In the dream scenario, U.S. athletes in red, white and blue jerseys would have zoomed down the track like so many greyhounds after the mechanical rabbit. Forced by politicians to sit out the Olympics while the Soviets and their cousins from East Germany and Poland made mincemeat of the Moscow Games by winning 28 of 38 track and field gold medals, the American team would smash world records all over the place, once a series of European meets began in August. At the very least it would better the marks that won gold in Moscow, while beating up on the Commies. Jimmy Carter would love it.
And for a while, when the first post-Olympic meet got under way in Rome last Tuesday night, it seemed that the dream would come true, especially when a field of 100-meter sprinters that included five Americans went off in the first heat of the first championship running event. Mel Lattany broke the tape in 10.23. With that he had "won" the Olympic gold medal from Allan Wells of Great Britain, who had run 10.25 in Moscow. And with seven Americans—Lattany, Steve Williams, Harvey Glance, James Sanford, Carl Lewis, Willie Gault and Stanley Floyd—lined up for the eight-man final along with Guyana's James Gilkes, could there ever be a better moment for Jim Hines' 12-year-old record of 9.95 to come tumbling down?
But when Floyd beat his teammates in 10.20, a time surpassed by plenty of sprinters this year, including Wells, who ran 10.11 in a heat at the Olympics, the dream was exposed for what it was, a jingoistic fantasy. Not an athlete among the 90 or so Americans on the European tour was naive enough to believe that any track meet could stand in the place of an Olympics or that comparing Olympic and post-Olympic performances had any merit. And, with the spirit of international sport still infected with East vs. West politics, few American athletes really gave a damn. Thus, anyone expecting Olympian performances from our troops in 1980 was, for the most part, apt to be sorely disappointed.
For one thing, the Rome meet was the only one of the three the American team participated in last week that the Russians also entered. And only four of the Soviet Union's 12 individual gold medalists showed up there, including Yuri Sedykh and Vera Komisova in the hammer throw and women's 100-meter hurdles, respectively, events in which the Americans don't approach world-class standards. In West Berlin on Friday and Cologne on Sunday, not only the Soviets but also all other Communist-bloc countries stayed away. The East Germans, winners of 11 gold medals, skipped all three meets. Thus, for instance, Mac Wilkins was unable to compete against East Germany's Wolfgang Schmidt or the U.S.S.R.'s Viktor Rashchupkin in the discus, although Wilkins bettered Rashchupkin's gold-medal-winning throw of 218'8" with a 219'2" in Berlin.
August 17, 1980
The tour was becoming a nightmare for Jimmy Carnes, the U.S. Olympic team coach. "I don't know who's going to be here from where," he said while scanning a hotel lobby the night before Friday's meet in Berlin. "I don't know if Russians or Poles are coming. I don't even know who's going to be here for us. That's why I'm in the lobby. If I see somebody, I know they're here. There's a meet in London tomorrow. Some of our people got a better deal there. We have Cologne Sunday, but some are skipping that for Budapest on Monday."
The Byzantine schedule of meets had everyone confused. Don Paige, America's best 800-meter man, came to Europe looking for Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. He found neither last week and finished third in Rome and second in Berlin. "These guys make me mad," said Paige. "How can you get ready to run against them if they are picking and choosing? The meet promoter in Budapest told me Ovett is going to run the 1,500 there for a world record. Now he tells me Ovett is going to run the 5,000. Now I'm not going. And now I start getting beat."
When Carnes wasn't scouring lobbies for athletes, he was apologizing for the Americans' lackluster performances. "It wouldn't have mattered whether the Russians and East Germany came or not," he said. "We aren't in any shape to compete against them anyway." So instead of a chance for Americans to wreak vengeance on the politicians who kept them out of the Olympics as well as the athletes who won the medals there, last week, at least, turned out to be just another if-this-is-Sunday-it-must-be-Cologne tour, complete with lost luggage, tired feet and diarrhea, in the midst of a track season that for most of the athletes never really existed at all.
The Rome meet was particularly miserable for the Americans. In a 400-meter race that included Soviet gold medalist Viktor Markin, Billy Mullins and Willie Smith of the U.S. finished a dismal fourth and fifth. Markin was beaten by West Germany's Harald Schmid (45.17) and Kenya's Billy Konchellah. On the occasion of her first meeting with the Soviet 1,500-meter women's world-record holder (3:55.0) and Olympic gold medalist, Tatyana Kazankina, Mary Decker, who had set the American record of 4:00.87 in July, finished third in 4:03.15. Renaldo Nehemiah, the world's greatest 110-meter hurdler, didn't run in either Rome or Berlin. In his absence Greg Foster won Rome in a crawling 13.51, then skipped Berlin.
Friday's meet in Berlin was hosted by the West Germans, adherents of the Olympic boycott, and began with this public-address announcement: "The boycott by the Eastern European countries will not hinder us from putting on this usual world-class meet for 250 finely prepared athletes...." In fact, the West Germans performed well, as they had in Rome, most notably a 70'7" shot-put by Ralf Reichenbach, which beat Vladimir Kiselyev's 70'½" winning distance in Moscow. But with a few exceptions, there wasn't much more satisfaction for the uninspired Americans than there had been in Rome.
The American athletes could take a lesson from Edwin Moses, who is as dominant in his event, the 400-meter hurdles, as any athlete in the world. After winning his 45th consecutive final in Rome, in a slowish 48.51—which still would have won an Olympic gold medal—Moses geared up for his meeting in Berlin with Schmid, the second-ranked 400-meter hurdler in the world last year. By the second hurdle Moses began pulling away from Schmid, and by the time they turned for home he led by 15 meters. After the final hurdle Moses slowed down visibly. His time was 47.17, just .04 off his own world record, the second-best time ever for the event. Moses has now run the eight best 400-meter-hurdles times in history.
"My professional instinct for the sport causes me to be totally involved in it," he says. "This is the No. 1 interest in my life right now. I gave up a job as an engineer. I gave up the possibility of going to medical school. It is terribly unfortunate that there were no Olympics, especially for somebody like me. I lost all kinds of opportunities by not winning another gold medal and getting something out of it. But any time I run I want to do the best I can. I think Bjorn Borg and I are the two top athletes in the world, because nobody can beat us. Another world record? I could have done it today, but I slowed up 15 feet before the tape."
With several more meets to run before this calamitous track season ends, there is reason to believe that Moses will have his new world record—and that he will break 47 seconds, a prodigious feat indeed. And even if the rest of the Americans are unable to repair the damage of a wasted year, there is always 1981 and, one certainly hopes, a truly international 1984 Olympics to look forward to.