Morocco's Said Aouita came flailing into the stretch of the 1,500 meters in West Berlin's Olympic Stadium last Friday night looking as if his teeth were going to crack. His head seemed in danger of rolling right off. His arms were pumping so high, his fists were above his ears. When he crossed the finish line the clock had stopped at 3:29.45, indicating he had broken Steve Cram's 5-week-old world record of 3:29.67. Near the end of his victory lap he was in tears.
He hadn't wept when he won the Olympic 5,000-meter gold medal last year, nor when he broke the 5,000-meter world record in Oslo on July 27. But this was different.
To understand why, you have to begin 48 hours before, on a warm night in Zurich. There, Aouita, 24, had gone after Cram's 1,500 and mile (3:46.31) records in the same race.
Ireland's Frank O'Mara, the pacesetter, gave him a good three quarters in 2:50.59, two seconds faster than Cram had been at that point in his record mile, also run in Oslo on July 27.
But by then Aouita had halved his double record hopes. "With a 2:50 you can forget about the 1,500," he would say. "If it had been two seconds faster, then maybe. I was perhaps a glutton to try for two in one race. One cannot want a world record. The pace has to happen. Maybe I'll learn that. After a certain point, courage doesn't help anymore. A 54 you have to run."
Ah, but to break the mile record all Aouita needed was a 55.7. In the final turn, however, the weight of his fatigue bore him down. "I was dead for the last 150," he said. A step past the line, he put his hands behind his head in dismay, for the time was 3:46.92. Cram's record was safe. At least for the moment.
"I would give anything for the mile record," said Aouita as he left for Berlin.
Aouita was born in Kénitra, Morocco, 80 miles north of Casablanca. He took up running at 17 when he was judged too slight to continue in soccer. Now he lives in Siena, Italy, where he is, in his own words, a successful coach. Whom does he coach? "Why, myself," he says.
He speaks French and Italian, but no English, and seems to suffer in translation. His confident remarks often come across as more strident than intended. His competitors know better. "He's a gentleman," says Olympic 1,500-champion Sebastian Coe, "a man who makes you feel good about your sport."
It was while training in Mellingen, Switzerland, a week before Berlin, that Aouita strained the gluteal muscle in his right buttock. He could run, but it wasn't much fun.
Moreover, to race in Berlin, Aouita had to put his king on hold. Morocco's King Hassan II had scheduled an audience for the same day as the Berlin meet. Most kings probably wouldn't care if you're trained to a racing edge or that it's the heart of your season. But the king understood and took a rain check. Aouita, in effect, having promised something extraordinary, figured he'd better deliver.
It was cool in Berlin, 64°, and the races preceeding the 1,500 were discouragingly slow. Volker Blumenthal of West Germany led for the first 800 and hit it in 1:53.50, with Aouita .20 back. Then, as in Zurich, O'Mara took over. With 400 to go, they were 2:35.25. There it was again. Aouita needed a last lap of 54 seconds.
Approaching 1,200, knowing he couldn't go much farther, O'Mara surged, trying to get Aouita to react to him, to get him sprinting. And as O'Mara moved aside, Aouita did go howling away, quickly opening up 20 yards on Sydney Maree. Now everything depended on how hard he could go, how much he could take.
Some 45,000 Berliners rose to encourage him. "They helped me forget the pain," he would say. There was plenty to forget. Aouita's furious, bucking, thrashing stretch run has no precedent in record middle-distance running. He willed a 54.2 last lap, becoming only the fourth man to hold both the 1,500 and 5,000 records simultaneously. (The others: Paavo Nurmi, Gunder H√§gg, Sandor Iharos.) Now he has his sights on the mile, 3,000 and steeplechase records.
The king sent Aouita a telegram extending his "warmest fatherly congratulations." When reminded of his Zurich remark, Aouita said, "Yes, it took courage, but only to show how well I can run even when I'm injured. If I hadn't been, I could have run 3:27."
What a stretch run that would entail.
Wonderful races abounded last week. When Mary Decker Slaney reached the last 100 of her mile in Zurich, she had the most tangible of stimuli alongside—Romania's Maricica PuicƒÉ. This was the first meeting of the two since Slaney's fall in the Olympic 3,000, a race that PuicƒÉ went on to win.
Slaney had wanted a fast pace, to run the sprint out of PuicƒÉ, maybe even to get the thing decided before the homestretch, but Delisa Walton, the rabbit, had provided only a modest half, 2:10.17. Slaney then led, but with some caution. "I felt PuicƒÉ's presence all the time. I knew everybody would kick," she said.
PuicƒÉ had kept to the rail in fourth and fifth place in the early going, so the presence closest to Slaney was a gritty, vastly improved Zola Budd, fresh from winning, for her adopted Great Britain, the Europa Cup 3,000 in Moscow. There she had demonstrated a newly potent kick, and here she meant to use it.
With 400 to go, PuicƒÉ had come wide to take over second, where she would be free to attack when she chose. There would be no tactical mistakes to account for the winning or losing of this race.
Gradually, Slaney quickened the pace. She can do this so imperceptibly, just lengthening her stride without changing her cadence, that pursuers can be forgiven for concluding not that she's going faster, but that they're suddenly slower. Yet, with 200 to go, PuicƒÉ and Budd were still locked on her.
Slaney gave herself a little pep talk. "I thought, I feel good. I feel strong." She had reason. Five days earlier she had broken her own U.S. 800-meter record with a 1:56.90 in Bern. The tape encasing her right calf looked ominous, but it was simply a preventive measure, to take the pressure off a tender Achilles tendon.
Off the turn, PuicƒÉ pounced. Budd drove along on the inside, waiting for the opening that usually comes when a leader veers outward to hold a challenger wide.
But Slaney did no veering. She said to herself, "I better get going," and dipped her head for an instant. When it came up again, there was no expression there, nothing but running animal. She held her form.
PuicƒÉ, wild to beat this woman who had overshadowed her in the Olympics by the ridiculous means of tripping and falling, tried too hard. Her straw locks jerked like a shaken mop as she threw her head back. She might have been invoking the gods to her cause. It was what Aouita would do in his 1,500. He got more of an answer than PuicƒÉ. She saw only lavender sky.
Slaney was four yards clear by the end, which she reached in 4:16.71, breaking PuicƒÉ's 3-year-old world record of 4:17.44. PuicƒÉ was also under her old mark with 4:17.33, and Budd almost stole up for second with 4:17.57, an improvement of more than five seconds on her previous best. They are now history's three fastest women milers.
Afterward, Slaney spoke as if that homestretch scare was a privilege. "So rare to get a race like today," she said. "You have to have that competition to push yourself." She acknowledged that the mile record still isn't the equal of the USSR's Tatyana Kazankina's wondrous 3:52.47 for 1,500 meters, set in this meet in 1980. That is worth something under 4:12. (By contrast, Slaney passed the 1,500 point in this mile in 4:00.51.) "But I think in a year, the mile record can be cut to 4:10," Slaney said.
Four days later, on Sunday in Cologne, Slaney took PuicƒÉ into the stretch of the 3,000 and again held her off. Slaney's time of 8:29.69 broke the American record of 8:29.71, which she had set in 1982. "All this proves," Slaney said, "is that I'm a good enough athlete to be in contention in the Olympics."
The women's sprints at Zurich were also rematches, and they came out very differently from a year ago. That was when Evelyn Ashford validated her Olympic 100-meter gold against East Germany's Marlies G√∂hr and sliced the world record to 10.76. That was also when Olympic 200 and 400 champion Valerie Brisco-Hooks got mangled by G√∂hr's countrywoman Marita Koch. This year all but Ashford were back. She had given birth to a daughter, Raina Ashley Washington, on May 30.
"We were thinking the fast one is at home with her baby," said Koch. "Then I saw Brisco-Hooks in the 100."
Indeed she did. G√∂hr started quickest, but now Brisco-Hooks put her muscle to work. "I got out lousy," said Brisco-Hooks. "I felt Alice Brown on one side of me and—what's her name? Grrr?—well then, G√∂hr, on the other, and they like pulled me to a phase where I relaxed. Oh, I know this part, I thought. I know what I'm doing."
She ripped past G√∂hr at 80 meters to win in 11.01. It obviously felt good. "Grrr doesn't acknowledge you out there," Brisco-Hooks said. "She acts more like, 'Don't talk to me, I'm running.' The nicer one is Marita Koch. She gave me five before the 200."
A lot of good it did her. "After I saw Brisco-Hooks win the 100," said Koch, "I thought, Oh my dear. I know from my own experience that when you're strong in the 100, you're going to be even stronger in the 200."
Koch is the world-record holder at 21.71, but she had had an exhausting weekend in Moscow's humid 92°, winning the 200 and running on the 4 X 100 relay team at the Europa Cup. Beyond that, her training is geared to the 400 in the World Cup in Canberra, Australia in early October.
But there was a race to run. Brisco-Hooks burned the turn, coming out with a one-yard lead, but she wasn't safe. "Koch came. She charged me," said Brisco-Hooks. "My reaction was...ugh, there was no reaction. I said, O.K., relax, just finish it. At 140, I tried to bear down, go to my arms, work, work, run through the finish."
"With 50 to go," said Koch, "I felt my back go hollow. I knew I couldn't catch her, so I just concentrated on the clock."
Brisco-Hooks stopped it at 21.98. Clearly, she would have been dangerously near the world record had the race not been run into a 1.1-meter-per-second wind. Koch held on for second in 22.19. "Last year when I came to Europe after the Olympics, I was tired and they beat me," said a delighted Brisco-Hooks. "This year my goal was to beat the East Germans, and I did it."
Her coach, Bob Kersee, when not dashing after Brisco-Hooks for rugby-tackle celebratory hugs, is a thoughtful man. Massaging her sore calf with baby oil later, he pointed out that this time it was the East Germans who were tired, that the true day of judgment would have to await the World Cup.
Similarly, Slaney's win over PuicƒÉ doesn't prove that she could have won the Olympic 3,000. Yes, in Cologne, she beat PuicƒÉ at the same distance, but Slaney seems in better shape this year than last. You can never re-create history and get it to come out the way you want.
"It has to happen the first time," said Aouita.