Putting It All on the Line

Putting It All on the Line

Mary Decker won two golds and Carl Lewis three in track and field's magnificent first World Championships ever
Mary Decker won two golds and Carl Lewis three in track and field's magnificent first World Championships ever
August 21, 1983

Carl Lewis' name had been called. His clock was running. By the rules, he now had to begin his first sprint down the runway of the Helsinki World Championships' long-jump finals within a minute and 30 seconds or have the jump ruled a foul. He could get more time only because of a compelling distraction.

He had one. "Turn that thing off," he told the official. "I have to watch this." He trotted to the side of the track as the deep-throated roar of 50,000 Finns caught up in a distance race broke over him. It was the last lap of the women's 3,000 meters. And Mary Decker had led all the way.

Each time she had passed the long-jump area she had heard shouts of encouragement from Lewis and U.S. teammate Jason Grimes. Lewis knew that Decker had rejected the theoretically safe tactic of laying back and harboring her strength for a final killing sprint. Instead, she meant to set a pace that at once drained the kicks of her pursuers and saved some of her own. "I am confident of my finish," Decker had said. "So the only thing to be concerned about is staying out of trouble. I personally do that best in the lead." It was a plan that was built on Decker's bedrock character. She wanted to be out front, controlling.

But Lewis also knew how formidable were Decker's pursuers. On her heels since the gun had been Tatyana Kazankina of the U.S.S.R., the 1976 and 1980 Olympic 1,500 champion, who in 1980 in Zurich had beaten Decker by nearly seven seconds in setting the world 1,500 record of 3:52.47. A few yards back was Kazankina's teammate, Svyetlana Ulmasova, the 3,000-meter record holder at 8:26.78.

Decker had hopes of 67-second laps, world-record pace. She had begun with a 66, but then slowed to 70s. She seemed unworried, her expression almost casual, but Lewis could see that Kazankina's scooting, mechanical stride was unaffected by the pace. Her winning kicks in Montreal and Moscow had been rockets. And she obviously was trained to a taut edge. "You could open a Coke bottle on her cheekbones," said Olympic marathoner Frank Shorter.

With three laps to go, Decker ran a 72. "By then I'd gotten mixed up because there was a clock at every 200 meters," she would say. "So I just ran as I felt." The pack soon bunched up, boxing Ulmasova. Decker's coach, Dick Brown, looked sick. "I hope she hasn't let them save too much," he said. "But the only important thing now is that when she moves, she goes progressively, not all in one burst."

With 600 meters to go, Decker picked it up, to no apparent effect. With 400 to go, the pack had formed a menacing wing behind her. Britain's Wendy Sly was there, and Italy's Agnese Possamai, and West Germany's Brigitte Kraus. But the whole stadium knew the challenge would come from Kazankina.

At the start of the last backstretch, Decker gradually accelerated again. By the last turn they were flying. Ulmasova had to drop to fifth to get out of the box and would only reach fourth by the end. But Kazankina was right where she wanted to be, on Decker's shoulder.

Decker, astonishingly but characteristically, would later say of this crucial moment, "It was fun win or lose, because it's a nice feeling to come off the last turn with runners there. It's competition."

Then Kazankina cut loose for home. In a few strides she was beside and then past Decker. "I didn't tense up," said Decker. "I took a deep breath, relaxed and went." She sprinted beside Kazankina for a moment and then drew away, her stride open and free. The shocked Kazankina sagged and lost second to the charging Kraus.

Decker hit the line with her arms up, engulfed in noise, for this crowd understood the delicate measuring of herself that had let her win from the front.

Her time was 8:34.62, her last 200 meters a 28.9. Not since Lasse Viren controlled a field of faster finishers in the 5,000 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics with these tactics had anyone succeeded with them in a major race.

Decker loped around an emotional victory lap, finally confirmed, after 14 years of struggling to reach her prodigious potential, as the best in the world Yet it takes very little time for the fullness of victories to fade for her. She lives to run, to race, not to have raced. Almost before she had recovered her breath she had gone from relishing this greatest of her races to anticipating what the Soviets would throw at her in the 1,500 on the meet's final day. It wasn't fresh tactics, just fresh troops. With 200 meters left in the 1,500, Decker had again led all the way, shadowed this time by Zamira Zaitseva, whose personal best was a second faster than Decker's (3:56.14 to 3:57.12). Zaitseva pounced earlier than Kazankina had. On the last turn she got about a hall step lead and cut sharply to the inside. "It was the kind of rough tactics you get in big races," said Decker. "That's one reason I'm here, to get used to dealing with things like that." She backed off to avoid tripping, then drove wide and set out in pursuit down the stretch. She gained, gradually at first, then faster as the Soviet began to tie up.

Decker came even with less than 10 yards to go. Zaitseva, desperate to preserve the win, dived at the line, but it was the wrong line, and as Decker strode past, Zaitseva went headlong to the track, scraping her face. "If the Soviets boycott the L.A. Olympics," said an observer, "you can blame Mary."

After her earlier win in the 3,000, Decker's celebratory lap had brought her near Lewis, but he had business to attend to. "When I saw Mary cross the line, it was a thrill. I wanted to put that emotion to good use." He returned to the runway, paused, then ran with power, settled low on his last two steps, hit the board and dropped into the pit at 28'¾" (8.55 meters), a mark none of his competition could hope to reach. He stood in the sand with his arms aloft as the applause for Decker became his own.

He took one more jump, reaching 27'7¼", and passed four other attempts in order to rest for the 4 X 100-meter relay. When not jumping himself, he coached Grimes and Mike Conley to jumps of 27'2½ and 26'7¾" to give the U.S. a sweep of the medals, the first in world-class competition in this event since the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis.

Lewis' concern was mainly for Conley, because the Arkansas junior had taken fourth in the triple jump, and was sore from the pounding necessary to survive two rounds of the triple and the qualifying of the long jump. "As I warmed up, it got better," Conley said. He won the bronze medal and later wore his GO HOGS cap on the victory stand while the national anthem was played.

"No, I didn't forget to take it off," he said firmly. "I'm a Razorback till the day I die."

Lewis has a remarkably salubrious effect on his teammates. In the 100-meter final he had led another U.S. sweep, as Calvin Smith and Emmit King followed him across the line ahead of the rest of the world.

Those three, plus Tennessee hurdler Willie Gault, made up the sprint relay team. They had run cautiously in the preliminaries, because King was bothered by a hamstring, because they hadn't trained together as a unit for more than a week and because they had seen catastrophe befall the American women's 4 X 100-meter relay team. The women's problems started when Evelyn Ashford pulled her right hamstring in the 100 final. With Ashford out, the U.S. women's relay team decided to keep the well-oiled order of the first three members, Alice Brown, Diane Williams and Chandra Cheeseborough, and simply drop in a new anchor, Randy Givens, the World University Games 200 champion.

In the semifinals, Cheeseborough ran a swift turn and bore down on Givens. "Randy just seemed to run in place, not ahead," said Williams, who was watching in horror. "Chandra had to come up alongside, grab her hand and slap the baton in there." This brought both of them to a near standstill, and when Givens finally got going, she was in fifth place, one spot out of qualifying. She had five yards to make up on the nearest runner. She got all but three inches of that distance, but the U.S. was out of the final.

The men wanted no part of that, so they had run a safe 38.50 in their semi, not much faster than the U.S.S.R.'s 38.62. "We talked then," said King. "Carl said we all seemed like we were tight. We'd do better in the final. The thing was, we wanted the world record as much or more than just the gold. We were trying to put it out of reach so it won't get broken again."

As the sprinters got organized in their exchange zones, Lewis carefully put down the tape check mark that, when hit by the incoming Smith, would signal his start. Except he put it down in the sixth lane, when the Americans would be running in the third. Teammates in the crowd had to alert him to his error. "We had lane six in the semis," he said. "It gets hectic out there."

Another anchor man, Italy's Pietro Mennea, the 1980 Olympic 200-meter champion and world-record holder, came to the line without his shorts. Well, he had them, but in the little basket where the runners were to leave their sweats. He pulled his shirt-tail way down and stepped into the bottom half of his uniform before taking his mark.

Back at the start, King, hamstring or no, blasted out at full effort. Nearing Gault, he shouted, "Don't leave me."

"I had left him in a meet in Malmoö last week," said Gault. "After that we cut down the distance between us before I go."

Gault went. There had been some doubt about his speed after a long year of niggling injuries, but all the sprinters he chewed up down the backstretch will attest that he made the U.S.'s race. Still, the stick had to be passed.

"Calvin went out better than he had in the last two races," said Gault, "so I missed his hand the first time, but I got it the second."

Smith is perhaps the best third-leg runner in history. "He got rolling before anyone else," said Lewis. "I knew the time was going to be great."

"I just tried to give him the lead," said Smith, "even though he didn't need it."

It was a lead of a yard. Lewis took the stick, switched it as he always does to his right hand and, as he accelerated, showed an eager smile. Then he became solemn, absorbed in his task. In straight sprint races, he may ease and wave at the tape. That is for himself. Anchoring relays, he is an extension of his teammates. He flew out to a five-yard lead, dipped at the line to get the last fraction off the total time and only then raised his arms.

Coasting to a stop, he glanced back at the scoreboard clock. "At first I thought it said 38.8," he said. "For a second I was disappointed. It didn't make sense." Then he looked closer. The time was 37.86, a world record,. 17 from the previous mark of 38.03 run by the U.S. World Cup team in 1977.

The first teammate Lewis saw was Grimes. He promptly leaped about four feet into his arms, and there ensued the celebration of the meet, with jumpers and sprinters all embracing.

Lewis' last 100 meters, as discovered from timing videotapes, was 8.9 seconds. There is no evidence that any man has ever run faster. Certainly Jesse Owens never did. Only Bob Hayes's anchor in the Tokyo Olympics was comparable in his dominance of the world's best, but Lewis faced a better man in Mennea, who brought Italy in with a national-record 38.37, and beat him by more.

So it is time that Lewis' popular sobriquet, "The best American athlete since Jesse Owens," be retired. Among sprinters, and surely soon among jumpers, he is the best, ever.

Bill Lewis, watching the dancing athletes, hearing the sustained, awed chorus of the standing ovation for his son, rubbed his wife Evelyn's shoulders—"Aching from the excitement," she said—and allowed that records were great, three gold medals were splendid. "But beyond all that, I'll tell you this. I've never seen him happier."

Later, Lewis listed the levels of his joy. "This feels even better than the triple [the 100, 200 and long jump] at the TAC meet because, one, it's the Worlds, two, it ended with a world record and not a miss, and three, it reaffirms American sprint dominance. It's just so much more deeply satisfying to have something like this come as a result of depending on each other and coming through."

He was further boosted by the one-two finish of Smith (20.14) and Rutgers junior Elliott Quow (20.41) in the 200. Mennea was third in 20.51.

Lewis, labeled Superman by L'Équipe, the French sports daily, was the toast of Helsinki all week. When Smith was asked if it bothered him that reporters seemed almost as interested in why Lewis had not run the 200 (he feared injury) as they were in Smith's victory, he said, "Hey, the more publicity and pressure that Carl gets put on him, the less for me, and I like that fine. The Lord gets the credit for all of us anyway."

The only athlete in Helsinki who matched Lewis at inspiring an awed hush was 32-year-old Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia. She seems the picture of everybody's shy fifth-grade teacher, until she takes off her sweats. Then she displays a torso by Rodin. On Tuesday she took them off twice within 35 minutes, to win a semifinal of the 400 in 51.08, and then to commence the final of the 800, her sixth race in three days. No woman has ever won the 400-800 double in Olympic competition. Only Alberto Juantorena has among men.

Kratochvilova runs like a decathlete, her head bobbing, her rubbed-oak musculature seeming as much burden as engine, but she does not tire. She ran away from the 800 field to win in 1:54.68, only 1.4 seconds away from the world record of 1:53.28 she had set on July 26.

In the 400 final the next day, she and the U.S.S.R.'s Maria Pinigina moved with power down the back-stretch. Kratochvilova continued on to win, while teammate Tatiana Kocembova closed well for second. It had been such a competitive race, and Kratochvilova had been so controlled that the final time was a shock: 47.99, a world record, breaking the 48.16 East Germany's Marita Koch ran in 1982. Four days later, Koch gained a measure of equality with a spectacular 47.4 third leg of the 4 x 400 relay that gave East Germany a 3:19.73 win. Kratochvilova ran a 47.9 anchor to get Czechoslovakia past the Soviets for second.

"Now I know how hard this doubling is," said Kratochvilova, maintaining that her ease was illusory. "In Los Angeles, I'll pick one or the other."

There seemed a starkness to these Championships. The days were either piercing blue or cold rain. Moments of glorious mastery such as Kratochvilova's were always giving way to sickeningly swift disaster. Take Henry Marsh, approaching the last hurdle of the steeplechase on Friday, having worked himself smoothly up through the pack into second, feeling as strong and hungry as he ever has in a hard race.

Too hungry. All his attention was on catching leader Patriz Ilg of West Germany. "What you have to do before every hurdle is decide six or seven steps out which foot you're going to lead with," Marsh, the consummate technician, said later. "I was so intent on Ilg and cutting down his four or five yards that I just didn't make that decision. I got really close and realized I had to chop."

He took two stutter-steps, lost momentum and straddled the 200-pound hurdle. His trail leg struck, and he spun forward onto the track, landing hard on his left hip and side. Ilg sprinted away to an 8:15.06 victory, so overwhelming to him that he could not speak for five minutes, only weep.

Marsh wept, too, after he had pulled himself up and finished eighth in 8:20.45. "I had prepared so well. I would have broken the American record [his own at 8:15.68]. What's worse, I blew my chance to find out who is better, Ilg or me."

He spent a night without the release of sleep. "The only blessing," he said bleakly the next day, "is that after getting mono in 1979, hit with a boycott in 1980, getting disqualified after winning the World Cup in 1981, and now this, I'll be wild for next year."

Next to join the brotherhood of catastrophe was veteran quarter-miler Willie Smith, running the third leg on the U.S. 4 X 400 meter relay team. He had waited behind Nikolay Chernetskiy of the U.S.S.R. until late in the last turn, then moved to pass, but not wide enough. He collided with the much larger leader and crashed down so abruptly it seemed a crevasse had opened in the track.

Chernetskiy appeared not to notice the contact and strode on, while Smith, skin burned off his knee and arm and shoulder, frantically tried to pick up the fallen baton. As he reached it, Great Britain's Todd Bennett ran him down again.

At last Smith was up and running, but in eighth. Edwin Moses brought the U.S. home in sixth. The U.S.S.R. won in 3:00.79. "It's like a war zone out there," said Moses.

It wasn't all hell for Edwin, though. Five days earlier he had been one of the blessed ones, ripping majestically through the 400-meter hurdles in 47.50, winning over West Germany's Harald Schmid by 10 yards, extending his streak of victories to 81 since Schmid beat him six years ago.

Then Moses, an outspoken opponent of drug use, was subjected to his first urinalysis. "I was dry. As you know they need more than a little. Took me five beers to get out of there." Tipsy, Moses was gentle and warm, cheerfully signing autographs late into the night for Finns who were far more inebriated. They asked about his left shoelace, which had come loose over the last few hurdles.

"Adidas just makes long laces," he said. "But they would have had to be nine feet long to trip me up."

That tone, of the merriment to be found in these demanding disciplines, was taken up by Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan in the 5,000 meters. Coghlan, fourth in the 1,500 in the 1976 Olympics and fourth in the 5,000 in Moscow, had expected the race to be a brutal test, in which those fearing his redoubtable kick would seek to run it out of him.

"But they didn't," he said afterward in astonishment. "They played right into my hand until it was too late." That meant a slow pace, with little surging. With a mile to go he felt as if he had not even run. "I decided to savor every moment of the last four laps."

He withstood a long drive the U.S.S.R.'s Dmitriy Dmitriyev began from 800 meters out, and moved up beside the Soviet with 150 meters to run. Savor was the word. Before he even began his kick, he gestured with his fists that it was all over, that it was too easy. Then he blew on home in 13:28.53. His last 1,200 was run in the hard mile pace of 2:57.5.

It was Coghlan's biggest win in outdoor competition, certifying him as the complete tactical racer. His fundamental regret was that his father, William, past president of the Irish Amateur Athletic Association, who might even have had the chance to award his son this gold medal, had died in the winter.

And in that he had a bond with the meet's most emotional winner. Thirty-four-year-old, 201-pound Helena Fibingerova of Czechoslovakia was once the world-record holder in the women's shotput but had never won a major international meet. "During the first days of July my father died after a long illness," she said. It had been cancer. "I loved him very much. I was terribly upset, but I decided to put aside my sorrow and concentrate on the World Championships."

The shotput finals were on Friday, the day of rain. After five of the six rounds, Fibingerova was in fourth. "Just before my last put I said to myself, this is the put for my father, and the 'put for my mother, who has suffered a terrible loss."

Hers was the competition's last put. It sailed 69'¾", jolting East Germany's Helma Knorscheidt, who had led at 67'11".

Fibingerova, by stages, simply broke down. At first she hugged the surprised Finnish officials. Then she came back and kissed them. When she ran after them a third time, they began to take flight. She sobbed uncontrollably on the victory stand, her face in her hands, and the Finns applauded her and toasted her for the duration of the meet.

As it happened, they were practicing for one of their own. Sacred events in Finland are the distance races and the javelin. But only one athlete had a serious chance of bringing gold to the host country. That was willowy Tiina Lillak, the women's javelin world-record holder.

But the javelin is the most delicate, least predictable of events. Britain's Fatima Whitbread threw 226'10" on her first attempt, and the pressure was on. Lillak, employing a swift run that seemed hard to control, reached only 221'4" after five throws.

She had one more. This time she stood a moment in the storm of yearning, showing blazing blue eyes and dimples of determination. Then she ran, and threw. The javelin took a worryingly high course, yet somehow it didn't stall, as some of her other throws had done. Instead, it sailed down the wind and pierced the turf at 232' 4".

It was the moment of the meet. The crowd's roar was deafening. And moving. "I haven't cried," said NBC-TV's tear-streaked production assistant Bill Norris, "since John F. Kennedy was shot."

The stadium's sustained jubilation was such that it seemed to expand beyond the celebration of this beautiful athlete. It was an expression of a small, tough people's unity of purpose and tradition, and of its embrace of everyone capable of mastering the pain and doubt and acid nerves of a genuine World Championships. Decker and Lewis and Coghlan all sensed that. "I feel half-Finnish, they understood me so well," said Decker. So as they cheered themselves hoarse, it was an impossibly magnificent conclusion. And a profoundly reassuring beginning.

PHOTOIn the 1,500 Decker drove past Zaitseva, who dived desperately for the finish line.


1PHOTO[See caption above.]
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8PHOTOHail, Mary: the 3,000 champion after she outran Kazankina (451) down the stretch.PHOTOLewis, hands-up the star of the Championships, won his first gold when his 10.07 paced an American sweep in the 100-meter dash.PHOTOLewis led a second American sweep in the long jump, taking just two leaps, both good enough for a gold.PHOTOThe straitlaced Moses refused to come unglued when his left shoelace came untied.PHOTOCoghlan signaled that the race was won even before he began to kick past Dmitriyev.PHOTOSteve Cram (325) relaxed to the slow pace of the 1,500 and then outkicked Steve Scott (left), Said Aouita (549) and Steve Ovett (341).PHOTOFibingerova couldn't hold back the tears after winning a shotput gold.PHOTOThe wreath of victory was a heavy mantle for the marathon champ, Rob de Castella.PHOTOKoch (in blue) won golds in both relays to go with this triumphant 200 performance.PHOTOKratochvilova: muscled up for glory at 400 and 800 meters.PHOTOLillak's final throw gave the Finns their finest finish.

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)