Athletes are seldom conspicuous by their absence. There are always hundreds more ready to rush into any vacuum. So the U.S.S.R.-led boycott hasn't wrecked the Olympic track and field meet itself, only preview stories about it. All the best track and field athletes in the world won't be at the Los Angeles Games, but by the time the women 800-meter runners, say, have fought their way through two qualifying rounds and nervously lined up for the final, the stupidity and injustice that make it impossible for Jarmila Kratochvilova, Czechoslovakia's world-record holder (1:53.28) in the event, to be present will have been transmuted into mild regret, mere wistful yearning for a better world.
That was the way it was four years ago in Moscow. Then the missing Americans were the ones you thought about after the racing was over, when you were walking along the Kremlevskaya Embankment by the Moscow River, and it came to you: "I wonder how Mary Decker would have done against that Kazankina in the 1,500. I wonder if Tony Sandoval could have kept up with Waldemar Cierpinski in the last four miles of the marathon."
That the here-and-now is so much more real than the might-have-been is a matter for profoundly mixed feelings. It's this tendency to forget those might-have-beens that lets governments get away with depriving athletes of truly Olympic expression, which is evil. It's this same forgetfulness that lets a depleted entry list still produce a great race, which is good. In other words, life goes on. Nothing is perfect. Compromise is everywhere.
But you can bet that Kratochvilova, or East Germany's Marita Koch (the gold medal winner in the Moscow 400) and Sabine Paetz (the new world-record holder in the heptathlon), or the Soviet Union's Sergei Bubka (the world-record holder in the pole vault) will know when their events are being contested in Los Angeles. The dates and hours have been posted on their walls, entered in their journals, idly scribbled on their telephone pads for four years. And they'll be thinking that if they must feel as empty as they do, some great good will come out of that void, somehow.
Certainly some little good will accrue to the athletes they probably would have beaten. In the vacuum left by Kratochvilova and the Soviet women, the 800 is unexpectedly wide open. Margrit Klinger of West Germany and Doina Melinte of Romania now will be among the challengers for the gold medal; with them, with as solid a chance to win as any, is a woman from Ambler, Pa. named Kim Gallagher.
She's 20 and doesn't look even that because of her huge doe eyes and sparkling braces. She holds American junior records in the 800, 1,500 and 5,000 (2:00.07, 4:16.6 and 16:34.7, respectively). She set the 5,000 mark when she was only 15. For the five years ending last September, she was coached by her brother Bart. She quit running for three months last summer, then moved to Santa Monica and began again with Chuck DeBus of the Puma and Energizer club. This was with Bart's blessing. "And I love him even more since he's not my coach," says Kim.
"If you ran their physiological characteristics through a computer, she and Mary Decker would come out virtually identical," says DeBus. "Same speed. Same aerobic potential. Mary's just six years older." Decker and Gallagher also share a girlish directness that sometimes shades into faintly loony non sequitur. "Training has to be everything," Gallagher said at the U.S. Olympic trials in late June, "...but not too much." Asked about L.A.'s air quality, she said, "It's fine. I cough a lot more than I ever have."
When Gallagher started running, her idol was Decker. She was eight; Decker, then 14, had just gained notice by beating 1972 Olympic silver medalist Niole Sabaite of the U.S.S.R. in a dual meet at 800 meters. "My brother took me out running first," she recalls. "Everyone told me I looked like a little pony. I had long hair and was this thin." Here she makes a little circle, with thumb and forefinger. This is hard to believe, because at the same time Gallagher was incessantly stuffing herself with sugar. "My parents gave me money for lunch, and I'd spend it on SweeTarts," she says. "I'd just sit in my closet and eat for an hour."
Gallagher attained all her junior records despite such habits, but last year they caught up with her. "I knew I had anemia going into the nationals," she says. "I didn't want the doctor to tell me, though." She finished last in her heat in the TAC 800 and didn't make the final. That prompted her three-month layoff.
Then last fall she set about reconstructing herself. "If you have the will to control it, anemia isn't really a major illness," she says. This doesn't mean that she saw pretty colors during the fainting spells but that the disease could be curtailed by careful attention to sleep and diet. On occasion her attention wasn't as careful as it might have been—"You go out with friends; you want to eat freezie pops," she says—but she's healthy again.
Gallagher established that with an impressive win in the trials 800, following Ruth Wysocki's pace and out-kicking her over the last 200 to win in 1:58.50. Of Americans, only Decker and 1968 Olympic champion Madeline Manning have run faster. Gallagher believes that Decker's U.S. record of 1:57.61 is within reach. "It seems like the only thing I think about all the time is the Olympics," she says. "I think it will take 1:56 to win the gold, and I think I'm capable of that."
More than capable. She possesses the rarest of attributes in a female middle-distance runner, the ability to accelerate late in the race. Traditionally, especially in Western countries, it has been the 800 woman who slowed down the least who won. But Gallagher has a real kick, and it gives her exciting tactical freedom.
What Wysocki has is momentum. Her victory over Decker in the trials 1,500 was the revelation of the meet. No matter that Decker was running tired—she'd won the 3,000 less than 24 hours before—Wysocki's 4:00.18 was faster than Decker's winning time against the Soviets in the 1983 world championships in Helsinki. So she proved in one race that she can run the 1,500 with anyone in the world.
"She did two years of steady background mileage," says her husband, 10,000-meter runner Tom Wysocki, who briefly was Decker's boyfriend before she married Ron Tabb in 1981. "When she added speed work, she was able to do it without cutting down on distance. Her form is better. She runs more like a man now. She's just improving like crazy."
Will she face Decker again in the Games? It's unlikely. Decker's choice of 1,500 or 3,000 will be a difficult one. She yearns to double, but the Olympic schedule of preliminaries is so taxing, with six races crammed into five days, that when Decker attempted it in the trials, Wysocki became the first American runner to defeat her at any distance since Manning in 1980.
When Zola Budd qualified to run the 3,000 for Great Britain, that made it possible for Decker in one event both to face her most celebrated opponent and to run her best distance. (Decker's 8:29.71 American record for the 3,000 is less than three seconds off the world mark of Svyetlana Ulmasova of the Soviet Union. However, Decker's best 1,500 of 3:57.12 is 4.65 seconds slower than the world record of 3:52.47 held by Tatyana Kazankina of the U.S.S.R.)
"I'm not going to do anything just for the sake of a media event," Decker has said. But her competitive curiosity and our own aren't far apart on the question of Budd. Decker was irritated this spring that almost every other question asked her had to do with Budd, who in January, as a 17-year-old, ran nearly seven seconds faster than Decker's world record of 15:08.26 at 5,000 meters. (Budd's time wasn't recognized as a world mark because she was then a South African citizen, but Decker's record was officially broken by Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway, who ran a 14:58.89 on June 28.) Since South Africans can't compete in international track meets, Budd in March took advantage of her father's British passport to claim citizenship in England and become eligible to run in Los Angeles. Thus, Decker and Budd are linked in the reportorial mind, each the final test the other has to pass to gain supremacy. That irked Decker, not because she already felt supreme—she has never gotten tired of racing because she doesn't conceive of races as proving anything for more than a day or two—but because she doesn't race against personalities but against fields, against the best who show up.
But once together, the impatient natures of Budd and Decker may create a spectacular race, one that isn't tactical and jostling and infuriating and won with a late sprint the way the men's races will certainly be. Decker loves to lead. Budd has never done anything else but lead. If each is equally uncomfortable in the wake of the other, each will pass, and be passed and repass. "It will be a world-record pace, probably," says Dick Brown, Decker's coach.
If that happens, it won't be a race decided by late speed, in which Decker would probably prevail, but by the ability to run when totally exhausted. There hasn't been an Olympic distance race like that since Vladimir Kuts of the Soviet Union destroyed Britain's Gordon Pirie in the Melbourne 10,000 in 1956. Making the prospects for this race even more intriguing is the presence of Romania's Maricica Puica, the world cross-country champion who also is the women's mile world-record holder (4:17.44). Puica's ability to close fast will influence Decker to run with a little something in reserve.
The reason you don't see hard-paced distance racing in the Olympics anymore was clear at the trials. "The heats take too much out of you," says Pat Porter, third-place finisher in the men's 10,000. The result: races such as last year's world championship 10,000 and 5,000 in Helsinki, in both of which the pace was modest with lots of lead changes, and fast finishers such as Alberto Cova of Italy in the 10,000 (last lap in 53.9) and Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland in the 5,000 (last three laps in 2:57) sprinted to victory.
The 10,000 may go that way again. The only American who can sprint well at the end is Paul Cummings, the 1974 NCAA 1,500-meter champion. "I can run a 53-second last lap if I have to," he has said. He'll have to.
In the 5,000, it may be different. On June 13, in Florence, Italy, a man ran a race that must have made Coghlan goggle. Said Aouita of Morocco, who was third in the Helsinki 1,500 behind Steve Cram of Great Britain and Steve Scott of the U.S., tried himself out over 5,000 meters—and came home in 13:04.78. That's the second-fastest clocking ever, behind Dave Moorcroft's world record of 13:00.41.
Consider Coghlan's problem. It's the one he usually causes everyone else. Aouita is a 1:44 800-meter runner. Coghlan, though the world indoor mile record holder, has never broken 1:47. It would seem Coghlan can't win. Aouita can hold a faster pace. Aouita can outkick him. But in Olympic finals, the pressure of leading is vastly greater than in invitational meets. And Aouita doesn't have the craftiness Coghlan has accumulated over the years, or the haunting experience of having twice been fourth in the Olympics (the 1,500 in Montreal, the 5,000 in Moscow).
No women's event is as unaffected by the boycott as the marathon. The last miles may seem a dual meet between the U.S., with world-record holder Joan Benoit (2:22:43) and course-record holder Julie Brown (2:26:26), and Norway, with world champion Grete Waitz (2:25:29) and the redoubtable Kristiansen.
Kristiansen had a bad race in the 1983 world cross-country championships in Gateshead, England, so she went for a physical exam when she got home. "Five months pregnant," said the doctor. There's no record of what Kristiansen said, but after delivering a boy, she has come back with postnatal elation. On May 6, she whipped both Budd and Waitz over 10,000 meters on the road in Norway, and seven days later won the London Marathon in the second-fastest time ever, 2:24:26. Then she ran her world record 5,000.
The absence of the entire U.S.S.R. and East German men's teams increases the chance of U.S. sweeps, but there still won't be many. American hurdlers, always strong, are now especially deep. Edwin Moses in the 400 intermediates and Greg Foster in the 110 highs both could lead countrymen—Danny Harris and Tranel Hawkins in the 400, Tonie Campbell and Roger Kingdom in the 110—across the line ahead of the rest of the world.
Although U.S. 400 runners have been bolstered by the emergence of Antonio McKay of Georgia Tech, any thought of a sweep here must founder on the presence of Jamaica's Bert Cameron, the world champion.
Carl Lewis, whose brilliance—combined with the lack of any serious challenger in either sprint or long jump—makes his four gold medals far more likely than were Jesse Owens's in 1936, will probably lead a one-two-three American finish in the 100 and perhaps even the 200. "I think Carl will be better in the Olympics than he was in the trials [in which he won the sprints and long jump]," says his coach, Tom Tellez. "The trials are always stressful."
Tellez doesn't mean to imply that the Olympics are a relaxed exhibition, but the fact is that Lewis, if he's sound, is going to make winning look absurdly easy. It will be hot in the L.A. Coliseum in August, and Lewis will have to run four rounds in both the 100 and 200, three rounds in the 4 x 100 relay (unless an alternate takes his place for qualifying) and take part in prelims and finals in the long jump. That, because of the relay, is more work than in the trials, so records may not fall. Then again....
"I'm conservative," said Tellez. "I tend to want him to do fewer events and do well in them. But I just help prepare him for what he decides to do. The goals are for him to set."
Lewis seemed to set them publicly after he won the 200 in the trials, running back past the stands holding up four fingers.
For some reason, probably the technical expertise of Eastern European coaches, the field events are more diluted by the boycott than the ones on the track. And the throws more so than the jumps. There will still be a memorable triple jump in the absence of 1983 world champion Zdzislaw Hoffman of Poland. Mike Conley and Willie Banks will be carried through the air on the shouts of 90,000 fellow Americans. Keith Connor of Great Britain and Ken Lorraway of Australia will have to jump all by themselves.
The great field-event contests that aren't going to happen may cause the most poignant regret. Javelin world-record holder Tom Petranoff and newly improved Duncan Atwood, who threw 306'7" in the trials, will vie in the absence of world champ Detlef Michel of East Germany, after whom Atwood patterned his technique, and Uwe Hohn of East Germany. In the shotput, Dave Laut won't face Udo Beyer of East Germany in the ring where last year Beyer set the world record. Mac Wilkins and John Powell will throw the discus without having to worry about the cat-quick and jovial presence of Luis Delis of Cuba. For that, Powell is grateful.
So should we all be for the wonder that may result in the men's high jump. Dwight Stones, after 11 years of jumping with the best, is better than ever and able, he assures us, to go even higher than the American-record 7'8" he cleared to win the trials.
But then even he may have to stand in awe as Zhu Jianhua of China raises the ante to his world record of 7'10". And beyond. One can't quite believe that we may see history's first eight-foot high jump to climax the Olympics. But we may see someone attempting it. It's a thing so vividly impossible yet so near to reality that it can wipe out a lot of melancholy over what might have been.