Daraine Luton, Staff Reporter
HAILED BY many as the best quarter-miler to have ever represented Jamaica, former Olympic champion George Rhoden recently relived Helsinki Games of 1952 where he created history by becoming the first and only West Indian to win two gold medals at the same Olympics.
Rhoden won the 440 yards dash, beating teammate Herb McKenley into second, and anchored the mile relay team to victory ahead of the mighty United States.
Having run the fourth fastest time in the semi-finals and not making the final in the 1948 Games in London, England, Rhoden said he was determined to make that medal his own four years later.
"In all of the pre-Olympic meets I requested lane six, and it so happened that when I reached the finals in Helsinki I drew lane six. The German champion was in lane one, Melvin Whitfield in lane two, McKenley in lane four, Arthur Wint (defending champion) in lane three and I jumped up from the table and said, 'I got lane six didn't I?'
"Right there and then I turned around and said 'Jamaica will have a new Olympic 400m champion. By saying that the late Wint and McKenley got up and went to the bathroom ... I was getting in their heads," he said.
By the time the final was ready to get under way, Rhoden said he was shaking like a leaf. He said as they were under the starter's command he delayed the start.
"I said 'just a minute Mr. Starter' and he said, 'gentlemen get away from your marks' and then asked me 'what's wrong?'. Being a student athlete I said 'there is a head-wind coming up that is making me uncomfortable,'' Rhoden recounted of the lead up to that golden moment.
He told The Sunday Gleaner that when they were sent back to their marks he continued doing what he did best - getting into the heads of his fellow competitors.
"Upon marching back to the marks I turned and said, 'good luck fellows,' I could tell Whitfield was cursing ... everyone was a bit unnerved," he said.
"When the pistol fired, I ran for 220m and between there and the apex of the turn I floated. At this time, Wint ran 21.7. McKenley changed his tactics because he used to speed out but he slowed down and it was starting to work. Coming off the turn, I said I must get off the turn at least three yards ahead of Herb.
"I knew Herb was the man to beat. I wasn't worried about Wint, I was worried about McKenley. Coming down the straight away (50 yards away) I began getting what the guys termed 'ready for the camera' but I heard the crowd getting very excited and then I saw a boney right hand, then I saw a boney knee and I said to myself, 'George you are in trouble', that was Herb".
"I started talking to myself and having that mental conversation 'I said George you are the best, you can do it come on,' ... and I hit the tape and he then hit it about one yard behind me ... he gave me a fit," Rhoden remembered of that crowning moment.
Having missed out on a golden opportunity to take the top medal in the mile-relay four years earlier in London, Rhoden said the team pledged to turn the tables in Helsinki.
On that occasion in London, Jamaica, with 400m gold and silver medallists (Wint and McKenley respectively), Rhoden who narrowly missed out on a spot in the 400m final and 200m finalist Les Laing, were tipped to take gold.
However, after good first and second legs from Rhoden and Laing respectively, Wint, who created history in that same meet by winning Jamaica's first Olympic gold medal, limped off the track with a injury 150m away from the change over.
Four year's later, the quartet made good of their promise made in London, making up for that disappointment by winning the country's first and to date the only Olympic gold in the mile relay.
Rhoden was again a part of that historic achievement, having anchored Jamaica to glory.
"Wint ran the first leg and handed off to Laing and then Laing handed off to McKinley, wow, what a leg," Rhoden said.
However with less than 700m to go in the mile-relay, panic stepped into the Jamaican camp. McKenley was going great guns on the third leg but Wint, who was wearing Rhoden's jersey could not be found.
Rhoden said Wint had forgotten his and he reluctantly gave his to him. At that time he said, "McKenley was closing, closing, closing and I was very worried because I didn't have a jersey".
He finally received his top with McKenley only 100m away.
Rhoden ran with Whitfield breathing down his neck all the way. He said what kept Jamaica's gold medal drive alive was the fact that he had studied how his American competitor ran.
"I knew that when he was getting ready to attack if he had the baton in the right hand he would change it to the left and use a stutter step as he changed his strides. I saw him do that and I went wide, not enough to cause a disqualification though. That stopped his rhythm. I had watched him so often. I knew that there was a 99.9 per cent chance of him anchoring the American team so I knew him like a book.
"About 90m away from the tape I jumped him and got into a sprint and he never caught me," Rhoden said.