Not since the Munich Olympics had three track-and-field world records fallen in a single day—and on that date, Sept. 10, 1972, all three had come in relays. What was happening at the European Athletic Championships in Athens last Wednesday night was without precedent in recent history. First, Marita Koch of East Germany chopped nearly half a second off her three-year-old world record in the women's 400-meter dash, lowering it to an astonishing 48.15. No other woman has ever run the distance in less than 49.03. Then, as darkness settled upon Athens' new Olympic Stadium, 6'2" Ulrike Meyfarth of West Germany, whose last major triumph had come as a 16-year-old at the Munich Games, scraped over the high jump crossbar on her third and final attempt at 6'7½" to win the competition and surpass by almost half an inch Sara Simeoni's 1978 women's world mark. Two individual records were already dust and a third was crumbling. With only the 10th and final event, the 1,500, remaining in the decathlon, Britain's Daley Thompson was within 612 points—or a 4:26.5 1,500—of J√ºrgen Hingsen's month-old record of 8,723 points. A lackluster summer for international track and field had suddenly, stunningly, come alive.
"The European championships are the second biggest games after the Olympics," Thompson had said earlier, explaining his own fervor in training for them. Other Europeans had said the same thing all year. Indeed, by the time the week-long meet ended on Sunday, there had been a series of Olympic-quality performances. East Germany's 4 X 400 women's relay team, anchored by Koch, lowered the world record by .18 seconds to 3:19.05, and 5'5", 158-pound Anna Verouli, a 25-year-old grade-school teacher from Athens, became the first Greek ever to win a gold medal in these championships and the fourth woman in history to surpass 229 feet in the javelin, when she uncorked a winning throw of 229'9". But there were colossal disappointments, too. England's David Moorcroft, who in July shattered the world record for 5,000 meters, could place no higher than third in that event. And the buzzing engendered by Koch's record run had hardly subsided when another Briton, Sebastian Coe, took to the track for the 800-meter final—and the most shocking defeat of his career.
Coe, the world-record holder in the 800, had looked sharp in all three of his races since coming back from a leg injury last month, and he had cruised to easy victories in his 800 heats on Monday and Tuesday. Still, because he had been hurt for so much of 1982, Coe was worried. As he would say afterward, "I always knew that after only five weeks' training, sooner or later the body would break." On Wednesday night, it broke.
Coe was in perfect position through 600 meters, having taken the lead near the end of the first lap and opened two meters between himself and Olaf Beyer of East Germany. Beyer had upset Coe in the 800 at the last European Championships, in Prague in 1978, and Coe had hinted all week that he was out for revenge. As Coe raced into the last turn, Beyer dropped farther back. Coming off the slow pace that had been set early in the race by Hans-Peter Ferner of West Germany, Coe, with his superior speed, seemed certain to pull away. Only Ferner was close to him.
September 19, 1982
Suddenly, just after the turn, Ferner was even closer. And gaining. A 26-year-old energy consultant whose best 800 time in 1981, 1:46.72, had placed him 43rd in the world, Ferner had wisely conserved his own resources for this final charge. Coe, in contrast, was slowing, his muscles tying up. One observer later described him as a "congealing mass." Coe would tell London's Daily Telegraph, "I thought I had the armory to handle any situation. Obviously I have not." With 30 meters left, Ferner passed him and reached the tape first in 1:46.33, off Coe's world record by a full five seconds, with Coe coming in second in 1:46.68. He walked off the track with his head down, staggered by the loss.
"We didn't have enough in the bank," said Coe's father and coach, Peter. "The check bounced in the last 30 meters." But then he spoke more soberly about the consequences of his son's defeat. Seb, he said, wouldn't double in the 1,500, as he had contemplated, or run in the lucrative mile race on Sept. 25 in Eugene, Ore., or even compete in next month's Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. And he might retire after next summer's world championships in Helsinki, rather than after the 1984 Olympics. "Some people may now think Seb is not among the alltime great runners because of this latest defeat," Peter said. "I want him to prove them wrong by ripping the guts out of the world championships with an 800-meters and 1,500-meters double and then call it a day in a blaze of glory."
As for now, flame-out was more like it. Seb, who has lost every important 800 race of his career—the finals of two European championships and the 1980 Olympics—awoke on Thursday morning with swollen glands and a sore throat, a possible explanation for his shocking performance. "I've studied a video," he said, still bewildered and smarting under criticism that he didn't pick up the pace and shake his pursuers once and for all when he had the lead. "I'm convinced I ran a textbook race."
Certainly Thompson's decathlon performance could have come straight from the instructional manual. "Being a decathlete is like having 10 girl friends," he'd explained beforehand. "You have to love them all, and you can't afford losing one." In Athens, Thompson had obviously not forsaken any of these 10 loves, although he did leave his real girl friend, Patricia Quinlan, back home in England. Hingsen, an aspiring movie actor who at 6'7" and 220 pounds is known as the German Hercules, last month had broken the record of 8,704 points that the 6'1", 194-pound Thompson had set in May. But Hingsen had celebrated that success with 10 days of partying, cigar smoking and TV appearances; seemingly he was as intent on squandering his fitness as Thompson was on improving his. Hingsen had brought his California girl friend, Jeanne Purcell, to Athens, saying, "She gives me strength." After his record-setting performance in Ulm, she had also kissed his feet and drunk champagne with him right on the track.
From the start, in Athens, however, Thompson was dominant. On Tuesday morning he outscored Hingsen 10.51 seconds to 11.01 in the first event, the 100-meter dash, and then surpassed him in his specialty, the long jump, 25'7¼" to 24'10½". After winning the 400, the last of Tuesday's five events, in 47.11, Thompson had scored 4,549 points and led Hingsen by 114.
Following a sleepless night, Thompson did 14.39 seconds in Wednesday's opening event, the 110-meter hurdles. When he failed to reach even 132' with the first two of his three discus attempts—Hingsen's best throw had been 146'9"—Thompson appeared to be in trouble and his advantage had shrunk to just 44 points. But in his five years as a world-class decathlete, the 24-year-old Thompson has earned a deserved reputation as the event's most dogged competitor. Growing up in a London ghetto, the son of a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother, he has always had to struggle to get ahead. His final discus throw sailed 149'2". He quickly pointed a finger at Hingsen, as if to say, J√ºrgen, you've had it. His lead was back up to 152 points.
By the time the pole vault competition began at 2 p.m., the temperature in the Olympic Stadium was in the 90s. Still, Thompson was unable to stomach either fruit or juice for refreshment. "I was too busy thinking," he said later, "that I had started off winning and that I was going to finish winning." He was also thinking about a vaulting accident he'd suffered only six weeks earlier in which a pole had snapped, its jagged end piercing his left elbow. Seven stitches had closed the wound, but the memory remained. Yet he again outdid Hingsen, clearing 16'4¾" to the West German's 15'9". Now it was Thompson against not Hingsen but Hingsen's record.
Thompson remained roughly on record pace through the eighth and ninth events, but he was exhausted by the time he went to the line for the 1,500. He rubbed his hands together and stared straight down at the track, repeating "4:26.5" over and over to himself. He had run 4:30.55 while setting the record in May and seemed unlikely to surpass that time here. Three plodding laps seemed to confirm that evaluation. After 1,200 meters, Thompson was in ninth place, three seconds off 4:26.5 pace.
"It's not far any more," he told himself as he entered the final lap. "I can give it everything I've left." To the amazement of the 60,000 fans who had lingered through the long evening, Thompson accelerated. To eighth, to seventh, to sixth. At the end he was actually displaying his specialty; he was sprinting. He crossed the line in 4:23.71, a personal record. For the third time in his career, Thompson had established a world record. His total of 8,743 had broken Hingsen's mark by a mere 20 points, or the decathlon equivalent of less than a tenth of a second in the 100. "I'll get it back next year," said Hingsen, who finished at 8,518.
Oddly, Thompson was hardly joyous. Draped in a Union Jack, he "celebrated" with a slow walk around the track. After some bitter comments about his more publicized countryman, Coe—"Tell me something," he said sharply to British journalist Neil Allen, "if I had finished second, would I have gotten a press conference?" as Coe had—Thompson asked to be left alone. "After the two days, when it's all over, you feel like an empty shell," he said. "You don't feel very good. You want some fresh air." And with that Thompson was off, thereby ending a night that to everyone else had been gloriously full, a great gust of fresh air.