Splendor And Agony In Helsinki

As the first World Championships in track and field began, there was victory for some, but for others grievous injury
August 14, 1983

They began in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium at 3:05 last Sunday afternoon under a blue Finnish sky. Ahead lay 26 miles, 385 yards of racing across an archipelago of granite islands in the Baltic Sea. Although marathons traditionally conclude major games, this one was the first final of the first World Championships in track and field outside of the Olympics. That was satisfying and proper because these marathoners, 62 of them from 30 countries, were women. Eighty-seven years after the first Olympic marathon for men, women finally were equals in the eyes of international officialdom.

But if this race was historic for its justice, Norway's Grete Waitz and those clustered around her as the field departed through the stadium tunnel would make it unforgettable for its performances. Carey May of Ireland and Rumiko Kaneko of Japan led early. At 6.2 miles, May and Canada's Jacqueline Gareau, the 1980 Boston winner, were in front in 36:13. "I was surprised that it wasn't very fast," said Waitz afterward. "We were sitting in the pack, watching each other."

Caution seemed well-advised. It was 70° and the air was dry, with that bright sun. The course rose and fell incessantly. "I don't think the time will be very fast because of the hills and the conditions," Julie Brown of the U.S. had said. "But I expect it to be competitive." That meant she had no intention of letting Waitz, who took the women's world record from 2:32:30 to 2:25:42 in three successive New York City Marathons, run away. Brown, who in June had won the Avon Marathon in Los Angeles with 2:26:24, becoming the fourth fastest woman ever, placed herself at Waitz's elbow. There she would stay for another 17 miles.

By 9.3 miles, Gareau had built an eight-second lead on a pack of 14. Waitz led the second group. "This was different from all other marathons I've run," she said. "It was my first all-female race. If we had been with men, I'd have begun faster because there is always someone to share the pace. Here, the final time didn't really matter. The idea was to win the Championship. It was my first tactical marathon."

As soon as the runners had departed the stadium, the grand march of the rest of the athletes began the opening ceremonies of this week-long meet. One hundred fifty-eight nations paraded in, more than in any Olympics. It was startling to realize that this was the first time since the 1972 Games that the best track athletes from the U.S., Africa, Europe and the U.S.S.R. have been able to strain at each other in championship competition without being driven apart by Olympic boycotts. Unlike swimming or cycling or practically any other Olympic sport, track and field had never allowed itself a world championship in non-Olympic years. There seems no good reason for that oversight, as the inaugural attracted almost every contender on the planet.

Two notable exceptions were Sebastian Coe, who had come down with another mysterious glandular infection, similar to the one that had prematurely ended his 1982 season, and Joan Benoit, the women's marathon record-holder, who chose to concentrate on shorter races this summer.

The International Amateur Athletic Federation found in Helsinki a politically neutral site and an athletically rabid one. Finland, thanks to its decades of wonderful distance runners, from Hannes Kolehmainen to Paavo Nurmi to Lasse Viren, has won more men's gold medals in Olympic track over the years than any other nation besides the U.S. And the Finns put on the most moving opening pageant imaginable. The stadium rang to Sibelius' Finlandia, the austere hymn of patriotism that was banned by the Czar before Finland declared its independence from Russia in 1917. And much as Nurmi had unexpectedly appeared at age 55 to carry the torch into the 1952 Olympics, this time it was Viren bearing the country's white and blue standard.

Eleven miles away, Ireland's Regina Joyce surged into the marathon lead. There was no reaction from the pack, save worry. "Should we go after her?" said Waitz to Brown. "She'll come back to us," said Brown. So Joyce reached halfway with a 30-second lead and continued on beside Helsinki's docks and central marketplace, past the salons of Marimekko and Arabia, her green uniform and red cheeks and bouncing, wet, raven hair impressing the area's fashionable onlookers as much as her courage.

Back in the stadium the second-round heats of the women's 100 meters were being run. One matched the two favorites, Marlies Göhr of East Germany and Evelyn Ashford of the U.S. Ashford displayed the remarkable mid-race acceleration that had deserted her when she lost to Göhr in the U.S. vs. G.D.R. dual meet in Los Angeles in June, and won by two feet, in 11.11. Then she immediately created doubt about whether she could do it again in the final when she grabbed her right hamstring. "Just a twinge," she said, looking unwell. "Where's the ice?" But it didn't augur well. Though she had won her semifinal in 10.99 on Monday afternoon, later that evening she was 50 meters into the final, just at the point where she should have been accelerating, when the torn hamstring, an old injury aggravated during the week, gave way. Göhr went on to win. Ashford was out of the race, out of the meet and out of commission for at least eight weeks.

Carl Lewis fared considerably better. He had looked around five times in his first-round heat in the men's 100 meters before winning in 10.34. In the second round he did it only once in a 10.20. He was on his way. The next evening, in the final, Lewis beat the new world-record holder, Calvin Smith, in 10.07. Emmit King was third, giving the U.S. its first medal sweep in the 100 in world competition since the 1912 Olympics.

Not so fortunate was Cuba's Alberto Juantorena. The 1976 Olympic champion at 400 and 800 meters had been having his best season since 1977. But easing down the stretch in his early afternoon 800-meter heat, coasting in second to Brazil's Agberto Guimares, Juantorena was caught at the line by a rushing Juma Ndiwa of Kenya. Juantorena remembers being hit on the hip. Videotape replays didn't seem to show much contact. Yet Juantorena, perhaps galled at the possibility that Ndiwa had stolen the last qualifying spot from him, swerved from his position near the outside of Lane 1 and let his right foot descend onto the track's metal curb.

He fell onto the grass of the infield in agony, and was at once set upon by frantic attendants, who within 90 seconds, over his vehement protests and gesticulations, strapped him, still writhing, to a stretcher and bore him away under the stands. The last that could be seen of him was a final, dramatically resigned collapse onto his back, delivering himself to these incomprehensible people.

Juantorena had torn two ligaments on the outside of that ankle and broken the fifth metatarsal bone in his foot. Surgery repaired the damage. He will be in a cast for at least a month.

Outside, the marathoners had completed their loop through downtown and now began to retrace their steps. "Like horses, smelling the barn," Brown had said they would be here, and the pace was indeed quickening. Waitz, seeming the firm schoolmistress she is, led the remaining contenders nearer to Joyce. Brown looked strong, as did two Soviets, Lucia Belyayeva and Raisa Smekhnova. The race's surprise was 22-year-old, 5'4", 98-pound Marianne Dickerson of St. Joseph, Ill., who was running but her third marathon. A direct, animated soul, she is a graduate student in industrial engineering at Purdue, but plans to transfer to Michigan to get, almost for the first time in her four years of serious running, a coach. Her arm action may have been a bit ragged but the fact that she was still in contention caused her to exult, to nurse outlandish hopes.

"I had figured that there was no way I could even think of getting a medal against a lot of these women," she said. (Brown, for example, had beaten her by more than seven minutes in the Avon race.) "But I knew I would kill any slight chance I had of a miracle like that if I didn't run their pace as long as I could."

At 18 miles, Joyce still looked fresh. A spectator held out a sprig of wildflowers. Joyce took it and carried it until nearly 19 miles, when Waitz finally brought Brown, Smekhnova and Dickerson past. They all ran single file into the wind, taking shelter behind Waitz.

She didn't mind. She had never felt in difficulty, and she knew she had prepared better for this race than for any other marathon in her life. She had done longer runs than ever in the forest. She had skipped the whirl of short road races in favor of controlled time trials. A warm European summer had conditioned her to this weather, and she had been drinking deeply throughout the race, taking swigs of a Norwegian restorative drink from dark flasks that looked as if they might contain Jack Daniels.

Her husband Jack had been able to leapfrog along much of the course. "It's great to see so many women fighting out a marathon when only a few years ago there would have been miles between runners," he said. "Of course we don't have equal opportunity yet. There are still no 5,000- or 10,000-meter races for women in this meet or the Olympics."

It was just such an in-between distance runner that had him most worried. "Smekhnova was second in the world cross-country in 1979," he said. "You have to respect her ability to finish."

Waitz's respect moved her to destroy that ability. Once in the lead, she took the pace down a notch with every kilometer. Dickerson was the first to be left. Then, at 20 miles, where Brown had said, "Here the party will really begin." Brown herself had to surrender to a painful Achilles tendon. She dropped back precipitously, having sacrificed everything for the sake of staying near. She would drop out with three miles to go when the pain in her heel became unbearable. But still the bespectacled Smekhnova clung.

Such tenacity invoked the Olympics, making one think of the hero of the 1952 Games here, Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia, who won the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon, a triple never equaled.

There were other indicators of Olympian pressure, too, occurrences peculiar to each event. In the shotput, for example, where Olympic tradition is that big-meet nerves unhinge everyone and ruin all predictions, sure enough, the two longest throwers this year, world-record holder Udo Beyer of East Germany and Dave Laut of the U.S., finished sixth and fourth. Edward Sarul of Poland upset everyone with his last throw of 70'2¼". Beyer was nursing an injured hamstring. Laut, the only thrower using the spin technique, had a timing problem, firing most of his throws down the right side of the sector, proof that he hadn't launched them with all the power he can develop.

Sarul's performance called up memories of his countryman Wladyslaw Komar's upset win in the 1972 Olympics. Sarul was 13 then. He got a book on shot-putting out of the library and taught himself to throw. To this day he hasn't returned the book.

And now, after exactly two hours of running, Waitz shook free of Smekhnova. "The plan was to be sensible and save something until 30 kilometers [18.6 miles]," Waitz said. "After that, I ran how I felt."

She felt fantastic. Her stride was balanced and light; she still had the control to run two inches from curbs, to nimbly avoid potholes, to run even faster. As she held the long blue line down Mannerheim street toward the stadium, she seemed born to be an expression of this kind of endurance. Even the little vexed crease that earlier had adorned her forehead had disappeared. She drove hard up the last hill just 650 yards out, seeming profoundly alone compared to all those finishes in New York surrounded by exhausted men. This was a truer view of her accomplishments, a graphic image of how far ahead of the world's women she is. But she didn't feel alone. She thought of Benoit. "But that's for later, for Los Angeles," she would say.

Once back on the track, she ran the last 320 yards in 52.5, even with a couple of waves to the crowd, and finished in 2:28:09. She had run the second half of the race nearly four minutes faster than the first.

Waitz struggled out of a Brobdingnagian wreath the officials had lassoed her with, and trotted around the turn, peering up the tunnel, as curious as the rest of the crowd over who would be second. Dickerson had been running at Smekhnova for half an hour, ahead of Rosa Mota of Portugal and Gareau. Joyce had dropped to seventh place, where she would finish. "The last three miles, I just had this wonderful high," Dickerson said. "I didn't know if I would get her, but I was juiced just to be trying."

With 650 to go, at the base of the stadium hill, she needed 30 yards. Into the tunnel, she needed 10. "It was ironic," she would say. "Last week at our training camp in Stockholm I concentrated on track work; I kidded our coach, Dr. Ken Foreman, that if I needed to kick, I'd be ready. When I got onto that track, it really hit me. I had a chance."

Smekhnova, a children's sports school coach, knew Dickerson was coming. "It was a very difficult finish," she said. "I can't remember much of it now."

Down the backstretch, Smekhnova accelerated, holding those 10 yards. Then in the curve she faltered and looked back. Dickerson was relentless. She caught Smekhnova at the end of the turn and went wide. As she passed she glanced over. Smekhnova looked away, dazed behind her round spectacles.

Dickerson was four seconds ahead at the end, 2:31:09 to 2:31:13. While Smekhnova still lay drained by the effort of her life, Dickerson romped off to call her folks. Her exclaimed assurances surely described the entire Championships as much as her own future: "Oh, there is lots left, I just know there is."

PHOTODancers in colorful array celebrated the meet to the patriotic strains of Finlandia. PHOTOJuantorena, his foot broken, cried vainly not to be moved. TWO PHOTOSWaitz proved her dominance against the first assembly of the world's best women marathoners. Below, Dickerson, ready to pass Smekhnova, was a surprise second. PHOTOLewis won this 100-meter heat and led a U.S. sweep.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)