Carl Lewis had been feeling vague, discomfiting pressures. There had been "an avalanche" of media attention last summer, when he emerged as a potential world-record holder in both the long jump and sprints, and was constantly being compared with his idol, Jesse Owens. There had been the painful memory of a strained hamstring muscle that had caused him to pull up lame in the World Cup 100-meter-dash finals last September. There had been talk that he was about to lose his athletic eligibility at the University of Houston, where he is a junior. But now the pressure was clearly defined and squarely in front of him, in the form of a blue plywood runway and a pit of Jersey sand. Lewis had fouled on his first two long-jump attempts at the U.S. Olympic Invitational track meet. One more and, the world indoor record holder (27'10¼") thought, erroneously, he would be eliminated. "I figured I'd play it safe and just try for a legal jump," he said later.
Like the Byrne Meadowland Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., in which the meet was held, the runway is brand-new, and it is lively and long enough (145 feet) to accommodate Lewis' full 21-stride outdoor approach. It is so fast that Lewis had been overstriding on his run-up. On his third jump Lewis eased up slightly in order not to foul again, but he sailed to the right side of the pit and fell backward after landing. His sister, Carol, a freshman hurdler and long jumper at Houston, was nearby. "It was just a pop-up," he told her. "Maybe a mid-26." However, the judges remained in a tight cluster around the pit. "Hey, maybe it was 27 feet," Lewis thought. Finally the measurement was announced: 28'1", only the fourth legal 28-foot performance in history and the first ever indoors. "It wasn't a very good jump," Lewis maintained. "It was just a night for damaged goods."
Indeed, while Lewis was surprising himself with his prodigious leap, Don Paige, still flushed from his dramatic victory 20 minutes earlier in the 1,000 meters, was standing at trackside with world indoor-mile record holder Eamonn Coghlan, who was in street clothes. As if on behalf of all the recently wounded athletes—Lewis and Mary Decker Tabb and Paige himself—Paige reached down and grabbed Coghlan's right shin. He wanted to check out the stress fracture that had forced Coghlan to sit out this evening and, indeed, the whole season. Paige playfully probed for broken bones. Then he shook his head, seemingly saying, Eamonn, you should have joined us.
Even the meet itself was staging something of a comeback, having been abandoned in 1981 by Madison Square Garden in favor of a tennis tournament (page 18). For a season, the Invitational simply ceased to exist, but when it resurfaced last Saturday, it appeared better off than before: The rent was lower; the once-used 160-meter plywood and fiberglass track proved as fast as any; and virtually all the athletes who were supposed to show up did—something unheard of in the sport. The most prominent no-show was a high-jump official—a fellow named Wilt Chamberlain, who didn't appear to pick up the white-and-navy sweatsuit livery issued to meet officials. However, Chamberlain did send along his Los Angeles-based team (Wilt's A.C.) with T shirts that read: WHERE THERE'S A WILT, THERE'S A WAY.
January 25, 1982
Perhaps not even the 7'1" Chamberlain himself could have seen the leader from where Paige was positioned until the last lap of the 1,000—seventh in a field of eight. And it seemed unlikely that even the world's top-ranked 800-meter runner in 1980 could will his way to a win. Paige had strained tendons in his left ankle last January and had missed the entire 1980 outdoor season, which saw Seb Coe and Steve Ovett slash away at the middle-distance records in Europe. Steeled in his resolve to come back, Paige halted his M.B.A. studies at Philadelphia's Drexel University in March and took a job as an assistant track coach at Villanova, his alma mater. "At 25 I should devote as much energy as I can toward my running," he says. "At 35 it won't be there."
With a lap and a half to go on Saturday, Paige, who had dropped to dead last, showed he still has plenty there. In the third turn he shot high up the steep banking and went into a flat-out sprint. Arms churning, head waggling from side to side, he looked like the Paige of old, the searing kicker who went three indoor seasons (1978, '79 and '80) without a defeat at either 1,000 meters or yards. Passing through the blue-gray pistol smoke into the gun lap, he was the leader. Bespectacled Olympian Randy Wilson chased furiously but never drew closer than a yard. Paige won in 2:21.49, with Wilson second in 2:21.85.
Paige had scarcely hit the tape when a groan went up from the crowd. Pole vaulter Billy Olson had just failed in his second try at 18'6", half an inch higher than Dan Ripley's 1979 U.S. indoor record. "I was using a longer and stiffer pole than I ever have, but for that try I borrowed one of Ripley's, which was even bigger," said Olson, who had already won the vault. "His pole just kind of beat me up, though, so I gave it back to him."
Shortly before his record attempts, Olson had been under the stands getting chiropractic treatment to relieve a sore left hamstring. Yes, he's a medical case, too. He blossomed in 1980 while at Abilene Christian, clearing 18'7½" outdoors, but in September of that year shattered his left wrist and dislocated his left elbow in a training mishap.
Although he says he is still "extremely righthanded" from the accident, Olson came back well enough in 1981 to win the outdoor nationals with a vault of 18'2½". Still, his best indoor jump had been only 17'10" before Saturday, which made it doubly surprising when he soared far above the bar on his final try at 18'6". "Oh, man, this is unbelievable," he said. "The runway is great—hard and not real bouncy. It's hard to describe it. It gives you a lift."
Decker Tabb has always contrived to be buoyant through a career beset with injuries and covered in detail by the press, down to every last boyfriend. But just before the women's 1,500, she was apprehensive, because she hadn't run a track race in 17 months, dating back to a 3,000 in Brussels in which her left Achilles tendon tightened to the verge of rupturing and forced her to drop out with two laps to go. She had had surgery on the Achilles in September of 1980, but then last March needed a second operation on her calves (the first was in 1977)—the sheaths around her muscles were too stiff and tight, causing pain when she ran. She had set five American and three world records in 1980, but could compete only twice last year, finishing fifth in the cross-country nationals in November and first in a 10-km. road race in December.
"It's almost like starting over," she had said that morning. And she started, as though making up for lost time, with a blazing 62.0 400 meters. At the finish she was almost a third of a lap ahead of runner-up Josephine White and 7.5 seconds off her own U.S. indoor record of 4:00.8. "I think the record can go at the Millrose [in Madison Square Garden on Feb. 12]," she said, words that Alberto Salazar was soon repeating.
Salazar came into the meet bruised only in the competitive sense. The world marathon world-record holder had lost last year's Millrose 5,000 to Suleiman Nyambui of Tanzania, who had set a world indoor record in the race, and Salazar wanted a measure of revenge. He got it Saturday—but only after a remarkable comeback and a few bruises.
A lap and a half into the race, while in second place, Salazar was bumped from behind by Solomon Chebor and sent tumbling onto the track. "My first thought was to get up as quickly as possible," he said later. "But then don't overreact. Ease in. I was unsteady a couple of laps." From last place Salazar worked up toward Nyambui, passing him with 26 of the 31 laps left. As few have ever done to Nyambui, Salazar then pulled away, claiming to be oblivious to the crowd's "Go, go, go" chants—"That's all background music," he said—yet seeming to respond to them. His final time of 13:23.08 was a mere .5 off his own U.S. record and nine full seconds faster than second-place Nyambui's.
In his phone call home, Olson more or less expressed what both the athletes and the 12,110 fans were feeling as they filed out into an icy night. "Good, yeah, very good," Olson had said, nodding his head. "They have a brand new place and...yeah, it was great."