By Jim Irish
At approximately 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 29, 1976, Matt Centrowitz, wearing a red singlet embossed with USA in white lettering and blue shorts, stepped to the starting line in Nike spikes in Heat 1 of the 1,500-meter run at the Olympic Games in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
Forty minutes later, Tony Colon, dressed in a white singlet marked with Puerto Rico in red lettering and blue shorts, toed the starting line in Puma spikes in Heat 4.
Centrowitz and Colon had both surmounted significant obstacles to reach the pinnacle of track. Raised by a single immigrant mother after age 12, Centrowitz was a juvenile delinquent until he discovered running as a freshman at Andrew Jackson High School in Queens. Colon immigrated to New York City from Puerto Rico with his family when he was 10. He lived in the Amsterdam Houses, a low-income project in Manhattan, and managed to steer clear of the Puerto Rican gangs in the project.
Centrowitz and Colon are alumni of the now defunct Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan in 1973 and 1970, respectively. Never before or since have two track athletes from the same American high school competed in the same individual event at the same Olympic Games.
Unbeknownst to either Centrowitz or Colon, their high school coach, John Bielen, was among the throng of nearly 73,000 spectators in the stadium on a day with abundant sunshine and a comfortable temperature of 75 degrees.
“Knowing Bielen, I’m sure he didn’t let us know,” Centrowitz said.
Centrowitz finishes second at U.S. Olympic Trials in 1,500 in PR of 3:36.70
Centrowitz, a 21-year-old student at the University of Oregon, had qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in late June by finishing second behind Rick Wohlhuter in the 1,500 at the Olympic Trials. In three consecutive days at the Trials in Eugene, Ore., Centrowitz, a muscular 6-foot-1, 166-pound athlete with dark wavy hair and a mustache, clocked personal records in three 1,500s with times of 3:40, 3:39, and 3:36.70 (3:54.04 mile).
“That was the strength you had to have to make the Olympic team,” Centrowitz said. “I was peaking for June. It was a great strategy.”
Centrowitz, not ranked in the top 10 in the U.S. the previous year, came out of nowhere to qualify, calling himself a “dark horse.”
Meanwhile, Colon, a 24-year-old former All-American at Manhattan College in New York City, was competing in his second Olympics for his native Puerto Rico. He had failed to advance past the heats in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany.
Colon, also 6-1 but leaner at 155 pounds and sporting a mustache, reached the Olympic qualifying standard winning the invitational 1,500 in 3:40.20 at the IC4A meet in late May in Philadelphia. He won the Puerto Rican Trials in 3:45.6 in mid June.
In the week before the 1,500 heats, Colon gained confidence by taking second in a pre-Olympic 3,000-meter race behind Kenya’s John Ngeno. Colon clocked a 7:53.2, which, he said, remains a Puerto Rican record to this day. Ngeno, a 5,000-meter runner, did not compete in the Olympics because of a last-minute boycott by more than 25 African nations.
Before the 1,500 heats, Colon remembered warming up for 15 minutes on a track across the street from Olympic Stadium. The 42 runners, divided into five heats, then walked through a tunnel to the bottom of the stadium and were herded into a large room with a television.
“We’re all sitting there,” Colon recalled. “No one wants to talk to anybody.”
Centrowitz struggles with emotions
Centrowitz had no recollection of the pre-race waiting room, but he remembered the moment he stood at the starting line, scanning the crowd and battling his emotions.
‘...It was packed,” he recalled. “I was nervous. I was scared, and I was injured.”
Centrowitz said he injured his left Achilles tendon sometime between the end of the Trials and the U.S. Olympic training camp in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
From the gun, Heat 1 was a tactical race. The eight runners were content to start at a tortoise’s pace. Centrowitz was on the leaders’ shoulders through the 800 in a plodding 2 minutes, 11 seconds.
Centrowitz said he grabbed the lead with 700 meters remaining and held it until 200 meters to go. Runners went by him at that point, and he finished in sixth place at 3:45.02. He had run a faster time in the 1,500 in high school.
The winner of the heat, Marc Nevens of Belgium, clocked 3:44.18, less than one second faster than Centrowitz. It was the slowest of the five heats by five seconds.
Never one to mince words, Centrowitz said, “What happened in the Olympic Stadium was a f---ing nightmare."
“I positioned myself badly," he added. "I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I was overly concerned with the leg. I wasn’t thinking clearly. When you’re not relaxed and confident, you don’t make good decisions, especially at that level of racing.”
Centrowitz said he did not watch Colon compete in Heat 4.
“I was too busy punching walls and cursing God out,” he said.
"I was too busy punching walls and cursing God out."
--Matt Centrowitz after finishing 1,500
Waiting for his heat, Colon watched Centrowitz’s race on the television.
“They were walking almost the first two laps,” Colon said. “This is not going to bode well. It didn’t play out for him.”
After the debacle in Centrowitz’s heat, Colon thought, “I wasn’t going to let that happen. If I’m going to be knocked off, I’m going to make them run.”
The pace was faster with Colon among the leaders at 2:05 at 800. In the second lap, Colon said runners jostled for position.
Colon “took off and broke away from the pack” with 600 meters remaining. He said he led through the final turn, thinking “I can win this.”
“All of sudden, everyone went by me like I was standing still,” he said. “I ran a 56, 57 last lap, and I was still getting blown away. This is a whole other ballgame here.”
Colon finished fifth in 3:43.51. Paul-Heinz Wellmann of West Germany won in 3:39.86, while Ivo Van Damme of Belgium nipped Wohlhuter for second, 3:39.93 to 3:39.94.
Wellmann, Van Damme, and Wohlhuter all reached the 1,500 final on Saturday. Van Damme captured the silver medal behind New Zealand’s John Walker, while Wellman snagged the bronze medal.
Van Damme also earned the silver medal in the 800 at the Montreal Olympics. Five months later, he died in a head-on auto accident in southern France en route to Belgium after a training session at age 22.
"I ran a 56, 57 last lap and I was still getting blown away."
Centrowitz and Colon walked out of the stadium together after their disappointing races.
“I should have made the final in my mind,” Centrowitz said. “At least get out of the first round. That pissed me off.”
Like Centrowitz, Colon, who had previous Olympic experience, said he too was focused on advancing to the final.
“There was no doubt in my mind, but it didn’t work out that way,” he said.
After races, Centrowitz, Colon encounter Bielen outside Olympic Stadium
As they crossed the street to return to the Olympic Village, they encountered Bielen. While Colon has a vivid picture of the visit with Bielen, Centrowitz has no memory of it.
“I blocked everything out, got out of town that night,” Centrowitz said.
Forty-four years later, Colon hasn’t forgotten the encounter.
“I looked up, and there (Bielen) was,” Colon recalled. “I thought he was going to be disappointed, but he wasn’t. He was a proud papa.”
Bielen asked to take a photo of his former runners. They removed their warm up jackets.
“We stood there with our arms around each other,” Colon recalled.
Centrowitz departed Montreal knowing that he wasn’t designed for the 1,500/mile.
“I didn’t pretend anymore that this was going to work out for me,” he said. “I knew I had no future in the 1,500 the way they ran. They were all 1:46 800 guys; I was 1:49. There was no way I was going to finish with the likes of John Walker.
“My body couldn’t hold up. When you don’t have natural speed, that other stuff takes a toll on your body. The next day, I became a 5,000-meter runner.”
Centrowitz’s most positive memory of the Olympic experience was the two-week training camp in Plattsburg, slightly more than an hour south of Montreal. His roommate was Bruce Jenner, the gold medalist in the decathlon at Montreal.
“I ran with all my legends,” Centrowitz said, naming Frank Shorter, Gary Bjorkland, Craig Virgin, and Wohlhuter. “I got to spend time with my idols. We all lived and trained together. I learned what it takes to be a world-class champion. That was the most valuable piece of this whole experience. I went to work on it.”
Contrast between Munich and Montreal Olympics
Colon couldn’t dismiss the stark contrast in security between the Montreal and Munich Olympics, where Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israelis.
“Munich was like Times Square. You (could) go in and out,” he said about access to the Olympic Village.
He arrived by bus to an ominous presence at the Montreal Olympic Village in the evening.
“The Village was surrounded by barbed wire fence, and there were military personnel with automatic weapons stationed everywhere. They flipped the switch.”
Colon’s parents and brother visited him in Montreal but because of strict security measures only his father was allowed to enter the Village.
After the Olympics, Colon continued to compete at a high level. He set a PR of 28:35 in the 10,000 meters at the Penn Relays in 1978. Puerto Rico held no Olympic Trials in 1980 as the U.S. territory joined the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. At the Puerto Rican Olympic Trials in 1984, Colon dropped out of the 10,000 after a couple of laps with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. He entered the 5,000 the next day after receiving a painkiller injection in his foot. He won the event but later gave up his spot on the Olympic team when a podiatrist told him that he had severely damaged his foot and wouldn’t be able to train.
Centrowitz vindicated by son's performances in two Olympics 1,500s
Centrowitz made good on his promise to become an elite 5,000 runner. He was the U.S. national champion in the event between 1979-’82 and captured first place in the 1980 Olympic Trials in 1980 in 13:30.62. However, he did not compete at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 because of the decision by the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott. A hamstring injury prevented him from competing in the Olympic Trials in 1984.
Denied a second opportunity at the Olympics, Centrowitz felt a measure of vindication after his son, Matthew, finished fourth in the 1,500 in the London Olympics in 2012 and first in the event in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.
“That’s why I get more satisfaction at my son making the Olympics finals twice,” he said. “Two for two.”
Jim Irish is a freelance writer living outside Austin, Texas.