In 2008 in Beijing Usain Bolt breezed through the 100-meter dash so easily he looked like an Olympian god running against mortals, as he officially became the world’s fastest human.
Another Olympian who held that title was “Bullet” Bob Hayes, who later played for the Dallas Cowboys. He was crowned world’s fastest human at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics after blazing past the field like Bolt in the 100-meter dash and anchoring the 400-meter relay.
In those days, athletes had no entourage, no handlers, no crowds of photographers recording every move. No one even noticed the world’s fastest man as he sat on a plane, in his coach-class seat, waiting to take off on the last leg of his journey from the Olympics home to Florida.
He didn’t look up as two kids took their assigned seats next to his. In 1964 Florida was just emerging from segregation–when bathrooms and drinking fountains were labelled “White” and “Colored.” The white girl who took the seat next to him was 14, just learning about the burgeoning civil rights movement, and eager for the rare opportunity to converse with a “Negro.”
During the flight, the girl put down her book and worked up her courage. Trying to engage the man in conversation, she asked about the long package he was carrying. It was a rug, he told her, that he was bringing home to his mother. And where was he coming from? asked the girl. “Tokyo”, he said.
The girl pursued the conversation, pulling answers from the man who told her that he had been in Tokyo to attend the Olympics. Only when asked directly did the man tell her shyly that yes, he had been a competitor.
“Wow.” That was something. She pressed him. “What sport?”
“Track and field,” he told her. She loved swimming and didn’t follow track and field. But politely, she asked the man what he had done in Tokyo.
“I ran,” said the fastest man in the world.
“Oh,” said the girl. “What’s your name? Maybe I’ve heard of you.”
And quietly, the man said his name: “Bob Hayes.”
The girl paused. She could have asked for an autograph. If she had known who he was. But she had been away in camp all summer, without newspapers, magazines, or television. She didn’t know that the closest she would ever get to Olympic gold was the flight bag at her feet, which certainly held two gold medals. She had no idea that the next morning she would open the Miami Herald and see the man’s picture under the front page banner headline welcoming home the world’s fastest human.
She didn’t know that. But still the girl had choices. She could tell a very acceptable white lie, and pretend she knew his name. Or she could simply congratulate him for the honor of representing our country.
But she didn’t. “Sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “Never heard of you.” Then she smiled politely and turned back to read her book.
Yes, that was me–messing up my encounter with the world’s fastest man–by being too slow on the uptake.