When he was a baby, Milan Tiff suffered from a bone disease called Osgood-Schlatter’s; he did not walk until he was 8. To amuse the ailing little boy, Milan’s father, Benjamin, told him stories about two of his major enthusiasms, science fiction and track (he was a high school teammate of Jesse Owens). “I was so physical in my imagination that it helped me pull right out of the numb stage in my legs,” Milan recalls. “When I finally started track, my dad was the only one who could coach me. We would go through this whole thing about the invisible—we can’t see what exists there, but we have to penetrate it to get results. It’s like running through another world.”
The mysticism paid off. At 29, Tiff is the only American triple jumper (an event that used to be called the “hop, step and jump”) ever to clear 57 feet—by a quarter of an inch. (The leap, however, was disqualified as a national record because of a slight wind at his back.) Brazil’s João Oliveira holds the world record at 58’8¼”.
Tiff’s approach to sports is unique. When not training, he paints—skillfully. “It’s something I have to do every day.” Of his abstracts he says, “I paint reality that exists but can’t be seen with the eye.” Though a fierce competitor, he has been known to give away his own prizes to rivals who finish behind him “so they will come back next week and say hello.” He shrugs off competitive jealousy and pals around with archrival Ron Livers, noting, “We both get better results because of it.” At the 1972 and 1976 Olympic trials, Tiff says he deliberately finished last, behind jumpers he had consistently beaten, in order to make a point. “I’ve seen athletes’ lives go to zero if they didn’t make the Olympic team,” he explains. “That has always hurt me. I thought that if another athlete could go instead of me, perhaps he’d be happy with himself. I was happy with myself. Besides, I had nothing to prove—I could always wait for another Olympics.”
That has changed. “I’m aging,” says Tiff, who will be 30 July 4, “and I think I’m going to shut down competitively after 1980, so I’m training hard. I can’t see that making the team will be any problem.” Milan contends that his only real competition in Moscow will be three-time Russian gold medalist Victor Saneyev. “Whenever I’ve been up against him, I’ve chosen to watch rather than go all out,” says Tiff. “He knew that, and he’d ask, ‘Why?’ And I’d answer, ‘Well, I’m still learning. If you can hang around long enough for me to get it down, then we’ll have a good competition.’ ”
Tiff, raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, set a national high school record for the triple jump in his senior year. His mother, a former opera singer and now a voice coach, and his father, a composer of guitar music, hoped he would go to art school. He disappointed them by enrolling at Miami University of Ohio on a track scholarship, then switching to UCLA. (Milan has two brothers—Manning, 35, a jazz musician, and Maurice, 30, a professional artist—and two sisters—Michele, 27, a concert pianist, and Margo, 26, a tennis pro who once played for the Cleveland Nets.)
Win or lose in Moscow next year, Tiff maintains, “The easy thing, actually, is beating the next guy. It’s much harder to defeat the event. Even if I break the world record, there’s still all that space out there to conquer.”