 20, ran the second leg of 4X100 for the U.S. in the Olympic qualifying round, and was replaced in the final by the 34-year-old Justin Gatlin. The mix didn’t work. Initially, the U.S. finished a disappointing third — but even the prospect of a bronze medal evaporated when the baton hand-off between Mike Rodgers and Gatlin was ruled premature and the U.S. team was disqualified. For a third straight Olympics, the U.S. men did not medal in the event.
Pender’s second leg of his relay in ’68 was part of a world-record, gold-medal final. Those were the loud and tense Mexico City games, in which Tommie Smith and John Carlos provided their signature civil rights protest moment atop the medals podium. An army officer at the time — and Carlos’ roommate at the Games — Pender was caught between military correctness and the strong urge to join the protest.
Six months from now Coleman will find himself in Knoxville, staying in school and refining his speed as a collegian. Six months after his gold medal performance in Mexico City, Capt. Pender was in Vietnam. Yes, very different times — Pender is chronicling his in a soon-to-be released book, “Expression of Hope.”
Oddly enough, when sprinters meet to eat, it doesn’t have to be fast food. Although Coleman did, appropriately, order the “Swifty’s Dream” sandwich off the menu at Smyrna’s Muss & Turner’s.
They both got out of the blocks quickly when the conversation began. Some of the following was edited and shortened for the sake of space and clarity.
So, compare your views of that ill-fated 4x100 this year.
CC: "I was in the stands, a little disappointed I wasn't running. I felt like we had some of the fastest guys in the world out there and thought we had a pretty good chance to win. I thought when Justin got the stick we would take control of the race.
“It seemed like (Gatlin) didn’t get out. Looked like Mike ran up on him. I didn’t realize they had passed the stick before the exchange zone.
“From that moment (of being disqualified) it was more so motivation than disappointment. I was motivated for next year and for the next Olympics.”
“It’s fuel to the fire for the next go-round.”
MP: "We're never supposed to lose a relay. Never. Not the United States. When I saw you run the first qualifier, you ran 37 something, (37.65). It was fast. I thought you guys looked great.
“Then the finals, I was saying to myself, how could they pass the baton (early)? That got me.
“And I couldn’t understand why they would change the team. Why would you substitute? Gatlin said he was hurt, his ankle was bothering him. Just because Gatlin’s a top sprinter, that doesn’t win a medal for you if you’re hurt.”
Here sits Christian at 20, what were you doing at 20, Mel?
MP: "I was with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, jumping out of airplanes. I didn't run track until I was 25, when I was stationed in Okinawa (Japan).
“They found me playing football. A coach asked me to run against the Japanese Olympic team that was visiting; they were getting ready for the 1964 Tokyo Games. The coach said I want you to go run. I won the race.
“Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was a whole different ballgame. For me to make an Olympic team where I came from? That was like being president of the United States. In my neighborhood they didn’t know anything about the Olympics. I didn’t know who Jesse Owens was until I started running track.”
You knew then that you could run on the world stage?
MP: "Yes. And (laughing) I had met this Japanese girl in Tokyo and I said I got to come back to Tokyo." (Pender made the 1964 team but an injury kept him from medaling).
“When I came back (from the ’64 Games) I went to Officer Candidate School, straight to Ft. Riley, Kan., and then straight to Vietnam for six months. For a whole year I didn’t run track until they pulled me out again for 1968.”
What was your view of the protests in ’68?
MP: "What they did to John Carlos and Tommie Smith was wrong (they were kicked out of the Olympic Village after the protest). They were there to make a solid gesture. Trying to let people know we're Americans, man. No matter what color your skin is, our blood runs red, same color as your blood. So, why can't we have the same opportunities?"
CC: "What was the atmosphere like after they did that?"
MP: "Oh, everybody was ready to kick butt. Black athletes in 1968, their hearts were filled with victory because of what happened. We wanted to show the world that we were the best. We wanted to show the world that we were humans, we were not second-class citizens."
CC: (Spotting some jewelry on his lunch companion) "What are those rings for?"
MP: "This one is for the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. This is from the Olympic team – looks like a class ring, doesn't it? They give y'all a ring?"
CC: "I think we're supposed to go to Washington, D.C., to get it, soon."
MP: "That's another thing, we never went to the White House. You know why, don't you? (Leaving unsaid that it was because of the protests). We were trying to get President Obama, before he was out of there, to bring us to the White House. We won a lot of medals in 1968, set a lot of world records. But we never got to go to the White House."
Christian, do you take it for granted, being able to run faster than most of humankind?
CC: "I don't take it for granted. You get to a certain point, either you have it or you don't. It is a God-given talent to be able to run that fast.
“When you have talent and mix that with working hard, you can produce some really, really fast times.”
What’s the future of U.S. sprinting?
MP: "It's right there (pointing to Christian). He and Jarrion (Arkansas' Jarrion Lawson). They are going to be our world-class sprinters. All you have to do is maintain and work hard and keep that attitude you got.
“The Jamaicans, they are losing out (as Usain Bolt contemplates retirement). You can be top of the world, I’m telling you, man, you’re gonna be No. 1.
“I’m 78 years old, but God has blessed me to be able to accomplish my dreams. Any kid can do that if he sets his mind to it, sets goals for himself. You’ll be back in Tokyo (for the 2020 Games). I’ll see you in Tokyo, if I’m walking.”
CC: "Hopefully I'll make it."
MP: "You will."