The long-awaited rematch of Mary Decker Slaney and Zola Budd was all over after five laps at London's Crystal Palace last Saturday night. That was when Slaney, sticking to the plan she'd meant to try in the last kilometer of last summer's Olympic 3,000 meters, finally ran away. Budd, who had spent much of the first 2,000 in the perfect bothering position, memorably close to Slaney's shoulder and, worse, her heels, seemed to deflate and soon dropped to fourth. The word had been she couldn't kick. But now she couldn't even keep up.
Sensible handicappers knew that this would happen. Even Budd knew that this would happen. Slaney's best 3,000 was eight seconds faster than Budd's, and Slaney was in the shape of her life. So as her lead over the nearest pursuer, Switzerland's Cornelia Burki, stretched to 30 meters, the centerpiece of the Peugeot-Talbot Games became theater. It was an exhibition of Slaney's splendor out front. It was a nice payday. It was revenge. Above all, it was relief. But it was no longer a close race.
After The Fall, it took nearly a year for Slaney and Budd to return to a state of grace, meaning one where they could just go out on a track and get this thing behind them. Slaney, her hip socket injured from the shock of her plunge to the Los Angeles infield, couldn't race until winter. She married Richard Slaney twice, once in Eugene, Ore., once more in England for his family. She changed coaches, from Dick Brown to Luiz de Oliveira, and began a rigorous exercise regimen.
Although Budd convincingly won the world cross-country championship in March, her track development seemed to stall. In order to win, she must run away early, she must destroy the competition's kick, or she will be beaten late. This summer she has been beaten a lot, winning only one of four races.
Budd still must endure continuing harassment from antiapartheid protesters who fasten on her South African origins and look upon her British citizenship as a flag of convenience. Indeed, a protestor leaped to the track with an armload of leaflets about 100 meters from the start of the London 3,000. He was unceremoniously dragged off.
Slaney and Budd had buried the hatchet in the spring. Slaney had written to Budd that she regretted hurting Budd's feelings with the sharpness of her accusations at the Olympics. As they went to the start, Slaney wished Budd luck. Budd said thanks. "I don't want her to be afraid of me," said Slaney later. "Not as a person. As an athlete, sure."
Slaney, who never looked more athletic, ran her first lap in 66.5 and led by four meters. Budd came to her shoulder at 800, and the crowd shrieked because of the closeness of them. At 1,200 Budd may have led for a step or two. "But again," said Slaney, "she didn't accelerate enough to go by." Slaney was excited at how aggressive Budd was. "I was happy with her being right there, challenging, because it made me run faster."
At 1,700 they passed the point of the Olympic fall. Budd recently spoke of her reactions after Slaney went down in L.A. "I just felt I didn't want to stand on the winner's rostrum.... I think the people would have booed again. I didn't want any of that, so I ran slower, not to get a medal," she said. Surprisingly, she acknowledged Slaney's major claim, that Budd had cut in on her. "Wendy Sly tried to pass, and as she did, she made me go closer to Mary. I think that's why I had to cut in." That is not fully supported by the tapes. But then her track performances this season don't support the contention that she could have done much better than seventh in L.A., either.
Over the last 1,000 meters in London, Slaney loped away. She ran the final lap in 64.2, obviously with much in reserve, and won in 8:32.91, more than three seconds faster than Romania's Maricica PuicƒÉ did in winning the Olympic final. Burki held second in 8:38.71, and Budd was fourth in 8:45.43. "This doesn't prove anything," said Slaney. "PuicƒÉ is the Olympic champion, and nothing can change that."
It would have been gratifying to have PuicƒÉ in the London race, and she had been invited, but her Romanian Federation demanded a payment to match the $150,000 reportedly shared by Budd and Slaney. ABC TV, from which half of this largess flowed, said forget it. So PuicƒÉ, who had run an 8:40.16 3,000 the previous week in Romania, as if to say, "O.K., beat that," sat home.
And Slaney beat it. And got all wiggly with relief afterward. "The whole Mary-Zola thing has to be over now," she said. "I'm happy. I'm happy just that we could have a good race."
Well, let's call it a good run. The archetypal race took place earlier in the week before 18,000 on a still, warm night in Nice, France. Steve Cram of Britain and Said Aouita of Morocco joined in a battle so compelling that it seemed perfectly fitting that both broke the 1,500-meter world record.
Nice wasn't so much a rematch as a rare gathering of a cross section of gold medalists. Cram was the world champion at 1,500 in 1983 and the silver medalist in L.A., behind countryman Sebastian Coe. Aouita, though he had last year's fastest 1,500 time, won the Olympic 5,000. The self-assured Aouita later announced that Coe had won the 1,500 "by default," because he, Aouita, wasn't in it.
Also racing in Nice was the Olympic 800-meter champion, Brazil's Joaquim Cruz, who had been kept from the Olympic 1,500 by illness. "People like Aouita and Cruz make it much more stimulating," Cram would say.
He was so stimulated that he could barely get his sweats off. "My legs are like jelly," he told his friend Dave Roberts. "I'm more nervous than I have ever been. I don't think I can do it." That was the miler's imagination talking, the growling anxiety that precedes and prepares.
He placed Roberts at the finish line to call out split times. The pace he had asked for, to be set by Niang Babacar of Senegal and Omar Khalifa of the Sudan, was 1:52 at the 800 and 2:35 with a lap to go. The rabbits went out hard, but Cram was right with them. Babacar and Khalifa passed 400 in 54.36, with Cram second, Cruz third and Jose-Luis Gonzalez of Spain fourth. Aouita, inexplicably, floundered along for a while, caught in the rear of the 11-man pack. The 800 was 1:53.68. Babacar dropped back to let Khalifa lead, and Aouita made it to fourth, ahead of Cruz and Steve Scott of the U.S.
The most efficient stride belonged to the tall, 24-year-old Cram. He is a true miler. At 17 he ran 3:57.43. Not blessed with the explosive homestretch kick of a Coe or a Steve Ovett, he has made it his tactic to keep close to the lead and then charge from a long way out, say 300 meters. That gives him a meter or two before anyone can react, and it forces kickers to sprint longer than they want to, or can.
Cram hadn't heard any of the splits. He had been running for position and economy. Now, with 400 to go, he caught Roberts screaming "2:36!" and there came the quick thought that a fast last lap could make this a world record. When Ovett set the record of 3:30.77 in 1983, he had passed this point in 2:35.64 and had gone on to run the final 400 in 55.13.
But this was a race. Cram was sure that Cruz was just behind: "That's why I attacked at the bell." He surged around the first turn and drove even harder with 300 to go. Cruz faded and would be no threat. Aouita, while not caught napping, had great difficulty getting around Gonzalez. "He blocked me," Aouita would say. "If he were English, I'd think he did it on purpose."
"Why," asked the Spaniard, in high Mediterranean dudgeon, "should I step out of the way, because it is Aouita?"
By the time Aouita got into second, Cram had a 10-meter lead and was flying. Aouita, an angry runner, took out after him. With 200 to go, he was gaining. It was then that he really believed he could win. Still, the crowd roared more in celebration than in frantic warning. Cram didn't know Aouita was coming.
All the way down the stretch Cram ran hard, but not desperately. And Aouita sprinted to Cram's shoulder almost undetected. With five meters left, Cram sensed him. "I gave it an extra push then," he said.
He needed it. He crossed the line erect. Aouita leaned. Cram had made it there first by a few inches. Their times were 3:29.67 and 3:29.71. Cram had broken Ovett's record by 1.1 seconds, the greatest improvement of the 1,500 record since 1967, when Jim Ryun's 3:33.1 took 2.5 seconds from Herb Elliott's 3:35.6 (run in the Rome Olympics in 1960, two months before Cram was born). Gonzalez was third in 3:30.92, and Scott broke his American record with 3:31.76 in fourth. Cruz was seventh in 3:37.10.
After snapping at Gonzalez, Aouita was graceful toward Cram. "I knew I could give him three or four meters on the last lap, because I can finish faster," he said. "But 10 was too much. Cram deserves it. I like him very much."
Despite their peacemaking, Slaney and Budd aren't that close, of course. On the track or off.