Out of Africa, the finest runners come unannounced, astonishing in their sudden completeness. Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia led them, barefoot down the Appian Way, winning the gold medal in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Kip Keino and Henry Rono of Kenya, Filbert Bayi of Tanzania and Miruts Yifter of Ethiopia followed with their world records and Olympic medals. And last Friday morning, as the XII Commonwealth Games marathon began in the clear, still dawn in Brisbane, Australia, Lieutenant Juma Ikangaa of the Tanzanian army set out to join that illustrious East African brotherhood.
The 6 a.m. start was to spare the runners Brisbane's often severe sun, but the heat wouldn't have mattered to Ikangaa. In his first marathon, just seven weeks earlier, he had won the African championships in Cairo in 2:12:05 on a humid, 87° day. Now he led the Commonwealth field of 38 across the Victoria Bridge and through downtown Brisbane, where hundreds had risen early to cheer.
The pace was swift, 14:45 at 5,000 meters. (In his world-record run of 2:08:13 in New York City last year, Alberto Salazar averaged 15:12 for each 5,000.) By then, 25-year-old Robert de Castella of Australia, who has run history's second-fastest marathon (2:08:18), had dropped 24 seconds back. Ikangaa was accompanied only by his teammate, Gidamis Shahanga, 25, the defending champion, who already had won the 10,000. A junior at Texas-El Paso, Shahanga is long-legged, with a stride that resembles Salazar's in its low knee lift. Ikangaa, by contrast, is short (5'3", 119 pounds) and chesty, and has a free, exuberant running action. He seemed impatient, bolting ahead on the early hills, acknowledging the crowd. Shahanga was serene. He never duplicated Ikangaa's little bursts but always stayed near. It seemed the unknown Ikangaa was simply a pacemaker for Shahanga, especially because Ikangaa claimed he was only 18 years old.
The course was strewn with hills, and none of the runners thought the final time would be better than 2:10:30. None save Ikangaa. "All week I read in the paper on only Shahanga and de Castella," he said later. "But this isn't boxing. There are more than two in a race. I was running to show that, and to chase the world record."
De Castella was not. His aim was to win the race. He had expected the Tanzanians to go early, and his tactic was to ignore them, run evenly and charge the last six or eight miles. "It's dangerous to blast out too hard under the humid conditions we had," he would say. "I was sweating a hell of a lot." So de Castella drank from every aid station—the Tanzanians drank from none—and he thought about the hills to come. "I counted on 'em," he said.
De Castella is a lab technician at Australia's Institute of Sport in Canberra. He is known as being unflappable, and he and his coach, Pat Clohessy of Melbourne, had built his race plan around that trait in de Castella's character. "We talked about waiting and relaxing," said Clohessy. "The Tanzanians were magnificent up front. He knew he'd have to put in a terrific effort, but not yet."
After eight miles, near Brisbane's airport, the course turned back on itself. The two leaders saw that a pack consisting of de Castella, New Zealand's Kevin Ryan, Scotland's John Graham and Graham Laing, and Marios Kasianides of Cyprus had crept to within 30 yards. "That must have shocked them," said Ryan to de Castella as they watched Ikangaa and Shahanga surge away again.
At halfway the Tanzanians were 40 seconds ahead in 1:03:50 (Salazar was 1:04:10 in his record run). By 30 km their lead was 58 seconds, "and daylight second," said Tim Lane, the Australian TV commentator. It was now clear that Ikangaa was no rabbit. He had Shahanga on the ropes. "The pace was so high," Shahanga would say. "It was the hardest race of my life." Ikangaa was still smooth and light, still accelerating into the hills.
With eight miles to go, de Castella left the pack and drove out on his own. In the next 5 km he gained 20 seconds. At that rate the race would end before he could catch up. "There was no panic," he said later. "It would have been easy to say I'll never make it, but I didn't give up hope. I tried not to feel anything, only to get a good tempo, one I could pound out."
De Castella suffered a sideache with five miles left. "But I gritted my teeth and ran through that," he said. At 5'11", 155 pounds, he's a stiff-backed runner with the most powerful thighs of any world-class marathoner. "And his arm action looks as if he's tearing jungle undergrowth out of his way," said David Miller of London's Daily Express.
Ungainly or not, de Castella was coming. And as his pace quickened, he finally lifted these Commonwealth Games to a level that approached their splendid history. They had given us Bannister vs. Landy in 1954, Clarke vs. Keino in 1966, Walker vs. Bayi in 1974. But in Brisbane, missing such stars as Rono and Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett of England, the XII Games had begun to seem notable only for their curiosities. One was the 200 meters. Scotland's Allan Wells, the 1980 Olympic 100 champion, and England's Mike McFarlane finished in a dead heat at 20.43, inseparable by a finish photo accurate to one-thousandth of a second.
Another puzzle, turning to amazement, was how Steve Wray of the Bahamas, a junior at Southern Illinois who hadn't made the finals of the NCAA high jump, kept raising his personal best, from 7'3¼" to 7'4½" to 7'5¾ to 7'7", despite painfully limping from the pit after each clearance. "Fallen arches and Strained ligaments," he said. "It's not helping." Finally, Wray and NCAA champion Milt Ottey of Canada and Tex-as-El Paso tried the world record of 7'8¾" in the dying light. Only Wray came close. Ottey won on fewer misses. Texas-El Paso got its third gold of the Games when Jamaica's Bert Cameron won the 400 in 45.78, the time slowed by the strong wind that consistently killed the chance of records or helped so much that they were illegal. For example, Keith Connor of England and SMU would have had the second-longest triple jump ever with his leap of 58'5¼" had the wind not been 10 mph, more than twice the allowable velocity.
Also illegal, under a disturbing Commonwealth Games Act rushed through the Queensland State Parliament in March, was anything the police said endangered the smooth running of the Games. In particular, the statute was aimed at discouraging demonstrations on behalf of the aborigines, who are seeking to gain land rights in Queensland. Civil rights were sharply curtailed. A few demonstrators with tickets made it into Queen Elizabeth II Stadium on the second day of the track events, but all were arrested when they tried to fly an aborigine flag. Convictions could bring $2,000 fines or as many as two years in jail.
A good deal of what passed for debate on the subject had an eerie, upside-down ring. Queensland is referred to as Australia's "Deep North," and much of the aboriginal discontent is attributed to "Southern Stirrers" from Melbourne and Sydney. The Queensland Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Ken Tomkins, blithely said that in his experience aborigines "sort of catch birds, goannas [lizards] and fish, and don't need very much money. I don't think they're advanced to the stage where you can give them freehold land because they wouldn't know what it was."
By the time Ikangaa reached the hills by Queensland University, he had rid himself of Shahanga. Ikangaa looked so good, waving at runners still on the outward journey, staring almost with disdain into the lens of the television camera on the truck preceding him, that he seemed capable of standing off any challenge.
With 2½ miles remaining, Ikangaa, now on Coronation Drive, alerted by the crowd, turned to check his lead and looked into the chest of de Castella, only 10 yards behind. De Castella smiled. As he passed, he looked away from the smaller man, his face remorseless. But instead of dying, Ikangaa attacked. The usual racing reflex would be to shadow the leader to the final stretch, saving energy for a kick. "I passed him because I had to find out how strong he was," said Ikangaa. He found out. Twice Ikangaa sprinted ahead, only to have de Castella battle back even, and then regain the lead. Ultimately de Castella strode joyously to a 2:09:18 victory, 12 seconds ahead of Ikangaa. Behind them Shahanga had to walk and finished sixth in 2:14:25. Mike Gratton of England came through the field for third in 2:12:06.
"Next time will be even faster at the beginning," said Ikangaa. "When I trained, I wasn't used to sprinting the last two miles. I will correct that. You must not think I am disappointed to lose. If I were unhappy about that, I wouldn't be a good sportsman."
For de Castella, the win was confirmation that the careful training he has done for years with Clohessy has brought him to surpassing strength. He has never been injured—"most trees aren't," said a friend, Brian Lenton—and his pace judgment is uncanny, the halves of his race being 1:04:30 and 1:04:48. "I believe I can run under 2:07 eventually," said de Castella, not knowing that Salazar has an eye on such a time in next week's New York Marathon.
"I reckon it was the greatest marathon ever," said Ron Clarke, "allowing for the hills." These things are hard to know, but de Castella's performance was certainly good enough to give his camp an appetite for a race with Salazar. "I just wish they'd broadcast this to America," said de Castella's wife, Gayelene Clews, gesturing with a pink carnation. "Then they'd really be worried."
De Castella allowed that a fine occasion for a meeting with Salazar would be the world championships next August in Helsinki. But he spoke mildly, already saving his fierceness for the next time. For those last eight miles.