They exploded out of the blocks together on the evening of Aug. 22, world-record holder Evelyn Ashford in Lane 4 and her longtime rival, Marlies G√∂hr of East Germany, to her left in Lane 3, racing through the cool dusk at Zurich's Letzigrund Stadium for the No. 1 ranking in the world in the 100 meters, women. This was the real Olympic final, 17 days late. Ashford's gold medal in the 100, attained Aug. 5 in Los Angeles, had been won with G√∂hr, the world champion and former world-record holder, at home, a victim of the Soviet bloc boycott. To know the unyielding wills of Ashford and G√∂hr and the bitterness of their rivalry was to sense how fiercely each wanted to win. Without question, the race would be fast.
The Ashford-G√∂hr duel was at last bringing to life a post-Olympic track and field season that, except for the feats and flash of Carl Lewis, had been putting Europe to sleep. The entire Zurich meet would be superb, in vivid contrast to earlier competitions in Berlin, London, Budapest and Nice, which were plagued by illness, injury and post-Games letdown. World records hadn't been falling, bodies had. Also dampening spirits were the Eastern bloc's "Friendship '84 Games" in Moscow and Prague, at which ultimately eight of 24 men's and 12 of 17 women's '84 Olympic gold medal track and field performances were bettered and one world record was set. The stars from L.A. were being challenged, yet many weren't responding.
Not Ashford. When G√∂hr ran a 10.95 in Prague on Aug. 16, .02 under Ashford's gold medal time, Ashford went to Berlin and the very next night blazed 10.92 and 10.94 in her heat and final. G√∂hr-Ashford battles have often been fought on paper, by comparing times. Between them the two have run 16 of the 17 fastest women's 100s in history. It frustrated Ashford that G√∂hr held the world record in the event from 1977 all the way into '83; it has since nagged at G√∂hr that Ashford ran a 10.79 at the 7,200-foot altitude of Colorado Springs last summer to take the record away.
Astonishingly, only twice since 1979 had Ashford, now 27, and G√∂hr, 26, met over 100 meters when both were free of leg injuries. It seems the two share not just similar builds (about 5'5", 115 pounds) and dispositions (feisty, sometimes testy) but also, alas, a tendency to push their hamstrings a bit too far. Of their nine 100-meter matchups since 1976, Ashford had won six. Most recently, however, at last August's world championships in Helsinki, Ashford's right hamstring had given out 50 meters from the finish, handing the race to G√∂hr. But at Zurich the handicaps seemed minor and equal: Ashford had some soreness in her legs from Berlin, while G√∂hr was tired from having raced 31 times since early May and from having spent 12 hours the day before traveling to Zurich from her hometown of Jena by car, bus and plane.
September 2, 1984
Waiting to race, Ashford looked calm; G√∂hr was tense, unable to stand still. The sellout crowd of 25,000 was rapt. Both women started well, but 10 meters into the race G√∂hr was clear of Ashford and drawing away. "I always come to win," G√∂hr would say later. "Otherwise I shouldn't come at all, and hang up my spikes." At 30 meters her lead was almost a full meter, with Ashford not yet free of the six other finalists. A soft tail wind was pushing them along.
As the field approached 50 meters, Ashford was gaining. Her style is to come from behind, often dramatically, and here she was doing precisely that. "I don't really accelerate until 50 meters," she would later explain. "I just get out of the blocks even, and with 20 meters left, I relax and let my legs go." At 75 meters Ashford caught G√∂hr. The faces of both runners were twisted with effort. This was an extraordinary race. As Ashford would say later, "I knew I was better than I've ever been. I just had to keep my body from exploding on me." When Ashford surged yet again, G√∂hr couldn't respond. Ashford reached the line first by two feet. A small pacing clock on the infield grass was frozen at 10.77. The wind reading was + 1.7 (3.8 mph), not enough to disallow a record. After a 10-second pause, Ashford's time was announced officially as 10.76. A world record.
The crowd surged to its feet, applauding. Ashford took a jubilant victory lap, joined by her husband, Ray Washington. Another man, a stranger, jumped from the stands and hugged her.
"I can't believe it," said Ashford. "I'm so tired of seeing 'Ashford 10.79' [in the record book] with an 'A' after it." (Her old mark had borne the stigma of altitude.) Afterward, even G√∂hr, whose time was 10.84, offered a smile and a handshake. "In the last 10 meters," said G√∂hr, shaking her head, "she must have listened to a voice from above."
Ashford's world record set off an evening of inspired performances. Quadruple Olympic gold medalist Lewis, in the midst of a five-meet European tour that was teaching him both the value (a reported $30,000 per appearance) and the price of his new fame, followed Ashford by winning the men's 100 in 9.99, the same time as in his L.A. 100, leaving behind world-record holder Calvin Smith and the top Soviet bloc sprinters. "This is the first summer I've actually been successful in Europe," said Lewis, who in the past had peaked much earlier in the year and gone to Europe exhausted. Indeed, after a 20.21 for the 200 in the chill at Cologne on Sunday, Lewis had, in the course of a week, executed the best long jump ever on European soil (28'4½" in Brussels), run the second-fastest 100 and turned in a creditable 200.
But if life after Los Angeles had been one of first-class flights, deluxe hotels and preeminence on the track, not everything had gone smoothly. He had returned from the Olympics to find his house in Houston burglarized and his collection of crystal smashed. "And he'd spent all his money on an alarm system," joked his long-jumping sister, Carol. "It probably would've helped if the Houston papers hadn't printed his address."
Many things were happening that were beyond Lewis's control. In Berlin, meet organizers claimed there was a chance he would run in their 100, even though there wasn't; when Lewis didn't show up, he was blasted by the West German press. In London on Aug. 18, Lewis was beset thrice over: Hoping to set a world record in the rarely contested distance of 300 meters, he instead finished a fading fourth. Afterward, appearing in the Crystal Palace press box, he faced questions about his eager conversion of Olympic gold into hard cash and his lack of radical consciousness. At night's end, to escape a pushy mob of autograph seekers, he had to flee across the darkened stadium infield with the fans in hot pursuit and to jump into a waiting car. The crowd turned ugly, pounding on the car and taunting Lewis. To Lewis's great credit, he remained buoyant throughout the week, even jaunty. "All I expected was happiness," he said of his Olympic triumphs, "and I have a ton of that."
When Lewis stepped off the track in Zurich, out came the Eastern bloc women, carrying a bundle of Olympic-boycott frustrations. Here came tiny Lucyna Kalek of Poland flitting over the 100-meter hurdles ahead of all three L.A. medalists in 12.53, a time no Western woman has ever approached. And there went double world champion (400 and 800) Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia, now 33 and about to retire. Her anvil of a body gone a little soft at the edges, she finished second to Ludmilla Borisova of the Soviet Union in the Budapest 400, but she won the 800 in 1:57.68, 4.4 above her women's world record, with Olympic silver medalist Kim Gallagher of the U.S. fifth. And then there was the silky Marita Koch of East Germany to easily dispose of all three Olympic medalists in the 200 in 21.87—from a blind outside lane yet. Koch, 27, the 200 meter world-record holder (21.71), would have been favored to win both the 200 and 400 in Los Angeles. But she took special satisfaction in having beaten L.A.'s own Valerie Brisco-Hooks, who won the Olympic 200 and 400. "You have to be 110 percent to beat Marita Koch, and I wasn't," said a fatigued Brisco-Hooks after finishing fourth. "My lower back tightened up coming to Europe, and when I ran I couldn't find my gears." Koch was shyly pleased, Brisco-Hooks—24 and improving fast—not disappointed. This year both had had their shining moments.
Greg Foster was another with an Olympic champion in his sights. Heavily favored to win the 110 hurdles in L.A., he had instead been rattled by what he thought to be a false start and had lost by .03 second to Pitt junior Roger Kingdom. In Berlin, Foster had gained a measure of revenge by defeating Kingdom 13.16 to 13.17; in Zurich, he nipped Kingdom again, 13.15 to 13.16, with a strong lean at the line. "After the Olympics, all my friends said I was still No. 1 in their book," said Foster. "But for me to believe that, I had to prove it to myself." His 13.15, the year's fastest time, and his two victories were proof enough.
No European racing season can be complete without world-record attempts in the middle distances, of course, and the Zurich meet had three of them—all unnecessary failures. In the first, Olympic 5,000 champion Said Aouita of Morocco missed Sebastian Coe's mile mark by more than two seconds with a 3:49.54, a time that was nonetheless the fastest of the year. Coe, Britain's two-time Olympic 1,500 gold medalist, then fell nearly two seconds short of countryman Steve Ovett's 1,500 record with a time of 3:32.39. Finally, Brazil's Joaquim Cruz, the Olympic champion in the 800, turned in the third-fastest 800 in history: a 1:42.34, just .61 off another of Coe's world marks.
While each race was exciting, each was also notably flawed. The problem with the mile was that it shouldn't have been run. It had been hastily added to the program at the last minute to accommodate Aouita, who really wanted to run the 1,500 but was refusing to cooperate with Coe's record attempt in that race. "It seems to me we can't have this," griped Coe. "There are few occasions when you can actually go out and try for a world record." Said Aouita, "If I'd beaten Coe I would've gotten the world record. I go into the race with a better time this year [3:31.54] and he wants me to help him."
Aouita (pronounced OW-ee-ta) is one of the three men's middle-distance runners—Cruz and Britain's Steve Cram being the others—who'll be heard from most in the next five to 10 years. The range of his talent is astonishing. A former national junior-team soccer player from Fez, he has run the 100 in 11.1, the 800 in 1:44.38 and the 5,000 in 13:04.78. Aouita is a late bloomer at 23 while Coe, by comparison, seems to have been around forever but is merely 27.
Both suffered from inadequate performances by their rabbits in Zurich. Australia's Mike Hillardt lagged on the third lap of the mile, while U.S. veteran James Robinson did likewise on the second lap of the 1,500.
"Sometimes it comes off, and sometimes it doesn't," said Coe with a shrug. But there was a sense of what had been lost. Cruz, a junior at the University of Oregon, saw his chance at a record evaporate when pacer Omar Kalifa of the Sudan tired and didn't get out of his way on the backstretch of the last lap. "I moved out to pass, but he moved out, too," said Cruz later. "I had to move back in to get by. It cost me at least half a second." And so, on a slightly down note, ended the Zurich meet.
But the excitement first sparked by Ashford carried over. In Brussels two nights later, Cruz had a 1:42.41 in the 800 and pulled runner-up Johnny Gray to an American-record 1:43.28. French steeplechaser Joseph Mahmoud approached Henry Rono's 1978 world record of 8:05.4 with an 8:07.62, and Aouita, despite being unable to keep track of his pace because of malfunctioning stadium clocks, came within 1.20 seconds of Rono's world 3,000 mark with a 7:33.30. Building was the hunger that could lead to a fascinating 1985. "Next year I want world records," vowed Aouita. "Next year I shall try for all of them."
Cruz was left with the same eagerness after a 1:41.77—just .04 off Coe's world 800 record—in Cologne. All week long he'd been unable to sleep thinking about the record attempt. On Saturday night, however, Cruz decided to make Cologne his final race of the year, and that brought relief from the tension. He cruised through 400 meters behind rabbit Thomas Giessing of West Germany in 49.5—.2 faster than Coe's record pace—before relaxing too much on his second lap. "I was spacy out there," Cruz said afterward. "I was too lazy." Still, he'd carried Kenya's Sammy Koskei to a 1:42.28 and Gray to a repeat of his U.S. record. Cruz wasn't crushed. "I have to go under 1:41 next year," he said. "I have something to work for and something to look forward to."