For three laps of the women's 1,500 meters in last weekend's U.S.-East Germany dual track and field meet, Mary Decker led East Germany's Christiane Wartenburg. Wartenburg is her country's record holder with a 3:57.71. Decker owns the U.S. women's best, 3:59.43. She ran with her head cocked to one side, her gaze slightly elevated as if in deepest thought, as if she were listening intently to something beyond the cheers echoing for her in the Los Angeles Coliseum. And she was. She was attending the voice of good sense. She was pacing herself through modest 400-meter splits of 64.3 and 2:09.9. She was saving something.
She never needs to do that when running against American women. Time and again her natural exuberance and nervous energy have taken her to 60-second opening quarters and huge leads, and it hasn't mattered if she slowed at the end, because there is no one in the West good enough to catch her. But there is in the East. Decker's career will ultimately be measured by how she does against women such as Wartenburg. Thus, this was a rare chance not only to race against a true peer but also to test the 1984 Olympic track for the only time until next year's Olympic Trials, to breathe the atmosphere, to imagine.
With 300 meters left, Wartenburg moved to Decker's shoulder, gathering herself. "I felt her there," said Decker. "I felt strong. I knew it was time to go."
She accelerated. Wartenburg went right with her. In the last turn the crowd was up, calling Decker home. So she kicked harder. Wartenburg could go no faster.
July 3, 1983
"There was such electricity that last lap," Decker said. "I felt so smooth and free, nothing could have kept me from doing whatever I wanted." She sprinted steadily ahead in the stretch and crossed the line in 3:59.93, eight meters clear of Wartenburg's 4:01.29. Decker's final 400 was a 60.3.
"Coming down the last 50 yards, I tried to visualize how it will be next year," she said. "I wanted to store it all up: the people cheering, the way I had run a smart race and how really, really good it was to take on good people and win."
There could be no clearer statement of the twin themes of this splendid meet in which the U.S. team took on the most organized, scientific and mysterious of athletic nations and did it on the Coliseum's new Rekortan surfaces installed for the Olympics. But as always, flesh and effort upstaged polyurethane. It was a meet of spectacular battles.
Even as Decker ran, Dave Laut of Santa Barbara, Calif. was shocking his good friend, shotput world-record holder (at 72'8") Udo Beyer of Potsdam, with his second put, a throw of 71'9". "I thought, 'O.K., he wins,' " said Beyer later. " 'I have no chance.' " Beyer had turned an ankle while practicing earlier in the week, and it was sore and tightly wrapped. He hadn't thrown as far as 71'9" all year. He'd fouled on his first two throws this day, and then his third was only 67'¾".
Still, this was Udo Beyer. "Seventy-one, nine may not be enough," said a worried Laut. "But he's struggling. His timing is off."
That was because Beyer has more strength than ever to control. This year he has raised his best bench press 22 pounds to 627. Now he took up Laut's heavily chalked shot, ground it into his black-stubbled jowl, bent low in the back of the ring and exploded across it. His timing had returned. The shot fell to earth at 72'10¾", a world record.
"I'm very surprised," Beyer said later. "At this time I didn't think I could set a world record. I didn't think I ever could again. I couldn't have done it without Laut. You know we are good friends. He's happy when I win, and I'm happy when he wins...but I'm happier when I win."
Beyer is 6'4¼" and 286 pounds, and a pound of that must be the great gold structure that holds his teeth together. He is a student at a Leipzig sports institute. "But I don't want to become a coach," he said. "I don't think a good athlete necessarily makes a good coach. I would like to do research."
Beyer imagines that his shotputting days will end after the Olympics. "I have a little daughter, Katja, who's four," he said, "and I want to give more attention to her and my wife, who is a very good cook of Thuringian food—lots of potato dumplings, lots of butter in everything. Diet? Not for me. Diet is something you can't eat."
As he stood bemused, towering above a crush of newsmen, he offered his opinions about the venue and the coming Games. "The spectators were very good. They didn't just applaud the Americans. I have seen much worse—in Moscow, for instance. But no, this winning isn't a psychological advantage for the Olympics. Every competition is new. Laut can win next year. His technique is better than mine. He's very fast. I tried his spin technique once, and the result was this operation here on my right hand to repair a torn ligament. I'm old . He's young [actually, just a year younger]. But maybe this performance will help me against him in the World Championships in Helsinki in six weeks."
A similar struggle took place in the men's javelin. Detlef Michel of East Germany had thrown 317'4" on June 8, which would have tied the world record had Tom Petranoff of the U.S. not thrown his amazing 327'2" in May. Michel clearly was after Petranoff's scalp in Los Angeles. His warm-up throws were going more than 280 feet.
Petranoff led off with 266'9". "A nervous throw," said his coach, Bill Webb.
Michel took little tippytoe steps down the runway, then flew into a catlike leap and threw with a scream. His yellow javelin sailed through awed murmurs to land at 302'1".
Petranoff came back with a 290'3" and then a terrible foul. "He started his arm through before his foot was even down and planted," said Webb. "He's trying to make it happen instead of letting it happen." Petranoff knew this full well. He jogged and calmed himself while Rod Ewaliko of the U.S. put him into third with a 290'4".
That was temporary. After Michel fouled, Petranoff the record holder became Petranoff the competitor. He let his left leg and torso come into the throwing position, snapping their force into his arm as it brought the spear through. "He caught that one," said Webb, in relief, as the javelin struck the turf at 310'5". That was the winning throw.
The most heralded match was among the women sprinters. Marlies G√∂hr, who had improved her 100-meter world record to 10.81 two weeks before in East Berlin, and Marita Koch, the 200 and 400 world-record holder who had chased G√∂hr with a 10.83, were invading the lair of Evelyn Ashford, who had beaten them both in the World Cup in 1979. But Ashford wasn't too comfortable in her lair, finding the track soft. "It's just too new," she said. "But that's no excuse for what I did."
G√∂hr got a great start, Koch a poor one, and Ashford was in between. With 50 meters to go she appeared to be gaining on G√∂hr, but it was going to be close. "Then I did something I haven't done since 1976," Ashford said. "I lost my form. I started overstriding. It was a rookie mistake. It felt like I almost fell over."
G√∂hr won by a meter and a half, and Ashford almost lost second to Koch. The times, because of a headwind, were only 11.39, 11.53 and 11.54. "I had an optimal start," G√∂hr said, bluntly. "Ashford didn't have a chance. It's obvious I gained a psychological advantage today."
Ashford said, "This race means nothing psychologically—I've beaten her more times than she's beaten me," and ran out of the stadium.
Meanwhile, the men's 400-meter hurdles matched the 1980 and 1976 Olympic champions, Volker Beck and Edwin Moses, respectively. Moses won his 76th straight race in a workmanlike 48.46, with Beck second in 49.23. Then Moses analyzed the track. "It's slow now," he said. "My spikes penetrated completely. You don't want that. You want the track to compress under them, to give some spring back. But maybe after a year of curing it will firm up. Remember, the main thing today was to keep the guys in blue to the rear."
The U.S. team was together on that. "We had a meeting on Thursday," said Coach Harry Groves of Penn State. "We knew the East German women were a juggernaut. We've never come close to them. So the thing became to think about the combined score. Men and women, we are one team. A point is a point, no matter who gets it."
Webb thought that the size of the crowd more than the quality of the athletes embodied the difference between track in the U.S. and in Europe. "There are 15,000 people here in this stadium that can seat six times as many," he noted. "In Europe, it would be full."
There was plenty for the few to watch. To give the world a chance to get the feel of the Olympic venue, TAC had invited athletes of all nations to a three-day meet that was called the International Summer Games and ran concurrently with the U.S./G.D.R. dual. Cuba's Alberto Juantorena, the 400 and 800 Olympic gold medalist in 1976, showed up, barely won the 800 with a muscular rush past William Wuyke of Venezuela in 1:45.82 and spoke of moving up to 1,500 next year.
"But how did you like the track?" asked a reporter.
Juantorena seized the startled man's notebook and wrote in a sweeping hand, "La pista es muy buena y maravillosa."
"That's because a soft track is good for these 32-year-old legs," he added.
The first person to test the high-jump apron was Canada's Debbie Brill. As she planted her foot on a qualifying jump, she slipped a yard and jammed her knee. "Nobody had swept off the little lumps of urethane that were loose on the pebbled surface," she said. "Then they came out with scrapers and blowers."
By the time of the dual meet's women's high jump the next day, the apron was ready. Louise Ritter proved it. The 25-year-old Texan, getting better with each jump, won at 6'4¼" and then arched cleanly over an American record of 6'6¾". Immediately, she attempted 6'8", a half inch higher than Ulrike Meyfarth's world standard. She missed twice. "You can do it," said teammate Pam Spencer, who had finished second, on fewer misses, at 6'2¾".
"I guess I can," said Ritter. "Of course I can." She pulled back her hair and ran at the bar. At that moment, just across the track, six Hollywood trumpeters blared into the fanfare of a victory ceremony. Ritter kept going through the racket, but missed narrowly. In the Olympics such an organizational gaffe might be cause for an extra try, but Ritter didn't demand it. "I'd gotten my technique together in the last few clearances," she said. "But it was coming apart again."
The first day ended with the 4 X 100 meter relays. The G.D.R. men, grooved and polished, got the most out of their passes, while the U.S. men, on two days' practice, didn't. Willie Gault made up some ground on the third carry, but still presented Carl Lewis with a three-meter deficit. Lewis got the baton, changed hands with it, stumbled a bit, and with 60 meters to go still had those three to make up.
His charge was reminiscent of Bob Hayes's winning anchor in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. "This was the best I've ever seen," said Mel Rosen, the Auburn coach. "Lewis kept his composure. He kept his form." And he won by half a meter in 38.71, to the G.D.R.'s 38.78. "Well, I was anchor," Lewis said. "I took that responsibility seriously."
"All they had was Lewis," said a frustrated East German sprinter. The same had been said of Hayes. And the rejoinder of Hayes's teammate, Paul Drayton, now came from a voice in the crowd: "He's all we need, pal."
But the U.S. women seemed to need divine intervention. The East German women hadn't lost a 4 X 100 relay since 1978. They set the world record of 41.60 in the Moscow Olympics, and three members of that team were in Los Angeles.
One of them, Koch, led off against Alice Brown, who had been only fourth in the U.S. nationals but who can really barrel around a turn. She did that, and had a meter lead to give Diane Williams.
"I love to run the straight, and I love to catch people," said Williams, who made up three meters of the stagger on two-time Olympic 200 champion B√§rbel W√∂ckel.
Williams then made a slick pass to Chandra Cheeseborough. When W√∂ckel and Silke Gladisch had a momentary hesitation, Cheese was gone. She had a six-meter lead as she neared Ashford. "Her hand was low. I had to reach. But I got it to her," Cheeseborough said afterward.
"When I grabbed that stick, I knew it was all over," said Ashford. She brought it home sweetly in 41.63, an American record and the second fastest time ever for the event. G√∂hr anchored the G.D.R. to a 42.09. Then Ashford went through such a paroxysm of joy, including leaping, throwing the baton and screaming, as to make one fear for her safety. "Imagine running that fast on that sponge of a track," she said. "And I didn't have to do the work. The rest of 'em just kicked butt."
Her language was not the most elegant, but her movement was. "This. This is what people come to track meets for," said Groves.
The combined score at the end of the day was 108-100 in favor of the U.S. "About as good as we could hope for," Groves would say 24 hours later. "How could we know that the luck of the draw had put all the spectacular events on the first day?"
But it had. The second day was not quite an anticlimax, simply an impressive display of the East Germans' competence. They'd made breakthroughs into American strengths on Saturday, especially with the victory of 18-year-old Thomas Sch√∂nlebe in the 400 at 45.2. Now they defended their own.
Antje Schroeder and 18-year-old Christine Wachtel ran down Robin Campbell off the last turn in the women's 800, Schroeder winning in 1:58.93 and the second-place Wachtel setting a world junior record of 1:59.40. "That hurt," said Groves.
It hurt more when Detlef Wagenknecht easily held off a sub-par David Patrick to win the men's 800 in 1:46.08. And when W√∂ckel edged ahead of Cheeseborough to win the women's 200 in 22.52.
An American-record hammer throw of 244'5" by Dave McKenzie only got him third behind Ralf Haber (259'3") and Roland Steuk (247'9"). Good high jumping by Dwight Stones and Leo Williams, who went 1-2 at 7'5", and superb hurdling by Greg Foster, who ripped to a 13.20 win, couldn't stem the blue tide. The final score was 197-181.
The whole G.D.R. team took a victory lap, sweeping along any Americans they could grab. That finished it well, ended it as the Olympics are ended, with frolic, with hand-holding after the inevitable exultation and despair of competition. As the athletes left, some with a last dip to touch the soft red track, it was clear that the Los Angeles Olympics had begun to breathe on their own.