Saturday, September 12, 2009
Born to Run
Mel Lattany could run. He could run faster than all but a few dozen people in the history of the World. As the athletes of the United States are competing in Athens, Greece in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, this former Dublin Junior High School teacher made his mark on the tracks of another Athens, Athens, Georgia, a quarter of a century ago. Considered by one panel of authorities as the 6th greatest sprinter of all time, Mel Lattany was among those Olympians who were denied their chance to capture the gold medal by the preposterous politics of the Cold War.
Born Melvin Lattany on August 10, 1959 in Brunswick, Ga., Mel made a bold promise to his family when he was only eight years old. He sat at the dinner table and told his doubting siblings that “I am going to be the first Lattany to put our name in the papers nationwide.” Mel, an all state track and football star at Glynn Academy in Brunswick, was given a track scholarship to the University of Georgia, where he began his career in the spring of 1978. A sportswriter predicted that this swift freshman would become an Olympian. Mel lived up to his reputation when he set a Junior World Record at the U.S. Air Force Academy on June 20, 1979. His time of 10.09 seconds still stands as seventh best ever for a man under the age of twenty
and is only 0.04 seconds shy of the current World record. As a sophomore at Georgia, Lattany’s sprint of 20.28 in the 200m, earned him the ranking as the 6th best sprinter in the World.
Mel continued to excel in track events around the country. He set the Southeastern Conference record for a 60-yard dash with a mark of 6.14 seconds. His third place finish at the 1980 Olympic trials in the 100m led to his selection to a spot in the 100m event and 4x100m relay team, along with Carl Lewis, Stanley Floyd and Harvey Glance, Mel’s idol. In a university known more for its football prowess, Mel became only the 5th Bulldog track star to earn a berth on the Olympic team. Just after his selection to the team, President Jimmy Carter, in a protest of Soviet imperialism, ordered that the United States would stage a boycott of the quadrennial games. Lattany, like most other athletes, was disappointed and bewildered by the decision. “It’s really a shame about the boycott,” said Mel. Not seeing the action as a solution to the World’s problems, Lattany told reporters, “The Olympics should not be political at all. This has destroyed many of the goals and ambitions of a lot of athletes.” Lead by Carl Lewis and three SEC sprinters, the relay team was the favorite to win the gold medal in 1980.
Despite the initiation of the boycott, Mel continued to run in events throughout the country and Europe. He won the Liberty Bell Classic in the 100m dash. In a tour of Europe that summer, Mel enjoyed a gratifying victory over Alan Wells of the United Kingdom, the gold medal winner of that year’s Olympics. The 1981 season saw Mel, rated only behind Carl Lewis at the World’s top sprinter, win the World Cup in 200m dash with a mark of 20.21 seconds, only a 1/100 of a second behind the best time of the year. In the 100m event, Mel ran one of his best times ever. His time of 10.04 was 4/100 of a second behind Carl Lewis’s season best time of 10 seconds flat. Earlier that season, the 10.04 time was good enough to time the amateur record set in the 1968 Olympics. Wherever Mel ran, there was always Carl Lewis to spoil his chances of finishing first. In the 1981 NCAA championships, Mel broke out to an early lead in the 100m, only to be overtaken by Lewis, who finished in 9.99 seconds, only a slim 0.07 seconds ahead of Lattany. Mel’s career best in the 60-yard dash of 6.10 seconds was not good enough to beat a 6.04 world record set by Stanley Floyd.
In the 1981 Drake Relays, Mel, a nine time collegiate All-American, capped off his collegiate career with his 4th consecutive win in the 100-meter race, a feat unprecedented in the history of the prestigious event. For his outstanding performance at the relays, Mel was awarded the distinguished Maury White Award. Lattany placed first in the 100m event, finishing more than a quarter of a second ahead of teammate Herschel Walker. In addition to his sprint victories, Mel anchored the 400m and 800m champion relay teams.
In the summer of 1981, Mel attempted to live out his childhood dream of playing college football for the Bulldogs. The Bulldog coaching staff salivated at the prospect of having the second fastest man in the World running post patterns on the turf of Sanford Stadium in their drive to win a second consecutive national championship. Mel’s lack of football skills prevented him from making the team. The following year Mel continued to run and train in hopes of garnering a spot to perform at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. On July 30, 1983, Lattany, ranked 3rd in the World, set a world record in the rarely run 300m dash at Gateshead with a time of 32.15 seconds.
At the age of 24, Mel Lattany, a 1983 education graduate of UGA, was peaking in his attempt to win a Gold Medal. In the 100-meter event at the 1984 Spec Towns Meet in Athens, the sprinter recorded a time of 9.96, the fastest time that year and the fastest ever at such a low altitude. His mark was only 0.01 seconds short of Jim Lines’ world record. Think about how short a hundredth of a second is. Lattany was awarded a spot as an alternate on the 4x100 relay team, which won the Gold Medal in Los Angeles in 1984. For his participation on the team, Mel was also awarded a Gold Medal, a bittersweet prize after a muscle tear and a subsequent injury led to his inability to compete with the world’s fastest sprinters and forced him to watch his teammates from the sidelines.
After only one win at the Jesse Owen’s Classic at Columbus, Ohio in May 1985, Mel once again turned his sights on football. He was given a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys in the summer of 1985. Although he could outrun the football and possessed a dogged determination to succeed, Mel’s lack of football skills prevented him from making the team. A reversal of the determination of amateur status in the United States led to his reinstatement to compete in amateur events.
In 1986, Lattany turned down an offer to come to Dublin to teach Industrial Arts at Dublin Junior High School. He chose to remain in Athens where he could train in hopes of making the 1988 Olympic team. When a 1987 car accident spoiled his chances to make the team, Mel decided to take up the offer in 1989. Mel preferred the slower pace of life in Dublin. He continued to train, but less intensely than before. He had his goals, but he realized that he was rapidly approaching an age when victories would be out of reach. Mel enjoyed teaching and coached the members of the high school track team. He hoped to publish a book to guide young athletes through their collegiate and professional careers.
Mel Lattany’s track career came to end when his legs could no longer carry him as fast as his heart wanted them to. For as long as he lives, Mel Lattany can claim that at one time, he was the fastest human being on the face of the Earth. Only 43 men have run a faster forty-yard dash and one hundred-yard dash. In his prime, Mel could sprint the length of a football field faster than most of us could run across a highway.