The two Americans ran seven lanes apart in the 1964 Olympic 100 meters. They ran on a track made of dirt and cinders, rust in color and solid underfoot, yet loose in texture, like a well-traveled country road. It would be the last Olympic track meet on a surface that wasn’t as hard as a countertop; before the race, sprinters secured their starting blocks by using a wood mallet to pound spikes into metal tongues at the front and back of the blocks. It was just after 4 p.m. in Tokyo on Thursday, October 15, past the peak of the punishing Asian summer, under a hazy sky, after several days of stubborn rain. The race was not broadcast on live television in the United States, part of the last summer Games not significantly programmed into U.S homes. Sixteen hours later and 7,000 miles away, the St. Louis Cardinals would clinch the World Series with a 7-5 Game Seven victory over the Yankees. Bob Gibson went nine innings for the win. Nineteen days later Lyndon B. Johnson would be elected president in a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Vietnam was a distant rumble; fewer than 500 U.S. soldiers had died, a total that would approach 60,000 a decade later.
In Tokyo, the race starter, a placid, slender man in a mustard-colored blazer with a Games logo on the breast pocket, and a white fedora perched impeccably on his head, brought the racers to a set position and then fired his pistol, sending a small puff of white smoke into the air. (The breathtaking Olympic film, Tokyo Olympiad, true athletic noir, preserves these images in perpetuity). In lane one, Bob Hayes lurched forward and sharply to his right, his first stride landing nearly in the adjacent lane. Far out in lane eight, 26-year-old Mel Pender burst explosively from his crouch in textbook form and briefly into the lead.
The two U.S. sprinters represented a study in physical contrast: Hayes was six feet tall and weighed 190 pounds, with massive shoulders and thick thighs, looking very much like the college football player he was and the NFL Hall of Fame receiver he would become. Columnist Arthur Daley of The New York Times quoted Jesse Owens describing Hayes in the way that Hayes was most often described in that time: “He looks like a guy catching the ball behind the line of scrimmage and dodging people.” That was too simple, and unfair to Hayes, who had run hundreds of track races before Tokyo, but broadly accurate nevertheless. Pender was also muscular, but only 5-foot-5, and 158 pounds. The two men were friends, and Hayes gave Pender the requisite nickname: Shorty. Pender ran powerfully, but with little wasted motion. Hayes most often gathered speed after a clunky start, while Pender fought to sustain the momentum of his clean rollout. So it would be in Tokyo.
There were also unseen differences. Hayes was just 21 years old, a college student at Florida A&M. Pender was 26, and had never attended college. He had enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 17, with dreams of emulating Audie Murphy, the decorated World War II veteran who became an actor and songwriter and archetype of the clean-cut, hard-charging American war hero. “Every kid wanted to be Audie Murphy,” says Pender. “Be like in the movies.” His first track race came at the age of 24, when he was plucked from an Army football team in Japan and sent to compete in a 100-meter race in Nago, on the island of Okinawa. Here, there is a sliver of shared sports experience: Hayes was a dominant high school track athlete, but first and foremost a football player.
There was a deeper commonality that both men would later come to share and embrace. Both were raised in the segregated South of the 1940s and 50s, Hayes in a Jacksonville neighborhood called Hell’s Hole and Pender in both rural Dalton, Georgia and the Lynwood Park area, north of Atlanta. (Pender served in the Army with Hayes’s older brother, Ernest, and long before meeting Bob, visited the family’s shotgun house in Jacksonville). Each grew up without a strong father consistently present. Each was pummeled by systemic racism. Early on, Pender worked as a caddy at an all-white country club. “Every day, walking past beautiful homes,” says Pender. “Kids in the yard, playing on the beautiful, green grass. Then I would go walk the course in the hot sun, carrying two bags for five dollars a day.” Later, after enlisting in the Army, the bus carrying him to basic training stopped for a meal in Athens, Georgia; white recruits went in the front door and black recruits, the back door. “I thought things would be different once I got on that bus,” says Pender. “That was naïve of me. It’s still America.”
Those realities hit Hayes most profoundly when he arrived at Florida A&M in the late summer of 1961. (*Note: Mel Pender is 82 and lives in Atlanta with his fourth wife, Debbie; I interviewed him for this story, supplanted with details from his 2016 autobiography, Expression Of Hope: The Mel Pender Story. Hayes died of cancer in 2002, at the age of 59; for this story, I drew from his 1990 autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run; along with archival media and secondary source interviews). “When I was at Florida A&M, the city was totally segregated,” wrote Hayes in his book. “We could not even go to a white movie theater.” After Hayes signed his first contract with the Dallas Cowboys, he bought a black Buick Riviera and on trips back to Tallahassee, he once told Pender, he kept getting pulled over by police. Thereafter he kept a black chauffeur’s cap in the back seat of the car so that he could tell police it was his employer’s car. Many years later, he would write of his lifelong athletic experience, “When I played, and it’s still true today, the attitude throughout the coaching and executive hierarchy was that if a black player didn’t produce every day, he was wasting his God-given talent. But if a white player didn’t produce every day, he was just having an off day.”
Forty meters into the Tokyo 100 final, Enrique Figuerola of Cuba was leading the race, narrowly in front of Canadian Harry Jerome, a student at the University of Oregon and to this day, a track legend in his native country. Outside, Pender had begun to labor, and fade. A few days before the heats of the 100 meters, he had been tussling with teammate Trenton Jackson in the Olympic Village. Jackson had punched Pender in the ribs, leaving lingering pain. “I was all taped up and I got cortisone shots in my spine and my stomach,” says Pender. “The doctor told me I shouldn’t run but I said I’m running because at my age, I don’t think I’ll get another chance at the Olympics.”
On the inside, Hayes turned the race into a rout. It remains unclear why Hayes, the fastest qualifier from the semifinals, was drawn into lane one, but that draw has become an essential part of the story of the moment. Prior to the 100 final a series of 800-meter heats had been run, along with the first three laps of the 20-kilometer walk, with the majority of running/walking in lane one. The effect on the condition of the dirt and cinders is impossible to know with certainty, but Olympic historian David Wallechinsky writes in The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics, “The start was delayed 10 minutes while the curb lane, Hayes’s lane, was raked after having been chewed up by the start of the 20-kilometer walk.” News reports from the day corroborate this information. (More on all of this, later).
By the halfway mark, Hayes was clearly in the lead, and ran to the finish alone, his shoulders pulsing like a prizefighter’s on the prowl. The great sportswriter Ralph Wiley, who died in 2004, once wrote of Hayes, “Bob Hayes roiled when he ran, like an angry sea…” It was said that Owens could have run with a cup of tea on his head and not spilled a drop. Same with Michael Johnson or Carl Lewis. Bob Hayes would have spilled the tea and shattered the cup. He was kinetic. So it was on this day. Hayes eased slightly in his last two or three strides – not like Usain Bolt’s chest-thumping downshift in Beijing, but a perceptible gear-down – and broke the thin string stretched across the line. Hayes slowed to a stop in the middle of the turn and hopped 180 degrees to face back toward the finish line, the closest thing to a celebration. These were different times. Figuerola and German Heinz Schumann, who finished fifth, ran to shake his hand.
Hayes’s winning time was officially 10 seconds flat, hand-timed on stopwatches held by officials sitting one above the other on a rolling, portable staircase at the finish line. From the 1930s, Olympic handheld times had also been supplemented by various forms of electronic timing; Some finish judges caught Hayes in 9.9 seconds, handheld, but his electronic time was 10-flat, requiring that his official winning time be rounded to 10-flat. (Track statisticians and sprint experts continue to debate the granular details of Hayes’ finish time; his “official fully automatic time” from ’64 is recorded as 10.06 seconds, but Olympic records establish 10.0, since handheld times were proprietary). Ten-flat matched the world record first set by West Germany’s Armin Hary four years earlier, but that time was entirely hand-held, and handheld times are recorded as faster than electronic times, because of human error in reacting slowly to the gun before punching the stem on a watch. It’s all very esoteric and confusing, but according to French journalist and sprint historian PJ Vazel, “Hayes’s performance was intrinsically better than Hary’s.”
Hary’s time had been matched by two others before Hayes, and six others after, until Jim Hines ran 9.9 at the AAU Championships, a precursor to his gold medal in Mexico City. Hayes’s winning margin of 0.2 seconds over Figuerola (.19 electronically) equaled the widest in Olympic history and has been bettered only twice since (Lewis in 1984 and Bolt in 2008, both .20 seconds, electronically timed).
Pender ran through the line and fell to the track in pain. He finished tied for sixth in 10.4 seconds, just .05 out of fourth place. “I usually beat Harry Jerome,” says Pender. “I should have been on that podium. But the way things were, I don’t know how I even managed to get sixth.”
Six days later Hayes anchored the U.S. 4X100-meter relay to a gold medal. With Pender and Jackson both out (Pender injured, Jackson not chosen to run), and with the U.S. passing sloppily (recurring theme!) Hayes received the baton in no better than fourth place. He took the lead within 30 meters and pulled away to win by .30 seconds, before tossing the baton into the air just past the finish line. Hayes’ leg was one of the fastest in history, with estimates ranging from 8.5 to 9.1 seconds.
Mel Pender likely would have been on that relay, if he had been healthy. Instead, he spent two days in a Tokyo hospital for his injured ribs.
The Olympic Games are a snapshot of some larger life spent in preparation for – and recovery from — a moment that passes as swiftly as a summer thunderstorm. Rare is an athlete like Michael Phelps, whose Olympic career spans 16 years. The experience will shape some lives, publicly and financially, as with Mike Eruzione or Mary Lou Retton or Lewis. For others, it has a more personal resonance. This year’s Olympic 100-meter final was to have been run on Sunday night in Tokyo, and is scheduled to be run a year from now. On a Thursday night 56 years ago, Bob Hayes and Mel Pender ran in that race and never ran together again.
Within days of the closing ceremony, Hayes was back on the football field for his senior year at Florida A&M. He ran a few races on the short-lived pro track circuit in the spring of 1965 before joining the Dallas Cowboys for a 11-year NFL career. Pender returned to the Army and was accepted into Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Once separated by those seven lanes of Tokyo dirt, Hayes and Pender went on to sharply divergent lives, both, in their ways, illustrative of a certain American experience. Hayes became a professional football star with a franchise called “America’s Team,” later fell in wrong with alcohol, drugs and the legal system, did time in prison and withered into a lingering death, much too young. He is the only man to win an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring. And his Tokyo race grew over time to occupy a mythic place in track and Olympic history. Questions about the track and his equipment led dreamers to wonder if perhaps Bullet Bob Hayes was the fastest human to ever walk the earth. (Probably not, but right up there).
Mel Pender rose to the level of captain in the Army, served his country in Vietnam and his community back in Atlanta, married four times and against common sense, made it back to the Olympics in 1968 at the age of 30 and won a gold medal on the 4X100-meter relay. He has lived long enough to see the red, white and blue racial strife of his youth – never gone, but sometimes less visible to white people – inflamed in the streets of his country. “Seeing what I saw growing up, seeing what I saw in the ’60s with all that death, Martin and Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy, and then what I’m seeing now,” says Pender. “It’s just unbelievable.”
Pender and Hayes remained sporadically in contact in the 38 years between the Tokyo 100 meters and Hayes’s death, most profoundly in the last 15 years of Hayes’s life. In the late 1980s, Hayes visited Pender in Atlanta to show Pender the rough draft of his book. Pender advised him to get a co-author. Years later, as Hayes was losing the battle with the prostate cancer that would kill him, Pender, along with some other ex-1960s Olympians, visited Hayes in Jacksonville. “That cancer ate him up, man,” says Pender. “He couldn’t have weighed 100 pounds. I hardly recognized him.” Pender spoke at Hayes’s funeral, and was one of Hayes’s pallbearers, their last walk together.
“He was such a sweet, friendly guy,” says Pender. “Not a mean part in his whole body. I love him like a brother right now. I miss him, man.”
Every 100-meter Olympic gold medal race lives on, but few more than Hayes’s, fueled by the brevity of Hayes’s career, the (arguably) primitive conditions and his later dominance of the NFL. Questions persist: What might Hayes have run on a modern racing surface in modern racing equipment? (As four-time Olympic sprint medalist and NBC analyst Ato Boldon puts it, “In carbon fiber shoes, on a supersonic track”). Further, what might have Hayes accomplished in track and field if the economics of the sport allowed him to run for another eight years, as Bolt did after his first Olympic gold medal?
There are no true answers to these questions. But start here: “He was the fastest guy in the world,” says Pender. “And he didn’t know how fast he was. He ran to win. If Bob was running when Carl Lewis was running, I don’t know if Carl would have beaten him, I really don’t.”
Ralph Mann, 1972 Olympic silver medalist in the 400-meter hurdles and a biomechanics expert who has studied elite athletes for nearly four decades, says of Hayes, “He was a really, really powerful individual. His sprint mechanics were all natural, because there was no mechanics instruction in that era. But that aside, Hayes was so impressive. He had incredible front-side mechanics, which means most of the leg action occurs in front of the body, which allows you to attack the ground more powerfully. And he was very explosive when he hit the ground.”
Boldon says, “You look at Hayes now, on film, and you think, ‘Well, you might change this or that.’ But would you? What he did was working pretty well.”
The condition of the track is more elusive. Dirt and cinders were the predominant surfaces at all levels of track and field until the 1970s. “They were like running on the beach,” says Mann, who ran high school track in Southern California and at Brigham Young in college.
“They sucked,” says Boldon, who ran on some cinder tracks in high school in Jamaica, Queens. “But those were high school tracks. I’m sure the Tokyo track was fast.”
Vazel, the French sprint expert, goes further: “Some of the hard cinder tracks in the 1960s were faster than synthetic tracks.” Vazel points to the Sacramento track where on the famed “Night of Speed” at the AAU Championships in 1968, Hines, Ronnie Ray Smith and Charlie Greene all ran 9.9 on cinders.
Mann counters: “Mel Pender ran 10.47 (electronic) in Tokyo and four years later he ran 10.17 in Mexico City. That’s the difference between a cinder track and a synthetic track.” (Of course, Pender was injured in ’64 and healthy in ’68; but 26 years old in ’64 and 30 years old in ’68. The debate is endless).
Hayes ran in Adidas Tokyo spikes, with a kangaroo leather upper and plastic spike plate with four spikes. (*Actually, there is a story behind the spikes, as well: Hayes often told of having left his left shoe in his dorm room and borrowing a left shoe from U.S. 800-meter runner Tom Farrell, who wore Hayes’s tiny size eight. “Despite my husky build, I had really small feet,” Hayes wrote in his book. “Tommy was just about the only other guy on the team whose feet were as small as mine.” Farrell, now 72, emailed his version of this story. “ In Tokyo Bob Hayes and coach Ed Hurt asked me what size shoes I wore,” Farrell wrote. “I said 8 1/2. Why? Due to a mix-up Bob had two lefts or two rights. I had two pair of shoes and I gave him my extra pair. Had I only had one pair I would have turned him down since I needed no distractions prior to my race. And my coach would have killed me for giving someone my shoes. I met Bob at the 96 Olympics in Atlanta—he asked if he returned the shoes to me. I said no.”)
Spikes have evolved, but not dramatically. Bolt, for instance, ran in Puma spikes with leather uppers and a synthetic plastic spike plate, with eight spikes. Boldon says, “I take everything into account and figure, today, Hayes runs maybe 9.76. Only Bolt and (Yohan) Blake have ever run faster at the Olympics.”
Had Hayes run track for another decade, he might have actually run 9.76. But track and field was still essentially an amateur sport. Hayes wrote that he made approximately $40,000 in under-the-table payments over the course of his entire track career (roughly four years as a world-class sprinter). He signed with Cowboys in 1965 for $100,000 over three years.
Hayes played 11 years in the NFL, the 10 first with the Cowboys and the last with the 49ers. In a game where the run was still dominant, Hayes accumulated more than 2,200 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first two seasons. On 371 career receptions, he averaged 20 yards per catch, sixth in NFL history. His schematic influence is sometimes overrated. When Hayes died, Sports Illustrated NFL guru Paul Zimmerman wrote that Hayes’s raw speed forced teams to bracket him with two defensive backs, altering the geometry of defense. “No other player caused that kind of strategic overhaul of the defensive game,” wrote Zimmerman. That’s not entirely true. I asked Dan Daly, another NFL historian, if Hayes’s influence was unique or foundational. “Anybody who caused unusual problems – Don Hutson (Packers 1935-’45), Elroy Hirsch (Rams 1949-’57), Hayes – was going to get special attention,” Daly wrote in an email. “[Jimmy] Conzelman [NFL quarterback in the 1920s and later a coach and executive] wrote, ‘Hutson is the only fellow in football who makes everybody play a defense it never plays against anybody else and never knew before.”
But there is a timeline measuring the influence of game-busting wide receivers, and Hayes occupies a significant position on it. Five years after his retirement, Hayes pled guilty to charges he sold cocaine to an undercover police agent; in his book he describes an arrangement that would be described, in the vernacular, as muling. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison and on the day of that sentencing told the judge, “I’m guilty, I was wrong. I’ve paid the price in my image and my respect. People see me as Bob Hayes, dope dealer, not as Bob Hayes, the citizen. It hurts.” And also this: “I have hit rock bottom, financially. I’m broke.”
Hayes did 10 months and was released. As with many athletes, the back half of his life was a struggle, with none of the forgiveness his talents once afforded him. He wrote that during his NFL career, he used Quaaludes, cocaine and other pain relievers and took frequent painkilling injections in his increasingly creaky knees. But alcohol, which he first drank at age 12, was his drug of choice. Former teammate Roger Staubach paid $25,000 for Hayes to first get clean in 1985. Hayes wrote in 1990, “I’ve been straight since July 1985.” In 1993 he earned his degree from Florida A&M; less than a decade later he was gone, first fighting liver disease and then cancer.
His legacy endures both in the images of his gold medal races in Tokyo and his football career in Dallas. The Bob Hayes Invitational Track Meet has been a Jacksonville fixture for 56 years. And there was a last crowning glory. For years, Hayes was denied entry to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, perhaps because of his arrest and his substance abuse. William C. Rhoden of The New York Times covered Hayes’s 2002 funeral and wrote that the Rev. Rudolph W. McKissick, Jr. delivered a soaring gospel condemning those who would judge Hayes for indiscretions unrelated to football, when so many others had been honored despite similar flaws. “If indiscretion is the criteria, shut it down,” Rhoden quoted McKissick as preaching. “Shut it down!”
In 2009, Hayes was at last elected to the Hall of Fame. His son, Bob Hayes, Jr., delivered a video tribute to his father in which he said, “He always felt like he was an outcast. I could tell in his eyes, he had pain in his heart. I know for a fact that pain is gone.”
Mel Pender graduated from Officer Candidate School in the spring of 1965, at the advanced age of 27, and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. Soon after, he was shipped to Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division and stationed in the Mekong Delta. “All those rivers and rice paddies,” says Pender. “We were on boats and my men thought that was nice until they started to get shot at like sitting ducks out there.” Pender spent five months on his first tour in Vietnam before Army brass sent him back to the U.S to train for the 1968 Olympics. “I didn’t want to leave my men,” says Pender, “but I had no choice. The Army ordered me to come home and represent them as an athlete.”
Pender continued to improve as a sprinter; his wicked start and tight running style would fit with short, and indoor, sprinting. He eventually broke world records at the now-obsolete distances of 50, 60 and 70 yards (breaking Bob Hayes’s record in the latter). He made the 1968 Olympic team at the age of 30 and traveled to Mexico City in the fall of that year to participate in one of the most tumultuous Summer Games in history. On the track, Pender again finished sixth in the 100 meters in 10.17 seconds, .10 off the podium. He got his gold medal in the 4X100 relay with Greene, Smith and Hines, in a world record time of 38.24 seconds. “Nobody knows how hard I trained to make that team,” says Pender. “I proved that if you want something bad enough, you can get it.”
But it wouldn’t be that simple for Pender. He roomed with John Carlos in Mexico City, but says he knew nothing of Carlos’s and Tommie Smith’s plans for their historic – and divisive, even now — victory stand protest. (This tracks correctly; in a 2018 story I wrote for Sports Illustrated, Smith said their plan wasn’t real until minutes before the ceremony). Members of the 4X100 team staged no protest. “I wanted so bad to do something, to make some statement,” says Pender. “But my position, being in the Army, I’m sure I would have been thrown in jail or something.”
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Pender is convinced that there were repercussions nevertheless. “Two weeks after I got back from Mexico City,” he says, “I got notice that they were sending me back to Vietnam. I’m sure it was because they felt I was part of the protests and they wanted to punish me. I put them off for six months.” In the spring of 1969, at the age of 31, Pender went back and did nine more months in Vietnam, and was awarded the Bronze Star for his service. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 2018 Vietnam War documentary includes a lengthy treatment of the racism experienced by black American soldiers, and the ways in which those black men fought back against it.
As an officer, Pender’s experience was different from that of enlisted men, and he often found himself in the middle of a complex and sometimes dangerous racial ecosystem. “Black soldiers were mistreated, no doubt,” says Pender. “Young black guys would ask me, ‘Why am I here?” And I would tell them, you’re here to fight for your country. One kid said to me, ‘Do I even have a country?” Kids brought some negative experiences from home. So they were angry. And they were scared. I was scared over there, too. But we had a job to do.”
On his return from Vietnam, Pender was posted to West Point as an assistant track coach, and trained toward the 1972 Olympics. Pender remained ranked among the top U.S. 100-meter runners into the Olympic year, at the age of 34, when he was injured at the AAU national championships in Seattle, shortly before the Olympic Trials. As track and field finances and methods have evolved, careers have lasted longer. But in 1972, Pender was an outlier to even have come close to making his third Olympic team at such an advanced age.
He has lived nearly half a century, since. Where Hayes lived large and fell tragically, Pender shaped a much less public life, purposeful yet quiet. A soldier long after his retirement from the Army, he has resolutely put one boot in front of the other. He owned a sporting goods store 15 miles north of Atlanta and helped design models for an athletic shoe company; and later worked in community outreach for the national Home Builders Association, the NFL Players Association and the Atlanta Hawks; and started a bottled water company. Years passed, friends and family members died. Pender’s body slowly broke down from the punishment of football, track and field, and the Army (he also trained as a paratrooper, jumping dozens of times from airplanes and helicopters). “I like to say I got overloaded with life at times,” says Pender. He carried the 1996 Olympic torch in his home city and a year later, lost a primary election for a seat in the Georgia State Senate.
Among the flamboyant and activist generation of sprinters from the 1960s and early 70s, Pender has become a touchstone. He talks frequently with Smith and Carlos, and with Charlie Greene, who like many in Pender’s generation has fallen into poor health. It’s known among researchers and journalists that if you really need something from that era, Call Mel. He counted among his friends Congressman John Lewis and civil rights activist C.T. Vivian, who died hours apart on July 17. I talked to Pender two days after their passing and he was both sad and contemplative. “John Lewis always felt, just keep working, things will get better,” said Pender. “That’s why all the stuff with this president bothers me so much. It’s difficult to see.”
Pender has had prostate cancer that he says his doctors attributed to exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used by the U.S. Military in Vietnam; and leukemia, as well. In mid-July, he was hospitalized after doctors found a mass on one of his bowels. Fifty-six years after chasing Bob Hayes across the line in Tokyo, seven lanes apart, he endures all of this with a stoic concession. “You know,” he says, “We aren’t supposed to live forever.”
This is only partly true for athletes. Hayes will always be the bullet in Lane One, Pender always the pursuer in Lane Eight. Two men in a moment, many chapters ahead, unwritten.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.