It's been 44 years since Blaine Lindgren stepped off the podium in Tokyo with the Olympic silver medal hanging around his neck, and it still eats at him. The color of that medal.
He was so close. He was closer than close. For 45 minutes, he was the Olympic champion. The rest of his life, he's been the runner-up. He has the distinction of being the only second-place finisher to reach the finish line first in an Olympic race.
At 69, he rehashes the race and the fates as if it were yesterday. "I've had to live with it," he says.
His wife of 41 years, Maiva, says, "It's a lifelong disappointment. It's just one of those things you never get over."
Even if he could forget, there are reminders everywhere. Blaine and Maiva drove to a reunion of Olympians in California last week, and the subject of Lindgren's strange Olympic race was raised repeatedly by fellow Olympians. On the return trip to Utah, they visited old friend and Olympic legend Billy Mills, the 1964 Olympic 10,000-meter champion. Over lunch, Mills told his family about Lindgren's fateful Olympic race.
"He's a lot better athlete than I ever was," Mills told his children.
Lindgren, a retired banker who lives in a modest home in Salem and works part time to make ends meet, noticed the difference in how the color of their medals had affected their lives. Mills' gold medal has brought him fortune and fame. A movie "Running Brave" and a book have told his story. He has sponsorships and receives paid trips to every Olympics. He is paid thousands of dollars for speaking engagements around the country.
"He lives in a $3 million house," says Lindgren. "Because he won the gold medal. Nobody pays for a silver medal. I'm retired now. Those people with the gold medals make a lot of money off them. It would have been nice for retirement. I'm struggling like any other retiree."
For anyone with perspective, a silver medal is a remarkable accomplishment. But when you've been told you were the Olympic champion, when you have savored it and accepted congratulations, and then had it taken away when it was right in your grasp, perspective is lost.
Lindgren didn't even begin his track career until his junior year at Cyprus High School, and then only because football coach Rex McKee suggested it as a way to improve his speed for football. As Lindgren tells it, "They didn't have any hurdlers, so I figured I'd be the best we had at that. My coach had been a hurdler, and he got me started correctly."
The 6-foot-4 Lindgren, who also was an all-state football player, was unbeaten in the high and low hurdles. He took his talents to the University of Utah, where he lost only one race in Skyline Conference competition and earned All-American honors while also working 40 hours a week loading freight for a trucking company.
These were the days of amateurism, when the AAU kept its thumb on athletes by refusing to let them earn money from their sport. After graduating from the university in 1962, Lindgren moved to California to compete for the Southern California Striders and managed his training around working for U.S. Bank and Trust in Pasadena 40 hours a week.
He traveled internationally with the U.S. national team for six consecutive summers, competing in Poland, Japan, Great Britain, Sweden, Germany, Italy and Russia. He competed three times in the annual USA vs. Russia track and field meets, which were major events at the time, winning one of them.
After winning the gold medal in the 1963 Pan American Games, Lindgren set his sights on the Olympic Games. Utah businessman Bill Mole gave him money to cover his airfare to the Olympic Trials in New Jersey, and Lindgren qualified for the team with a third-place finish.
He was in fine form at the Olympic Games, winning his preliminary and semifinal heats. The day of the finals, the cinder track was wet from a heavy rain. The water was an inch deep in Lindgren's Lane 1. The race figured to be a showdown between Lindgren and countryman Hayes Jones, the Olympic bronze medalist four years earlier. They ran in near-lockstep most of the race, but Lindgren held a slight lead as they approached the finish line.
This was in the early days of photo timers. To calibrate the camera, five lines were painted on the track, each a meter apart, leading up to the finish. Lindgren mistakenly leaned at the first line five meters too soon. By the time he reached the finish line, Lindgren was still first, but his premature lean caused him to dip underneath the tape that stretched chest-high across the finish line. Nowadays, with the development of photo-timers, winners are determined by the first torso that breaks the plane of the finish line, but in 1964, the winner was determined by the first torso to break the tape.
Lindgren was announced the winner, and no one told him any differently for some 45 minutes. But just as the medalists were about to be sent out to stand on the podium for the medal ceremony, he was informed that he had been moved to second place.
"I think I cried," he recalls. "To lose the race on a technicality it didn't sit well."
Recalling the race, he says, "I wasn't used to those extra lines at the finish. In the preliminary heats, there was only one white line at the finish. But in the final, they put five white lines. I came off the last hurdle in the lead, and leaned at the first line five meters early and went under the tape. I wish I had known they were going to put five white lines on the track. If I had known that, I wouldn't have leaned for the first one. It's haunted me even now."
Utah resident Finn Hansen, a USA Track and Field official for 26 years and an acquaintance of Lindgren's, pauses when asked about Lindgren's Olympic race.
"That's a sore subject for him," he begins. "It's haunted Blaine his whole life. Today, he'd be the Olympic champion. He feels like he got cheated, and he probably was."
When Lindgren returned to Salt Lake City from the Olympics, Mayor J. Bracken Lee presented him with a key to the city. Lindgren retired from competition in 1965. About a year later, he pulled in to the Nampa, Idaho, Chamber of Commerce to ask for directions, and there he met Maiva. They raised four children, and Lindgren supported them with a career in banking, first with First Security and then with Zions. He retired in January but continues to teach classes to Zions employees.
Despite his regrets, he says he has managed to put the Olympic race in perspective.
"My wife straightened me out," he says. "She told me that there are no more silver medals than there are gold medals. How many people are running around who got a silver medal from the Olympic Games?"
Says Maiva, "I don't think you ever get over it, but life goes on. I think he realizes the importance of just being there at the Olympics and competing. What a wonderful thing that was."
Lindgren keeps his Olympic medal locked away for safe-keeping, but for years, he kept it on display, along with his other track awards, in his home office. Then one night his kids threw a party at his house, and his Pan Am gold medal was stolen. His Olympic medal was left behind.
"They didn't know any better," Lindgren says of the thief. "Gold means more than silver."Not even a thief wanted a silver medal.
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