Last March, when her right knee locked, Joan Benoit thought, loonily, of the mural on the building on Menlo Avenue, beside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Nike had commissioned 40-foot paintings of Benoit and Alberto Salazar, the women's and men's marathon world-record holders, and someone had sent a photo of Benoit's to her home in Freeport, Maine. She had found it—a depiction of her joy crossing the finish line of her 2:22:43 world-record run in Boston in 1983—mildly embarrassing.
But then, on a long training run, her knee ground painfully to a stop, and she had to walk. "My first thought," she would say, "was 'What about the mural? They put up my picture on the side of an entire building, and now I won't be there.' "
What ensued, of course, is miraculous history. Benoit weathered an emotional storm of layoffs, cortisone treatments, then arthroscopic surgery on the knee only 17 days before the Olympic trials in May, and finally her own overtraining, which so pounded her legs that she couldn't run at all a week before the qualifying race in Olympia, Wash. Yet she made the team, leading almost all the way in the trial, building a cushion and just holding on in the last miles.
Then she went home to train. "It took about a month for it to sink in," Benoit said. But the upcoming Olympics had a different effect on her than the trials. The anxiety was gone. "I've looked forward to the first Olympic marathon for women for so long," she said, "that knowing I'm going to be in it, knowing I'm going to do the best I can, simply made the pressure go away. The L.A. race doesn't seem like it will be an ordeal so much as a prize."
August 12, 1984
And so it was. Sunday morning, as she turned onto Menlo Avenue and tried not to look at the building with her mural on it, she had a kilometer to run in the Olympic women's marathon—and an insurmountable minute-and-a-half lead over 1983 world champion Grete Waitz of Norway. It seemed, to her and to those who know her, that she had been blessed, in recompense for her pain-ridden year, with a perfect race at the perfect time.
She was tired, but not brutally so. She had saved something in case the race came down to a final sprint. So she had the marathoner's rarest pleasure: the strength left to luxuriate in her victory. Her sensation was disbelief. "I couldn't believe no one had challenged me," she would say. "I couldn't imagine that it was almost over."
The race itself, like Carl Lewis's 9.99 win in the 100-meter dash the previous evening, contained no classic competitive drama, no moments of great combatants straining at each other, trying to force a turning" point. Instead, the shortest and longest races of the first week of Olympic track and field competition were simple displays of supremacy, affirmations of the mastery of two champions who otherwise couldn't be more different.
Both Benoit's and Lewis's runs were expressions of their irreducible natures. In Lewis's case it's an inextinguishable faith in self. He isn't the fastest starter in the 100. Sam Graddy, another American sprinter, is. But, as Brooks Johnson, the U.S. women's coach, put it, "There are the quick and the fast. Sam is quick. Carl is fast. Carl is a fine starter, but he doesn't sacrifice the whole race for the sake of a start."
No, he relaxes, gathers himself into the best running form ever attained and trusts his top speed to get him past Graddy and anyone else who has been quick. Trusts, too, that those ahead of him will slow at the end and that he won't. "It's a mirage that anyone seems to accelerate in the last 40 meters," says Johnson, and what he says has been supported by high-speed photography. "The kicker is the guy who is just maintaining his speed, or slowing down the least. And the psychological advantage is always with the kicker. He gets the surge of adrenaline. He's the hunter. The guy ahead, the fast starter, is asking, 'When's he coming? When's the s.o.b. coming?' "
Graddy drew Lane 5 for the 100 final. It felt to him that the race would be run into a wind, which, because he is light, stands him up and so hurts him more than others. He had had a twinge of soreness in his groin moments before, but he had put aside all consideration of things like that. "I'd decided to rely on my start," he said. "I'd experimented with a smoother pickup, to be able to hold my speed longer, but in pressure situations I always revert to what I do best: I get out and keep it going."
Lewis was two lanes away, in 7. Before the race he stood calmly behind the blocks in the twilight, his silhouette remarkable for his square brush-cut, a haircut we'll see down through the ages now, like Frank Shorter's mustache from Munich. Somehow, one feels that Lewis's hirsute affectation was the more premeditated. Lord, everyone had a mustache in 1972, but the only other head that looks like Lewis's belongs to Grace Jones.
Perhaps it was because of the 90-second slices of Olympic history produced by Bud Greenspan that occasionally were run on the Coliseum's immense scoreboard TV. Or perhaps it was because of the incessant comparing of Jesse Owens's four gold-medal performances in the 100, 200, 4 X 100 and long jump in 1936 with Lewis's in those same four events. But as the hush descended—the "U!S!A!, U!S!A!" chants being drowned in anarchic cheers for individual favorites, and then even those slowly ebbing into the electric, chilled quiet that precedes the Olympic men's 100—the stadium seemed to fade in and out of time. This same hush obtained in 1936, moments before Owens outlasted a charging Ralph Metcalfe. It was this achingly still in Mexico City in 1968, before Jim Hines set the Olympic record of 9.95. That was the last time a U.S. sprinter had won the title of world's fastest human.
Now the only challenge to a U.S. sweep seemed to be coiled in Lane 8 in the slender form of 19-year-old Ray Stewart of Jamaica, who in the semifinals that afternoon had stayed near Graddy's rocket start and had passed him at the tape, 10.26 to 10.27. But in the final, Stewart was next to Lewis. At the gun, his attention seemed to skip a beat, and he got off poorly. Graddy, though, was magnificent at doing what he does best. He exploded, getting a yard on the field by 40 meters.
Lewis sensed that he'd started well. He knew Graddy was out there, but he felt that the better Graddy started, the more of his race he expended early, the more vulnerable he would be in the last meters. So he saw no need to panic. He never sees a need to panic. "Once I started to come on at about 50 meters," he said, "I relaxed and felt very confident." Still, at halfway, he was no better than third behind Graddy and Ben Johnson of Canada. Then he did what he does best. He reached that icy-smooth, mechanically pure top speed.
"He's very, very efficient," Graddy would say. "He gets his knees so high." And if it's only an illusion that he seems to accelerate at the end of a 100, then it's a powerful one.
"I felt myself out front from the start," said Graddy. "And as we got to 80 meters, I was still there, and I got excited. I thought, 'Hey, I'm going to win a gold medal.' Then I saw him out of the corner of my eye."
By then it was over. Lewis passed Graddy so fast he would go on to win by more than two yards. Graddy would get the silver in 10.19. Johnson hung on to third against the charge of Ron Brown, 10.22 to 10.26. Lewis's two-tenths of a second was the widest winning margin in the history of the Olympic 100-meter run, and he got it all in the last quarter of the race.
He went right into what he does second best: celebrating. He waved and leaped with unaffected joy, which was natural enough on one level, but such was the impress of his spectacular sprinting that it seemed incongruous to think that this creature, arguably the fastest Homo sapiens in the planet's history, was subject to the same nerves as his unluckily mortal competitors, or felt the same wide-eyed relief when his test was over.
He took a flag from a startled fan at the top of the backstretch and floated a lap under the colors, happy and on his way, but still with the responsibility of three more medals to go. "This was the tough one, though," said his coach, Tom Tellez. "This one is where a mistake, a bit of bad luck, is impossible to overcome." Once won, therefore, it's a terrific springboard.
"Yeah, as far as I'm concerned," Lewis said, "60 percent of it is over."
It wasn't precisely over for Evelyn Ashford—she still had the 4 X 100 relay to run—but in terms of long yearnings finally being stilled, she had won her race. Confined to the 100 because a hamstring strain in the trials kept her out of the 200, she had prepared carefully, risking no speed work that might tear something further.
As she placed her spikes against the blocks for the final on Sunday, she was living out a whole cluster of dreams that have moved her since childhood. The image of Wilma Rudolph, the 1960 sprint champion and her early idol, was part of it, as well as the idea of the Games, the sound of the titles of world-record holder and Olympic champion. She was the former, with a 10.79. She was far faster than Rudolph ever was. But she had been hurt a lot. An intelligent woman, she could see other possible futures. "Being injured in the trials put fear in my heart," she said. "I thought I was starting a trend of injury."
Her competition would be teammate Alice Brown and 1980 Olympic 200-meter bronze medalist Merlene Ottey-Page of Jamaica. Both had high hopes. Ashford's fragility gives everyone in the race a chance. Brown, like Graddy, was the quick starter who had to be caught. But Ashford herself started well enough not to need a Lewis-like last 50. "I didn't feel that much in control," she said. "I felt that my legs were moving too fast for my body." But her body kept up nicely, thank you, and she won by three feet in an Olympic record 10.97, .04 faster than the 11.01 of Annegret Richter of West Germany in Montreal. Brown held off Ottey-Page for second, 11.13 to 11.16. "She can be beaten," said Brown. "I just haven't done it yet."
Being an Olympic champion sunk in deep for Ashford. She wept on the victory stand, with release, with relief, with amazement at herself. Often blazingly outspoken in her wish to be a star, to have it all, she stepped down from the stand mellowed. "The response in the Olympic stadium today tells me that I'm very much appreciated. Running fast and being good at what I do are reward enough for me right now," she said.
The reward for all those lucky enough to be in the stadium the first three days was the sight of Edwin Moses. He was cheered longer and more lovingly than any other favorite. Moses's mere entry brought shouts. His warming up over the first two hurdles called forth ecstasy. Then, three times—in his 400-meter hurdles heat, semifinal and final—as he drew to decisive margins of victory by the end of the final turn, the throng lifted into full voice, howling without a trace of desperation or competitive hunger, roaring simply in awe.
All save Myrella Moses, Edwin's ebullient wife, who during the final could barely watch. "My hands had no feeling. My face was twitching," she said. "For four years all you think is Olympics: August 5, 6:55 p.m. It was four years of tension coming to an end. Oh, he was confident. He was sleeping 15 hours a day. I was the wreck."
It didn't help that her husband, poised in Lane 6, false-started. What a vision of shock and horror that would be, to see his streak of 89 victories in finals end on a disqualification for a pair of false starts. But it happened that he had gone on the sound of a camera motor drive and so wasn't charged with a jump.
Two lanes in from him, Danny Harris had stood behind his blocks in the crouch of a defensive back, which he is for Iowa State. If he were to wear silver, he had to beat the man between his lane and Moses's, Harald Schmid of West Germany, the second-fastest intermediate hurdler in history with his 47.48 in 1982 and the last man to defeat Moses, on that faraway day in 1977.
When they were fairly begun, Moses shot ahead. He ran crisply until the eighth hurdle and then stopped pulling away. This was because of the battle going on between Harris and Schmid, which was so fierce that it actually brought them nearer Moses in the stretch, though he won by three yards, relaxed, in 47.75. Harris fought to second in 48.13, a few inches ahead of Schmid's 48.19, then had to sweat out a protest of the race by Schmid because Harris had made contact with Schmid's left arm between the eighth and ninth hurdles. Harris, not quite treating it as a pass interference call, said, "I'm not worried because I know I didn't foul him on purpose. It happens quite often." He was cleared and was awarded his silver, something that doesn't happen often to an 18-year-old seminovice hurdler.
"For him to come out in one year and get an Olympic medal and beat Harald Schmid," said Moses, "makes me wish him all the best and lets me know I have to watch my behind."
But Moses is always gracious in victory. That's why he's always gracious. "Yes, I've done the training. I concentrate on every single race. But I've been very lucky, too," he said.
After the race, Moses went to Myrella, who cried. "I didn't want to cry. I wanted to look pretty," she said, but she knew she would cry. She had put on waterproof mascara. "I said, 'Let's go to your mom,' so we did. And he said, 'I wish Dad could be here. This one is for him.' [Irving Moses Sr. died last December.] And we all started crying."
Which brought to mind one of the closest family acts in U.S. Olympic history, the remarkable performances of Al and Jackie Joyner, the son and daughter of an East St. Louis, Ill. railroad switch operator. Jackie, 22, a heptathlete, was favored, slightly, though a hamstring injured two weeks before was still tender. Al, 24, was nominally the third-best U.S. triple jumper, behind Mike Conley and Willie Banks. The crucial element of this drama was that the triple jump final took place during the last two events of the heptathlon.
Al, who said, "I'm not worrying about Jackie. When it gets down to the end, Jackie will be there. I'm concentratin' on me," produced a personal best of 56'7½" on his first attempt, to lead. Jackie, fighting back after a dismal long jump—two fouls and then a safe jump, off the wrong takeoff leg, of but 20'½", two feet less than her best—threw the javelin 146 feet to take the lead by 31 points over Australia's Glynis Nunn and by 80 over West Germany's Sabine Everts.
But once ahead, both Joyners would be severely tried. Jackie knew exactly what she had to do to hold her lead through the last heptathlon event, the 800-meter run. "I had to stay within two seconds of Nunn and seven of Everts," she said. "And I meant to. I meant to run a 2:09."
Everts led, with Nunn second, and Joyner on her back. One thought of Rafer Johnson in this same situation in the Rome decathlon 1,500. He stayed with his friend C.K. Yang of Taiwan, and by doing so took from him the gold medal. Al passed his fourth attempt in the triple jump to be on the final curve. With a lap to go, Jackie just had to maintain her position. But in the last turn, with Al running beside her, she could go no faster. Nunn, running what would be the last event of her last heptathlon, whipped herself to the finish in 2:10.57. Joyner made it in 2:13.03.
There ensued 10 minutes of anguished confusion while times were checked against the points they earn in the scoring tables. "I thought Jackie had beaten me by three points," said Nunn.
When all was calculated, it turned out that had Joyner been .33 faster, she would have beaten Nunn. As it was, she was second by five points, 6,390—6,385, with Everts third, at 6,363.
After all this, Al had to go back to his own event and watch Conley, who'd injured an ankle on his first attempt, compose himself for one, last, all-out jump. "It was the Olympic Games," said Conley simply. "I would jump with pain, and I would jump far."
He jumped in the vicinity of 58 feet. He also fouled by an inch. Al Joyner was the Olympic triple jump champion.
"I'd pictured myself doing this," he said. "And I'd pictured Jackie winning her medal. But I always thought hers would be gold, too."
The women marathoners had tried to picture what running in Los Angeles would be like and had made training decisions months before, for conditions they couldn't be sure of facing. Waitz and her Norwegian teammate, Ingrid Kristiansen, had stressed speed. They did solid mileage, but also track racing and training, anticipating a shifting, tactical battle similar to last summer's world championship race, won by Waitz with a swift last 10,000 meters. Indeed, Kristiansen, off this training, had broken the world record for 5,000 meters, becoming the first woman to go under 15 minutes, with a 14:58.89. However, they stayed in Norway until right before the Games, leaving them questionable in the matter of enduring heat.
Benoit stressed stamina. "If it's hot and a hard course," said her coach, Bob Sevene of Athletics West, "she'll last it out." She did increasingly rapid 20-mile runs every week in Maine's unusually hot and humid June and July. And she didn't worry about not being able to sprint at the end of a tactical race, because if she was in the thing, it wouldn't be tactical. It would be a driving pace all the way. "I decided two months ago I had to run my own race," she said. By that she meant striking a rhythm that let her move to her own brisk internal metronome.
At the start, at 8 a.m. at Santa Monica College, Kristiansen and Waitz readied themselves with care. Waitz pinned up her braids so when wet from the water thrown on them along the way they wouldn't swing around and blind her. She had a sore lower back, from a spasm the previous day, but her main concern was the weather. It was 68° and overcast, the morning pattern near the L.A. beaches, but the Norwegians knew the fog would burn off. "I was afraid of the heat over the last six miles," Waitz said. That was when the course would leave the beaches and move east, into the sun and smog, to the Coliseum.
So they began, Benoit with a white painter's cap on backward. "I don't like my bangs bouncing around, or even the brim of a cap cutting my view," she said. Her number was taped to her shirt, to prevent pins from chafing.
The early pace was cautiously respectful of all that lay ahead. After two miles the lead pack was wide, containing at least 30 runners. Julie Brown, whose personal best is 2:26:26, was up front. Portugal's Rosa Mota, the 1982 European champion, waited expectantly for the heat to mount, for she is famously resistant to it. But Benoit didn't feel quite at ease. The pace was too slow. She picked it up a little. By three miles she was 20 yards ahead. She looked back, discovering this, and puzzlement came over her face.
"I hesitated. I thought, 'This is the Olympic marathon, and you're going to look like a dodo leading for half way and then having everyone pass you,' " she said. "But we weren't running very fast [the miles were going by in 5:40 each, about 2½-hour pace]. And I was under control. I didn't want to take the lead, necessarily. I wanted to run my own race. So I did what felt natural and didn't have any second thoughts about it."
She moved steadily away, forcing a decision on every contender. None made an attempt to go with her. "We thought, 'Benoit will break down, and we'll take her in the last 10 kilometers,' " said Kristiansen.
Benoit found her zone of concentration. "I basically just space out," she said. "When I felt it slowing a little bit, I'd say, "This feels too good to lose, so try to stay on top of your game.' "
At five miles, rolling down San Vicente Boulevard, she had a 13-second lead. This was where she'd tried to train last month. "But it was too hot and people kept recognizing me and insisting on racing me along the road," she said. "I was wearing myself out." So she had gone to Eugene, Ore.—Maine away from Maine—and cooled out. Wednesday she'd picked 14 quarts of raspberries. Thursday she'd canned them all. Sunday she found herself running through Venice, Calif. with a 90-second lead.
Her miles had dropped to 5:20s. It was still cool here. ABC commentators Marty Liquori and Bill Rodgers had worried about her early move, and for a while the television picture supported them, showing the lone figure of Benoit in the foreground, her stride not pretty from that angle, her foot placement slightly splayed, with the predatory pack looming in a wall behind.
But soon that wall was no longer in sight. And by 12 miles Liquori was saying, "Look at that lead! It's time to get excited." Yet Benoit clearly was within herself. In the narrow streets of Venice, she cracked a smile at the sight of someone holding up a Bowdoin College banner. That's her alma mater.
Behind her, Waitz and Kristiansen knew they were in deep trouble. "We let her go too early," said Waitz.
"I was three minutes slower at half way than in my 2:24:26 [the second best women's time ever] in London," said Kristiansen. But they knew they had had their chance.
As Waitz, Kristiansen and Mota tried to give chase, Brown was in crisis. "I ran from my heart," she would say. "But when they went at 15 miles I couldn't go with them." She would finish 36th, in 2:47:33, and leave an indelible image, sobbing on the Coliseum infield, of dashed Olympic dreams.
Benoit now had only to hold on. She ran the three-mile-long section of the Marina Freeway, a quiet stretch where spectators weren't permitted, with her hat brim down in front, her soaked singlet strap sliding off her right shoulder.
She had done her swiftest running when it was coolest. Her pursuers now had to try to do theirs in the heat. "With seven miles to go, she had a two-minute lead," said Waitz. "I knew I couldn't catch her."
The last miles were a validation of all Benoit had done before, especially of her world-best time, which had been attacked because she had allegedly enjoyed the benefits of men pacing her. She was alone here and showing that she really is minutes better than any other woman.
This was confirmation, too, of women's distance running's rightful place in the Games, and Benoit would be quick to thank the pioneer female runners who made it possible for her to race here at all, adding, "I hope we can run the 5,000 and 10,000 next time." (The IOC, bowing to the inevitable, has accepted the women's 10,000 for the 1988 Games.)
She reached a Coliseum populated with some 77,000 people who had been following her progress on the stadium scoreboard TV, applauding her even when she was miles away. Their welcome, jarring in its intensity, showed that she, and her event, had more than reached emotional parity with any other in the Olympics. She took off her hat on the backstretch with 200 meters to go and allowed herself a great, wide, glowing, barracuda grin. She finished in 2:24:52, the third-fastest marathon ever run by a woman and a time that would have won 13 of the 20 men's Olympic marathons.
Waitz was second in 2:26:18, and Mota third in 2:26:57. Benoit, who had tripped through a victory lap, flag and all, went to Waitz on the infield and said, "I took a chance. And I lucked out."
"Hey, I'm glad to get second," said Waitz. Fifteen minutes later the tone of the morning darkened. Gabriela Andersen-Schiess of Switzerland emerged from the tunnel onto the track in the classic throes of heat exhaustion. Her torso was twisted to the left, her right arm and left knee were oddly stiff and she kept losing her balance and staggering to regain it. The medical people ran to her. All this was the result of her nervous system being on the verge of collapse through dehydration and heat.
She evaded them, knowing if they touched her she would be disqualified, but had slowed to a walk. Still she struggled. The crowd called out to her, and so did her own defining promise, to keep on. "She should have stopped," said Waitz, but she was beyond judging her own condition. The question was whether she should have been stopped.
A doctor walked on the infield, watching her. "It was his opinion that there was no danger to her health," said Dr. Richard Greenspun, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee's chief medical officer for track and field.
Andersen-Schiess grew visibly worse with every step. She collapsed into medics' arms the moment she crossed the line, in 2:48:42. She was carried to treatment and then taken on a bizarre lap of honor in a little open electric ambulance, the crowd raining down applause.
"I was afraid of the heat, afraid of dying," Waitz had said, not meaning it quite literally, but knowing that the only thing that can kill a runner is the heat. Andersen-Schiess wasn't near death. Re-hydrated, she was alert and conscious and was released to the Swiss team physician. But the incident demonstrated that the conditions Benoit had mastered were indeed difficult, that the marathon can be both prize and ordeal, and that we may call the Olympics games, but these players are willing to put more than money or pride or dreams on the line just to take part.
"You think about a lot of things," said Benoit in describing her victory lap. "You think of how fast you've run, faster than you thought you could, and you think of how easy it was. And you end up thinking how thankful you must be, for all the people who helped you be there."
And we, the watchers, for Olympians such as these.