"The following is a complete, unedited, unverified interview, portions of which were utilized in the Red Files PBS broadcast. Statements therein are the sole opinion of the interviewee, and do not reflect the views of PBS, DDE or Series and Web Site producer Abamedia, which are not Responsible for the interview content."
Interviewer: Did you know Igor in '60?
Ralph Boston: In 1960 in Rome, I really didn't know who he was, I knew who Igor Ter-Ovanesyan was, I'd read about him and I was an up and coming athlete and he had been on the international circuit for a while, but it was interesting I, the chance meeting. He had come into, the American compound if I can call it that to use the scales, the weigh himself. And he was getting off the scales as I remember, and he turned to me and he said, Hello Ralph, I'm Igor. And I said, Hello Igor, and he walked away, he knew some other guys on the team. And that was, that was my first meeting with him, I didn't see him then as I saw him later on as this, staunch adversary, he was just a person, I got to know him a lot differently as the years passed.
Interviewer: He became eventually a staunch.
Ralph Boston: You know I don't even know that I want to call what we did a rivalry it was fun I mean it was competitive, but it was also great fun. We could actually spend time together before the competition, we were at Stanford in 1962 or wherever we were. We could spend time together during the day and just kind of talk and enjoy each other and enjoy the moment. But it was interesting we both knew that once you walk through the gates of that stadium, then it was on, the game was on. And once that game was over then we began, we went back to being Igor and Ralph, Ralph and Igor. And that was, that was really great, that was great.
Interviewer: What was at stake, in a competition.
Ralph Boston: Not sure, I think I was convinced to a point that this was the Cold War we were fighting. So I'm not, I'm not sure that was at stake but I'm sure I was convinced of that. So you had to rev your engines, to beat the Russians and I think more than anything, if the Soviet team would win, or the Soviet athletes would win, you would see and hear and read about that. Quite frequently. So they would make a big issue of it. I didn't see it as just that kind of you know but, I guess it was, because I guess that's err, that's the way both countries played it.
Interviewer: Did you really feel like they were, you know, events of the Cold War.
Ralph Boston: I think I was more or less, convinced of that by just the press, the US press. By people who were pressuring you, saying that you gotta beat the Russian's, if you don't win anything else, win the Russian meet and so forth. I think you sort of bought into that even, knowingly or unknowingly you bought into that and, and so that pressure was there. I remember so very clearly that the Soviet meet was the first meet of the European swing, once you competed in the Soviet Union you felt less pressure. We would go to Warsaw to compete against the Poles, then to West Germany. Then maybe to England or somewhere else, but it was, it was always very stress less once we left the Soviet Union.
Interviewer: In sixty one, you go to Moscow for the first games, what was your impression.
Ralph Boston: The smell of the tobacco, Turkish tobacco. I remember that. I will never forget that. We got off the plane and walked through the airport and I said what is that pungent odour. And it was the Turkish tobacco that the Soviets use in their cigarettes. I remember that so very clearly, I remember that it was kind of a, drab, cold, different kind of country. the peoples clothing were not bright and lively, the colours of the, the soldiers were dull, the apartment buildings were an ikky yellow if that makes sense. I remember that it was life but it was like a kind of life that said, something's missing here. I didn't see very many smiles. To this day I don't ever remember seeing a pet inside Moscow, I never saw anyone carrying a dog, or leading a dog. Err I finally saw a, a pet some years later in Kiev, so I thought that life must have been, different. And it was the first time in my life I saw women doing manual labour, they were, they were paving the streets, they were driving the trucks, they were pruning the trees, I'd never seen that. I had never seen that.
Interviewer: Were you afraid.
Ralph Boston: No. I don't think I was afraid, I was concerned, because I, you know I'm, just Capitalist from the United States obviously I must have had something that they wanted so they were going to, bug my room and tail me and I have to watch out for the KGB, and once I realised what the heck I have that they want, they don't want me, then I was Ok. But it was real interesting being an African American you know, there weren't very many Africans or African Americans that had been to the Soviet Union, to Moscow at that time. And I remember very clearly a friend of mine and I were walking down the main street, toward Red Square. And we, there was this strange feeling and we both turned around, and there were all these people following us. And as we turned around, they were startled, so they all turned around and started to walk the other way. Afraid no, I wasn't afraid but it was an unusual thing, it was an unusual feeling. It was an unusual atmosphere for me having grown up in this country and, and, and never seeing anything like that.
Interviewer: But what was the atmosphere at the matches. At the match like.
Ralph Boston: First of all you knew the stadium was going to be full at every one of these competitions. The stadium was gonna be filled, there was not going to be any empty seat in the house. I think, that in itself played to the, the Soviet athletes, that is not to say that the Soviet people were not sports fans, I think they were great sport, they may be the most knowledgeable sports fans I've ever seen. But you knew that Stadium was gonna be filled, we'd thought, or I thought that would play toward the Soviet team, they were very knowledgeable as I said. They cheered, the applauded when a good performance was made, they even booed the officials when the officials made a bone-headed call. So it, it was different than what we were led to believe, we were led to believe that, this thing may be slanted toward the other side, but the fans certainly didn't seen to think so.
Interviewer: And then are you and Igor becoming better friends.
Ralph Boston: We're becoming better friends as we move through the 1960, '61, he came to New York, we saw each other there. And I think we exchanged gifts I think it, it's safe to say that even now as we see each other, we exchange some kind of gift, the last time I saw him outside of this country I didn't, I saw him in Atlanta for the games, but I didn't get a chance to spend very much time with him, I met him in London in 1991, and I took him the old Southern thing called a quilt, do you know what it is. And he was like wow, and he told me, man I really appreciate this and the last time I saw him he said he still sleeps with it. We made pictures together, with my camera. And I blew one up and I framed it and I had it sent to him, so we, we're becoming very close. We were becoming close friends in '61, and the friendship just grew and grew and grew. And I can tell you, from behind my eyes I don't remember that there were ever cross words, we disagreed on things but that's, life but there were never the, the angry cross words. We never got to that point.
Interviewer: But he told us that, because of the pressures he felt the Soviet athletes, he felt like he could never to truly open with you, couldn't have a real true friendship. What do you think of that. Did you ever sense that on your part. That pressure.
Ralph Boston: Not totally, but I did sense some other things, not that particular thing. I remember once in Stanford, at Stanford, he took me into an area where he backed me into a corner. My back was actually into the corner. And his back was facing that way, and I said, Igor what are you doing, he said I want to talk to you. I said Ok, so he started to talk to me about how I lived, and how I did things and how things were in this country and then I said, why are we standing here like this and he said, because there are lip readers on the Soviet team and I have to be very careful what I say. Maybe, now that I think about that, maybe those pressures were there. But I can tell you we had some great times together. Some of them I can't even tell you about. ( laughs ).
Interviewer: Ok. So in 64 you had an idea that ......
Ralph Boston :
You know in, in 1964, when we went to Tokyo to compete in the games, I probably was in the best shape of my life, I had just jumped a foot beyond the Worlds record and it was disallowed because of wind, but I had a serious of string of competitions that were really super, and there was a guy that Igor and I both were friends with, Dick Bank, who said he walked into Igor and Igor ask how's Ralph and Dick told him, he's in the best shape of his life, and Igor, somehow I got a message that Igor wanted to speak to me. When I saw him the, the first time there was a, let me call him bodyguard for lack of a better person, there was a person on each side, bodyguard, and he just acknowledged me and, and continued to walk. And so I asked Dick, I believe I said, who are these guys. I mean I've never seen that kind of thing, he said, from the other Soviet athletes who would talk to me there is word that Igor is planning to defect here. And they want to be sure he doesn't go. Finally I did get to speak to him when we were warming up, and he told me, that yeah, he had thought about it. But apparently they had figured it out and they said, we'll take care of your family while you're gone to the Olympic Games. And so he said I can't go, that ended it and I don't know that it ever even reached that kind of point again.
Interviewer: How, how did Igor like America.
Ralph Boston: Igor loved America, he loved, we went to Disneyland, he, I love Steak, I want Steak and coca cola. He loved the cars he loved the apartments. He loved the wide open spa, he adored California. I mean that was just whoa, that was the cat's meow. But Igor loved America, even New York in the winter which nobody likes. ( laughing ) Igor thought it was great, I could never somehow work it out. Where I could get him to come down and visit in Tennessee while he was here, I was able to finally get that worked out with some of the Cuban athletes. But Igor could never could do that. But he loved America, he always had a great time here. We ate Steaks, we ate liver, we ate whatever we wanted and he enjoyed.
Interviewer: Yeah, I mean, there he does really well and if you won the long jump I think but that, I think after that you were on the cover of Sports illustrated. Did you feel like they were trying to catch up?
Ralph Boston: They were trying to catch up.
Interviewer: The Russian team was, and Igor was, was sort of on your, on your heels.
Ralph Boston: I'd thought Igor and the Russian, the Soviet team were, that that team was on our heels anyway. Because you could see the gap closing and I'm very serious. In 1963 for the first time, a Soviet athlete won the hurdles. I can't even remember his name now. But he won the high hurdles. He beat the best hurdlers in the world and at Lenin Stadium in Moscow who they're closing the gap. But at Stanford, I remember so very clearly that Igor had a problem. He pulled a muscle, he tore a hamstring or something, and after the competition he showed me where he had been injected with Novocain or some pain killer, because they wanted him to compete because they wanted so desperately to win that meet. Now that's when I began to feel like, hey you know I'm not sure this is worth this man. Because if you tear your leg up and you can never use it again, you're not gonna be able to compete anyway. But he pulled me aside and he showed me the, the insertion points where the needles went in. I wasn't really thrilled at that, but were they catching up, oh yes, they were catching up, and catching up very fast. The women were already ahead.
Interviewer: Madison Square garden January '63, indoors. What happened there.
Ralph Boston: ( laughing ) I took the worst whipping I think I ever had, 26 ten and half or something I believe from Igor. I was err just trying to be, trying to begin a new life in California first time I ever tried to compete in glasses, they didn't help, Igor just killed me, I mean he literally smashed me, all I could say was, congratulations my friend, and that, that's it. I remember I took him I believe a shirt from LA, I think that's where I was at that time. And he gave me, a can of Russian caviar. And that can of Caviar is still at my sister's house I believe in New York. But he was ready for that competition, he was as sharp as a tack, I mean he just Bkkkoww. Ok well, congratulations. He was good, he was ready then.
Interviewer: Is there any sense that you can probably lick a country down, like that, or was it just another competition?
Ralph Boston: I think I tried to separate indoors and out. And so when he beat me indoors, I did not see that as letting anybody down, I saw it as a good head to head competition, and so it was. It was fine. I think it would have been fine had he had, had he'd beat me outside because again, if you know anything about New York, and the New York track and field fans, the people at the old garden, they know well track and field. They are very familiar with track and field. They're good track and field fans, almost as good as the fans in the Soviet Union. So a good performance they appreciate also.
Now, I did have a guy in California in Modesto who always gave me a rough time, Igor would beat me indoors and I'd come to Modesto for an outdoor meet, and this guy would yell out of the stands, any time you can't even beat the Russian. So I remember this one particular occasion, I set the World's record at Modesto. And I went into the stands and I went after him. I didn't hit him of course, but I leaned. I got into the stands and got into his face and said, that's my World's record you know, the Russians don't have it now, I do. So, you got something else to say, and the fans all around just cheered and cheered. This guy and I was, you know, we would see each other but that kind of what some of the people felt, track aficionados saw this as a competition two good athletes competing against each other and that was the way it was.
Interviewer: You came back from Russia once with a, with a, one of the hats, and wore it at an American football game. Do you want to tell that story?
Ralph Boston: Yeah, I was a student, I was a graduate student at Tennessee State University. After I'd gone to the Soviet Union, and man it was one of those ice cream cold nights. That they can have in middle Tennessee, and I went to a football game. And I wore this beautiful black fur hat, I mean it was gorgeous. I had bought it while I was in the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle star with the little pins on it, I inserted it in the hat, folded it behind my head so that it would stay on. And I'm sitting at this game, enjoying the game. And this guy said to me, you gotta take that off. Or I'm gonna take that hat. And, I said, why man, it's just a hat. It's a sharp hat but it's a hat none the less. Yeah but that's not good. Why. That's, this is the US against Soviet Union and that was the intent of the whole thing. So I remember you know I was a little skinny guy. One metre 87 centimetres, 74 kilos 6 1 a hundred and 64 pounds. I wasn't gonna fight this guy over a hat, so I just, I took the symbol off but I still wore the hat, it was a great hat, I wonder where that hat is, I don't even know where it is now.
Interviewer: Do you think that the US Soviet competition and that intense rivalry made you compete to a higher standard. Did that inspire you.
Ralph Boston: I would have to say that it made me compete to a higher standard, I don't think that it was necessarily inspiration. As much as it was probably pressure. That guy who sat in the stands and said you gotta take that hat off, because, you're representing Soviet Union now, and you should be representing us, in effect that's what I think he was saying. I think I didn't like that feeling, so I gave it my best, and I gave it my best every time. I think in another sense, knowing full well that you're competing against this guy Igor Ter-Ovanesyan you better be ready because when you show up he's gonna be ready. Matter of fact there were days when I really didn't want to train. And I actually said, I don't think I'll work out today. And then I thought. Igor is working out, so I would go and work out. And he was the guy who, who probably made me discipline myself to the point where I got the best out of my ability. So I guess if you want to read that as inspiration, yeah. But it wasn't, I don't think it was the Soviet Union USA per se it was one guy, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan.
Interviewer: In '66, you know the meets are cancelled, you know because of the Vietnam war and Igor speaks out against that. Do you feel like politics got in the way.
Ralph Boston: I think politics got in the way a lot of times, but I did not know that Igor spoke out against that until recently. I did not know that. We never talked about that, err I think we missed a good opportunity, a golden opportunity in '66, the Poles were gonna come, I believe they were gonna come to Cal Berkeley, and the Soviets were gonna be in LA the next week. And we never got a chance to compete, against either one of those teams and as a matter of fact, the Soviets and the Poles got together and had a meet, Moscow Warsaw somewhere, and measured their results against the results of the meet we had, and claimed, proclaimed that they had won a great victory. But I think it gets in the way, yes it got in the way. I used to say all the time, if you would allow people like Igor and myself to run the world we'd be a hell of a lot better off. Without the Khrushchevs or the Nixons or the Reagans or those people you know, let us run it and I promise you we'll have a much better world.
Interviewer: Did you get a sense that the Soviet Union was committed politically to spending a lot of money on, on their athletes. And you know you guys were you know pretty much amateurs but these guys were essentially professionals. How did that feel?
Ralph Boston: You know, I know that the Soviet Union had dedicated a lot of resources to their athletic programmes, I know that, I was sure of that because they could not have risen to the top as quickly as they did without that kind of support. There were a number of feelings about it, one was, here I am this guy that goes to work every morning at 9, and gets off at 4.30 and I'm still competing against and beating the best that these guys have, so that makes me feel pretty good.
In another sense I, I guess I just I didn't understand why this was in, initially I didn't understand why this was so important to them. But they used it, now I understand they used it as a tool to say, we are the best, we are the greatest. I have heard a theory, and the theory says that the US hockey team probably did not win that competition in, in 1980. But that the Soviets threw the match simply to get the US to come to the Moscow Olympics. I heard that. Now I can't tell you that was true or false, I don't know, I don't have any information. It is something I heard and if you hear it, you, somehow say, at least I need to think about it, you know, maybe. But I've heard that, but yes they put a lot of money into a lot of things. And they got the results.
The hockey team did for example play together for years and years and years and years, I heard the story that, I mean I've heard err analogies that said when one guy coughed, someone else would know exactly who coughed, even though it was dark and they were all sleeping in this big room. Err so they stayed together, they trained together, the State supported them, err the State took care of everything, Igor told me once he paid 10 dollars a month for his, his apartment and it came with a, a housekeeper who took care of his children and all of that. I said jeez, I pay 400 dollars a month and I don't even have frontage on mine yet, so, you know it was a difference. They spent the money to take care of their athletes, and they got the results, erm, but that's the way they wanted to do it.
You feel like that was unfair? Competing against these guys, did you feel like these guys were really were professionals?
Ralph Boston: No. I don't feel like that was really unfair, that's the way they chose to do things, I equated it to a college, American college football player who comes to college, he has everything paid for, I mean everything, scholarship, room board, tuition, books, he's given some spending money, and somebody trains him, somebody teaches him his classes. They do that, I didn't see that the Soviet athletes were any different than a college football player, I saw them pretty much as the same. But the college football player was not held up for the world to see to say, this is the best in the world, and that's where the difference came, I thought as far as the training it was a great method of training, they got the best out of their athletes but, and we did not. It's interesting how everybody challenged that then, we are now in that same mode , we have training centers where we bring people in the basketball team, the volleyball teams, all these teams stay together and train, so, you know it must not have been too bad, huh, it worked and you now accepting that.
Interviewer: Looking back now, how do those times with Nixon, you know a great sports and great politics coming together, how does it look to you know with, with hindsight.
Ralph Boston: I'm not sure I'd ever given that any thought. I think there were things I always wanted to do, and I think for me sports allowed me to get to some of those things to do some of those things. I met a man once when I was in Ausburg West Germany and I saw this man walking across the field. A huge man, in a trench coat. And you looked at his face and you said, that's Willie Brant, he's the Chancellor of West Germany, and so I got a chance because of Sports to meet him, and I've met people like that. Lindon Johnson, and so forth, for me, that was glorious.
That was really, really wonderful but, to try and answer your question I'm not sure I ever even thought of it like a mix, I think that I would like to have seen that, just sports standing on it's own, if the Soviets decided to bring all of their people into a camp and keep them there in perpetuity and train them that's fine, however we did it that's fine, however the British did it that's fine. But let us all go to the stadium, compete and let us go home, leave it at the Stadium or write stories about it but don't make it a political football by which you try and show the world I'm better than this person, follow our, our ideology because ours works. If it's only taken us 10 years to be a great track and field power, these people have been doing it for a hundred and 10 years, and they're just getting there, so. Follow our ideology I wish that had never happened, I think that Sport would have been a lot better and the world would have been a lot better.
Interviewer: When you were competing, you thought you were competing for your self, or your team.
Ralph Boston: First myself. Then my team. America, yeah I guess so, because I had USA on my chest, there was no way to get around that. But first myself, and then secondly for the team because we were always in those, at least those competitions, the Soviet versus, USA versus Soviet Union versus Poland versus Great Britain, versus Norway whomever, that was a team competition we were trying to win. Now when you brought it to Igor and Ralph in the Melrose Games, that was completely different. I wouldn't wear a USA, in fact I wore, I wore a sweat, a French jersey, I got a French shirt from a sprinter friend of mine and I wore that when we competed indoors, or when we competed outdoors. So I wasn't wearing a USA, I was competing against Igor and it was, Ralph against Igor, there wasn't even a team involved in this, and now that I'm thinking about it, those were probably the best times, they probably really were. I mean because we competed against each other and we let it alone.
Interviewer: So back you know, first question, impressions you know Igor 1960, who was the champ.
Ralph Boston: My first impression of him was exactly that. Who is this guy, I mean he spoke to me. He was stepping off some scales in the landing as we came down the stairs, from the dorm rooms in the Olympic village in Rome. He said hello Ralph and I, he said I'm Igor and I had never met him, I'd never, I don't think I'd ever seen a picture of him close enough to know who he was. I noticed that he was about my height, he's about my size, and I knew his name, and, and I knew what he had done. But at that point, I didn't have the, let me call it fear for lack of a better word, Ok. I didn't fear him, as I grew to fear him as we moved on through the years. At that point I guess I was kinda cocky, I felt like I was head and shoulders above anybody else in the world at that time and so, I didn't fear him, but my first impression was. He's a nice man because he spoke to me in a language I understood. I saw pictures of him later with some of the US athletes that he knew, they had gone swimming somewhere, I guess I never really got to do those kinds of things with Igor, because I think as we moved through life Igor became more of a rebel, a radical and they began to single him out and keep him away from the majority of the other team members. But my first impression was here's this guy, that I've heard about. Now I've met him but, you know I didn't have any, any particular fears or bias's at that time.
Interviewer: He said, "Well we're great friends, you know we get on with, on the, on the track you know, I hated him." How did you feel.
Ralph Boston: I don't think I hated him, I didn't want him to beat me. Because I didn't want to be beaten, I never hated him. I don't think I hated him. I think I can speak for Igor, I think that's exactly what he was saying. He wanted to win. I wanted to win. Only one of us could win. And when it was over, the thing was done. Let's go on to something else. Why don't we go out and eat a steak, why don't we go out and have some liver. Let's go to Disneyland, let's do something, let's enjoy life. Let's put this track and field thing beside, behind us, but I don't think I ever hated him, I tell you I feared him, I was afraid of him because I know that whenever you would step, set foot on the track against him, he was gonna be ready, or he would not show up. Only Stanford in '63 I believe, or whatever that year was, the year no, '62 I'm sorry, that I ever found him with some problems, he had those, those, those needle marks in his leg. Otherwise, he was always ready.