Let's leave the blood that hurdler Greg Foster left on the track for later. Instead we'll begin with the beauty: Here crouched in their blocks were the finalists in the women's 200 meters in the first World Indoor Track and Field Championships in Indianapolis. In Lane 4, Heike Drechsler of East Germany lowered her head until her fluffy curls almost brushed the track. It seemed almost to be a gesture of submission, as if she were baring the long white nape of her neck to an executioner's ax. Thus she accepted her impending effort. This would be the first indoor 200 final of her 22 years.
Set. Drechsler rose, becoming at once a creature of magnificent levers. Her hip flexors, the muscles that lift the knees, bunched in mounds at the tops of her thighs. She is the outdoor co-record holder at this distance with 21.71, but the indoor record of 22.39, set by her countrywoman Marita Koch in 1983, seemed safe. The compact Koch was far better suited to tight indoor turns than the rangy 5'11" Drechsler. Moreover, just minutes earlier. Drechsler had won the long jump with a 23'3½" effort (down from her eight-day-old world record of 24'¼" set in New York), and the day before, she had run a 200 heat and semifinal.
Bam! Drechsler came out well, but inside her, in Lane 3, so did Merlene Ottey-Page of Jamaica. At the top of the backstretch the banked curve allowed those in the outside lanes a few meters of downslope, which Drechsler used gratefully, blasting ahead. Then she fought her way around the last turn and finally reached the 50-meter stretch. Her lead was two meters. Ottey-Page began to lean back. Drechsler, teeth bared, leaned forward. That worked better. She toppled over the line with a four-meter margin. In her first try, running tired, she had broken the world 200 record by .12 second with 22.27.
Drechsler's was the gaudiest of six world records set in Indianapolis, including marks in the men's and women's walks and a women's high-jump mark of 6'8¾" by Stefka Kostadinova of Bulgaria. Together they served to make real the promise of this new championship, as well as to demonstrate that when great athletes bend too blithely to all-out effort, they risk the brink.
March 16, 1987
Observe Ben Johnson. He bolted cleanly ahead in the 60-meter final, only to be called back and blamed for a false start. Wrongly. The starter had misread the sensor that records when the sprinters have reacted to the gun. Johnson has a temper, but he realized this wasn't the time to argue. "I figured, O.K., if that's what you say I did, then I'm not going to let you influence me," Johnson said later. "I'm not going to get cautious. It's going to be all or nothing."
It was all. On the restart he came out hard and pulled away with every stride to win in a world-record 6.41, .03 less than his 6.44 set in January.
But beyond the finish, Johnson was still decelerating when he reached the waist-high, padded restraining wall. He took it in the stomach and found himself executing a flip over the rail and into the unknown. He fell three feet and landed on his back on the concrete floor, but such is his cannonball constitution that he popped right up. apparently unhurt.
"This was effortless," he said, meaning the race, and who could disbelieve him? "I don't want to go too fast now, no matter what the meet."
Indoor track, particularly as practiced in the U.S., has seldom been seen as much more than a circus by the world at large. The tracks are shoehorned into odd-shaped arenas; they measure anywhere from 5 to 12 laps to the mile, are banked or flat, boards or urethane, bouncy or dead. The tight turns make it hell to pass and reward the cunning, not necessarily the quick.
Lately, however, 200-meter indoor tracks have become the standard in Europe, and the sport has grown so popular that this year the IAAF began recognizing records and authorized a world championship meet, to be held every other year. Thus the world's best, or that percentage who figured they were in shape, came to Indianapolis, where they found such a track, a 200-meter marvel covered with a rubberized surface, set in the 60,000-seat Hoosier Dome. All in all, it was a setting so spacious that it almost seemed outdoors.
Well, there were constant reminders of the cramped past. Eamonn Coghlan's left foot got tangled with the right foot of West Germany's Dieter Baumann with 480 meters to go in their 1,500 semi, and Coghlan found himself rolling on the track. He picked himself up 15 meters behind, roared impressively from eighth to third, then let up and was passed a step before the finish line by Baumann and Canada's Dave Campbell, and so did not qualify for the final.
That seemed all too reminiscent of the outdoors, for it brought back the image of another red-and-white West German shirt going past the helpless Coghlan in the 1976 Olympic 1,500. when Paul-Heinz Wellmann thrust past him, consigning the Irishman to fourth and no medal. Coghlan's Olympic fortunes outdoors have been unrelieved misery. He finished fourth again in the 1980 5,000 in Moscow, then was injured in 1984. But indoors, he holds the mile (3:49.78) and 1,500 (3:35.6) records. Thus his plight in Indianapolis drew sympathy. When officials from Ireland filed an appeal on behalf of their countryman, running events referee John Chaplin, the coach at Washington State, looked at the tape of the fall and surprisingly reinstated Coghlan even though he found no foul. "We put him back," said Chaplin, "in the essence of fairness."
That had the thick odor of indoors, where meet promoters have sometimes taken the liberty of entirely exempting stars from qualifying heats. "It's the only thing they could have done," said New York City Marathon director Fred Le-bow, being directorial. "Coghlan is the best-known name in the meet."
Spain, Holland and Italy appealed the reinstatement. Coghlan himself took a balanced view. "If they want to honor the stated rules, they should keep me out." he said. "If they want to have a good world championship board meeting, they should let the chairman in there. I've a gut feeling I'll get through."
Ah, but that was his indoors gut talking, and the Jury of Appeals came from Senegal, East Germany and Singapore. The letter of the law allowed them no choice. They made Coghlan a spectator.
Spain's Josè Abascal tried to run away with the race over the last 400, but Ireland's Marcus O'Sullivan caught him on the final lap. They sprinted shoulder to shoulder around the turn and down the stretch. Only in the last strides did O'Sullivan strain ahead to win in 3:39.04 to Abascal's 3:39.13.
Coghlan had watched the 1,500 with longing, and irony. "Ah, well," he said. "Another twist in the curious life of Eamonn Coghlan." In emphasis as he said it, Coghlan screwed his face and body into a tortured gargoyle. Is he, one wondered, being saved for something?
Fate found Foster and Mark McKoy entirely expendable on Sunday, the third and final day of the championships. At the start of the 60-meter hurdles, theirs seemed a great matchup, because McKoy had owned a share of the 7.47 world record until Foster cut it to 7.46 in Saturday's semis. Hurdlers must run to one side of their lane in order to leave the rest of it free to accommodate their wide-swinging trailing legs over the hurdles. McKoy leads with his right leg, Foster with his left. So when they were assigned adjacent lanes, four and five, McKoy groaned. "When he's to my right, we always hit each other."
McKoy's solution was to jump so far ahead that Foster could not endanger him. It produced a great start. Foster had hoped to race with smooth, repetitive technique, because this track was so fast it was like a tail wind that seemed to push him too close to the oncoming hurdles. But now, suddenly three feet behind, Foster pressed wildly, clipped the second hurdle, drifted toward McKoy, staggered into McKoy's lane and ensnared McKoy's right arm.
"I was comfortable and quick," said McKoy. "Then I felt my arm go, and I couldn't run any more."
Both men slammed into their fourth hurdles. McKoy caught his with his right hip and went to the track. Foster skidded across him and came to rest nearby. They lay there, shocked and bleeding. Strips of skin were scraped from the back of Foster's left thigh. McKoy had suffered a deep gash in his left shin, cuts in his right calf and a badly bruised side.
Meanwhile, a jubilant Tonie Campbell had shot across the finish line, the winner in a personal-best 7.51. "When you hear wood flying, you get out of the way," he said. "I've already gotten two concussions running the highs, so when I heard it, I automatically tucked in and pushed forward."
Running for years in the shadows of Foster and Renaldo Nehemiah had prepared Campbell for this moment: "I think of myself as a scavenger," he said, "a hyena who goes around and takes the spoils of the kill."
At first McKoy was disqualified. Then referee Chaplin reviewed the tape and reinstated McKoy and disqualified Foster. The rules permitted a rerun, but McKoy simply wasn't in any condition to run another race. Campbell's victory stood.
Foster, mortified that this had happened just when he was overcoming a reputation for disintegrating under pressure, rushed off. In his absence, Campbell once again stepped in to put things in harsh perspective. "The hurdles are a violent event," he said. "Graceful, but violent, too. The first thing you learn in the hurdles is how to fall."
After all, if a circus is to be a success, it must include beauty, extraordinary feats and, by all means, daring.