“There will never be another night like it,” said Jim Hines, the soon-to-be Olympic champion when he ran history’s first legal 9.9 that night. “That was the greatest sprinting series in the history of track and field.”
Set the stage. 20 June 1968. Sacramento, California. The United States AUU Track and Field Championships.
In the span of two and a half hours, the world record of 10 seconds was broken by three men and tied by seven others. That was the Night of Speed.
Charlie Greene won the final and thus the national title in a wind-aided 10 seconds followed in order by Jim Hines, Lennox Miller (JAM), Roger Bambuck (FRA), Ronny Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Billy Gaines and Larry Questad.
That was their third race in 150 minutes and understandably they were tired. But what happened in the preliminary rounds was simply a historic feat.
In the first heat, Hines ran a 9.8 but the wind was measured at an illegal three metres per second. Greene and Bambuck tied the world record of 10 seconds in last heat.
Hines won the first semi-final in a tight finish with Smith. Their times were announced as 9.9. The wind was legal. Jim Hines had just become the first man in the world to break the 10 seconds barrier.
Greene won the second semi-final and then went on to tie Hines’s 9.9 record in the final.
35 years on and the organisers of the 2004 US Olympic Trials in Sacramento in co-operation with USATF have decided to host a Night of Speed Reunion just prior to the IAAF World Championships in Paris.
Hines, Greene, Miller, Bambuck, Pender and Questad all gathered for what was a superb show more than a mere press conference.
Hines, who now runs a foundation whose aim is to address the concerns of minorities especially children and senior in Oakland, California, proudly declared:
“That race was the greatest race ever and it made us the greatest runners. Nothing similar has happened since and is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. I was the first man to break the 10 seconds barrier which is a major achievement in itself.
“Anything else comes after that.”
Pender who is now retired from the military army and organises track and field meets for kids in the USA said: “We trained very hard at the time. We trained 2 to 3 times a day sometimes even in the evenings. We were team mates. We were friends then and are still friends now. We’ll be friends for life.
“It was very difficult to be a black sprinter in 1968. One has to think back about the situation with Kennedy and King being killed. We weren’t just black people. We were Americans and we were the greatest ever.”
And Hines to agree: “It was a much better sport then. It was all about ourselves, team-spirit and togetherness.
“Today, it’s more about individuality. At the time we had 12 to 14 athletes who could all have won the Olympic title. Today the USA have very few of these talents.
“With things the way they are today, I tell you the USA will not win the Olympic title in Athens next year.”
Charlie Greene who won the Night of Speed race but went on to win bronze at the Mexico Olympic Games proved to be the real character of the lot.
“We raced because it was important to ourselves. We had style. We were mentally tough. We were not afraid of the challenge. We were not afraid. If you are afraid to lose you will never be a good sprinter.
“We had T A L E N T. If you don’t have talent you can’t be a sprinter. If you are not fast just go and talk to your parents.
“None of the sprinters of today would have made the night of speed final. To make that final, you had to either break or tie the world record. Has anybody ever seen that again since?
“We are the greatest group of sprinters any era has ever had. If Jim was to run today with the track of today and the spikes of today, he would probably run something like 8.1 or 8.2!”
More than anything this reunion was a fantastic moment during which those who weren’t fortunate enough to be in Sacramento on that magic 20 June 1968 could get the feeling of what it was like to be the fastest sprinter of the world 35 years ago.