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ON TOP OF THE WORLDS

Sept. 14, 1987
Sept. 14, 1987

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Sept. 14, 1987

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ON TOP OF THE WORLDS

Jackie Joyner-Kersee won the heptathlon and long jump at the World Track and Field Championships

As Rome's Olympic stadium resounded through the nine hot days and thunderous nights of the World Track and Field Championships, it came to seem a small planet unto itself, glowing in the pine-scented air over the Tiber like a javelin-proof bubble. It was inhabited by the fastest, strongest, toughest, most arrogantly confident men and women, and when the meet was over this luminescent world belonged to Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who took possession of it with unaffected grace.

This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1987 issue

She first won the heptathlon by a staggering 564 points, 7,128 to 6,564 for runner-up Larisa Nikitina of the U.S.S.R. She rang up the highest first-day total (4,256 points) in history, with a 12.91-second clocking (worth 1,138 points) in the 100 hurdles, a 6'2¾" (1,106) high jump, a 52'6" (928) put of the shot and a time of 22.95 (1,084) in the 200, and all were accomplished with an eagerness that bespoke goals transcending mere victory.

Joyner-Kersee, like her name, is a blend. Her years of hard, thoughtful training are the Kersee part, the expression of husband-coach Bob Kersee's hatred of talent lying fallow. The Joyner half is Jackie in competition. She wants to win, but having won, wants to go on. She wants to impress, but having performed gloriously, still wants to go on. The Joyner gift is her open joy in practiced, powerful movement, in improvement for its own sake, and it causes observers to presume, in error, that what she does is without personal cost.

The second day of the heptathlon, she continued with a 23'5¼" long jump (1,220 points) and a modest 149'10" throw in the javelin (777). Somehow, Joyner-Kersee doesn't seem warlike enough for the javelin. Even so, she was 64 points ahead of the world-record pace she had set last year in Houston.

But as she warmed up for the final event, the 800 meters, Joyner-Kersee suddenly felt tight and dizzy. "I drank some water and hoped not to die," she said. A 2:14 would break the record, and 2:11 would put her over 7,200 points. Her goal was 2:10.

When the gun sounded, Anke Behmer of East Germany seized the lead and controlled the pace. "It felt fast," said Joyner-Kersee. But the going was slow; the time at 400 meters was 68 seconds. "I got into a pace I just couldn't get out of," she said. She finished in 2:16.29. She had missed her world record by 30 points.

Both Jackie and Bob were puzzled by her fade. "I felt more was there, but...it wasn't," she said. "We adjusted her training to allow her to long-jump at the Pan Am Games [where Joyner-Kersee tied East Germany's Heike Drechsler's world record of 24'5½]," he said. "Maybe that had an effect."

It was left to fellow heptathlete Jane Frederick, 35, whose bronze medal was her first World or Olympic hardware in a devoted 22-year career, to make certain truths clear. "In the heptathlon, you have to be completely free to dig into yourself to the limit, to gut out that last bit in the 800," she said. "But Jackie knew she had the individual long jump still to come, and she knew she had the heptathlon won. So I'll bet that try as she would, her body was holding something back."

Joyner-Kersee's archrival in the long jump also was marshaling her strength. Drechsler had finished second in the 100 meters to teammate Silke Gladisch, but she skipped the 200 (a race in which she is ranked No. 1 in the world) to be rested for Joyner-Kersee's challenge in the long jump. Gladisch won the 200 with a sparkling 21.74, a bare .03 off the world record shared by Drechsler and Marita Koch, the 1983 champion, now retired.

Gladisch is coached by Koch's husband, Wolfgang Meier, and after the 200, she presented her gold medal, nicely wrapped, to Koch, who burst into tears. "We are like sisters," said Gladisch in partial explanation. "She has always been my idol. She had such a beautiful big stride. I try to imitate it, but my stride was never so beautiful."

The women's 200 was memorable, too, for America's Florence Griffith, noted habituè of Gucci's, running the prelims in a hooded, starred-and-striped skin suit, flashier than any worn by speed skaters. Having made her fashion statement, she stripped it off for the final and got the silver in 21.96.

Three days later Griffith ran a scorching third leg on the women's 4 X 100-meter relay, which put the U.S. out of reach of an East German team running without Drechsler. Alice Brown, Diane Williams, Griffith and Pam Marshall whipped the stick around in a meet-record 41.58. It was only a few minutes before Al Joyner, Jackie's brother and the 1984 Olympic triple jump champion, was wearing Griffith's relay gold. Thus we learned they are betrothed.

The women's long jump began in light rain. After two rounds, Joyner-Kersee led with a leap of 23'4½". On her third jump she reached great height and landed about a foot beyond her earlier mark—but the electronic sensors in the takeoff board flashed that she'd fouled. The crowd whistled, disbelieving. Then the giant TV replay screens showed an irrefutable quarter of an inch of daylight between her toe and the foul line. The whistles became howls. The officials reversed themselves. The imprint of her landing, which had not been raked from the sand, was measured. She had gone 24'1¾".

Drechsler took the runway like an aroused Valkyrie, her eyes on fire. She pounded through her run but attained far less height than Joyner-Kersee and reached only 23'4¾". Walking back, brushing off the wet sand, Drechsler knew it was over. The pain behind her left knee, which she had been concealing, had become worse. On her next jump she could only run through the pit. She passed her last two jumps, and Joyner-Kersee had her second gold medal in the event that means the most to her.

On the victory stand, the two preeminent women track and field athletes of the day shared a long embrace, after which Drechsler tenderly rearranged her rival's hair. They both knew that the wreckage competitors cause each other is unavoidable. "I've been in her situation," said Joyner-Kersee, "and the athlete who beat me when I was hurt was happy. So I'm happy."

"It's amazing to me that Jackie can be in the heptathlon and still be so good in the long jump," said Drechsler later, and then she allowed the possibility of an even more sustained battle between them. "I'd like to do a heptathlon once just to see how I would fare. But my family would kill me."

The meet that swirled on around Joyner-Kersee and Drechsler was restless, shifting. Dynasties trembled and new orders rose, all with fine disregard for the infuriating officiating.

Two-time Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson of Great Britain, unable to shake off the effects of a groin injury, finished ninth behind the 8,680 points of East Germany's Torsten Voss. "He could have dropped out under some pretext," Voss said of Thompson, who joined the brotherhood of his sport more firmly with this loss than he had with any previous victory, "but he stayed to the bitter end."

Thompson's countryman, mile world-record holder Steve Cram, experienced his own bitter end, which was equally unexpected. He reached the last 200 of an erratically paced 1,500-meter final with rubber legs and saw the future sweep past in the person of Somalia's Abdi Bile, the 1987 NCAA champion from George Mason University.

Bile's victory underscored a remarkable return to prominence by the runners of East Africa. Kenya's Paul Kipkoech won the 10,000. Kenya's Billy Konchellah, who went to Mission Viejo High School in California for a year, won the 800 in a blazing 1:43.06. And, finally, Kenya's Douglas Wakiihuru, who lives in Japan and trains with Boston Marathon champion Toshihiko Seko, left Djibouti's Ahmed Salah on the cobblestones of St. Peter's Square and ran on to win the marathon in 2:11:48.

Endings for America's Greg Foster have so often been bloody and bruised that the best high hurdler in the world now races his own past as much as any field. In the indoor Worlds he and Canada's Mark McKoy tangled and fell. Just last month, at the Pan Ams, teammate Cletus Clark accidentally kicked Foster's leg, and Foster could not finish. "I thought about it all day, every day," said Foster. "What else could happen?"

Nothing. In the final he slipped cleanly over the barriers. Having survived, he won, in 13.21. He punched the air in joyful relief and later cried on the victory stand, thinking of his mother (who died two years ago), who had seen him win the inaugural World title in 1983 in Helsinki, yearning to have her here with him.

Another defending champion, Edwin Moses of the U.S., had more than memories to overcome. In Rome he faced both Harald Schmid of West Germany, the man who had last beaten him, in 1977, before he began his 10-year, 107-race winning streak in the 400-meter hurdles, and Danny Harris, the man who had ended that streak in June. Both were hot after the master's 32-year-old blood, and it didn't help that Moses had been fighting off a low-grade infection for 10 days.

In one crucial respect, the old Moses luck held: He drew Lane 3. Schmid was in 4, Harris, 5. Because of the staggered start, Moses could watch his rivals throughout, but they would be blind to him until late in the race. Moses planned accordingly. "I wanted to get out fast and establish my lead by 250 meters," he said. That was the strategy Moses had used so successfully against Harris in this year's TAC meet, when the shock of seeing Moses roaring past him at that point caused Harris to clobber a hurdle, and he never recovered. But he had learned.

In Rome, Moses executed a perfect start and reached the second turn ahead by four meters. Clearly his astounding supremacy was intact. The crowd cried out as if enraptured by fireworks, not screaming at combat. Then Harris and Schmid began to gain. Entering the stretch, they had cut Moses's cushion to two meters. Moses tires just as he ages: with style. Yet the long bounds of his stride seemed to leave him floating in the air, as helpless as in a dream, while Harris and Schmid, digging powerfully, continued to close on him.

Harris was second at the last hurdle, but Schmid cleared it in perfect form and passed him. Harris passed Schmid back with 10 meters to go and drove wildly after Moses. In the final step the three leaned almost as one.

The official photo showed Moses had won in a meet-record 47.46. Only he has ever run the intermediate hurdles faster. Harris in second and Schmid in third were both clocked in 47.48.

Schmid is 29, and 10 years of being a dry leaf in Moses's slipstream has made him cherish simply being near the man. "I don't think I was really behind Moses," he said, his hands forming an imaginary Edwin to his left. Beside him, his gesture suggested. "Just think of me beside him."

Moses could do nothing else. "The toughest race of my career," he said. His prayerful, weary 12-minute victory lap included a trip into the stands to embrace his mother, Gladys, and his wife, Myrella. "I've created a monster," he said. "It's harder and harder to win."

Track in Rome accentuates such perils. The combination of the 75° temperature and 86% humidity cut down the women's 10,000-meter race-walkers like September corn. Even winner Irina Strakhova didn't know if she could make the final lap. The images of heat-struck agony, repeated at ghoulish length on Italian TV, were the most dramatic in memory. Australia's Lorraine Jachno came into the homestretch staggering uncontrollably, crashed into a set of hurdles and fell heavily. There she became a symbol of the endurance athlete's unbreakable will to finish, and the reason why such athletes must be stopped when endangered by heat. As she lay dazed on her back, with officials running to her, she brought up one arm and feebly tried to wave them away.

Not in mortal danger, but definitely weakened by stomach flu was Butch Reynolds, who had enough on his hands with a powerful field in the 400-meter final. Innocent ("I have not been able to live up to that name") Egbunike of Nigeria and Azusa Pacific College flew to a meet-record 44.26 in his semifinal and seemed ready to become the first man since Lee Evans and Larry James in the 1968 Olympics to break 44.

Reynolds, who ran 44.10 in May, never strayed far from porcelain facilities. "The diarrhea started in Berlin," he said. "Once I got to Rome it was very, uh, regular. The team doctors were good about giving me back the fluids I was losing." He went on in much greater detail, but you don't want to hear about it.

Reynolds ran well. Egbunike burned the first 300, Reynolds stayed close, and then both were passed by the relentless stretch run of East Germany's Thomas Schönlebe, who won in 44.33, to Egbunike's 44.56 and Reynolds's 44.80. Schönlebe had never before won even a European championship 400.

Reynolds returned, refreshed, three nights later to anchor the U.S. 4 X 400-meter relay team. Danny Everett (45.1), Roddie Haley (44.0) and Antonio McKay (44.2) gave him a 12-meter lead. "I felt sluggish," he said, "but the guys were depending on me." Reynolds was a true steward, driving hard for a 44.0 and a total team time of 2:57.29, the second-fastest ever run.

Carl Lewis earlier had overcome a bad stomach to win the long jump, with a leap of 28'5½", from the Soviet Union's Robert Emmiyan (28'0"), but left a sour-grape taste in a few mouths with remarks on British TV to the effect that some winners in the Worlds had used performance-enhancing drugs. Apparently motivated by the advent of agents that can mask anabolic steroids, Lewis realized that he had spoken too soon. He could provide no evidence. "It's not fair to point fingers," he said, "and I can't say who's on what. No one can do that. What we have to do is tighten procedures to see that violators are caught." Perhaps the tempest over his statement will push the TAAF to ban the masking drugs themselves.

A harvest moon rose on the final night of the Worlds. Sweden's Patrik Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg won the high jump at 7'9¾". Beautiful Soviet baton-passing in the 4 X 100 relay was overcome by Lewis sprinting as he carried the U.S. team of Lee McRae, Lee McNeill and Harvey Glance to a 37.90 win. And when there were no more events, the crowd simply stayed and sang and tried to will this fragile, rose-tinted world into continuing. Of course it had to scatter, to Mombasa, Dresden and Westwood.

And try to regather in Seoul. Said Glance, "I happen to have been afflicted by the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott. But here, at the Worlds, you are guaranteed to have everybody. It is here where you find where you really stand in the world."

PHOTOTONY DUFFY/ALLSPORTA 12.91 in the hurdles was part of a big first day for Joyner-Kersee in the heptathlon.PHOTOTONY DUFFY/ALLSPORTJoyner-Kersee triumphed in her favorite event, the long jump, with a leap of 24'1¾".PHOTOMANNY MILLANMoses (right) held off rivals Schmid (center) and Harris by a lean margin.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAGriffith, in her dazzling skin suit, was hot in this 200 heat.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe sweltering weather did in walkers like Jim Heiring.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAFor once, the star-crossed Foster actually made it over all 10 hurdles without calamity.
"Her gift is her open joy in practiced, powerful movement, in improvement for its own sake."