For the quarterfinals, the lady wore purple. As she settled into the blocks before the second round of the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Indianapolis on Saturday, Florence Griffith Joyner's electric-plum bodysuit caressed her from neck to ankle. Over it she wore a turquoise bikini brief. Yet her left leg was bare; somehow it appeared more naked than any other bare limb in the race. As she crouched in the blocks, her long orange-black-and-white fingernails pressed into the scorched, 115° surface of the Mondo track, and she came to a decision.
She had kept an eye on the infield, for two reasons. One, her husband of less than a year, 1984 Olympic triple jump champion Al Joyner, had just leaped 57'8¼" and stood an imperiled third with three rounds to go.
Two, Griffith Joyner needed to keep an eye on the jumpers' wind readings, because she had discovered in her first-round heat that she, the Indiana University track, the temperature and the occasion had all come together to create historic possibilities. Clad then in sparkling apple green and revealing stunning acceleration, she had flown over the 100 in 10.60, the fastest ever run by a woman. But a torrid, fitful wind had been gusting from the west. Had it blown her along with more force than the allowable 2.0 meters per second?
For a while no one knew. The wind gauge's display panel had broken down. But the instrument's reading was preserved in the computer. At last it was pried out: 3.2 meters per second. Evelyn Ashford's world record of 10.76, set in 1984, was safe.
July 24, 1988
Safe, at least, until this second round of the 100, run 2½ hours later. World records are seldom set in quarterfinals. "But you strike when the iron is hot," said Bob Kersee, Griffith Joyner's coach, who also is married—surely you knew—to Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Al's sister.
"If you don't feel a gust, go for it now," Kersee had told Griffith Joyner before the heat. "We'll worry about making the team tomorrow."
So Griffith Joyner, sensing little breeze, struck. And thereby launched a trials rich in resurgent champions. Great names like Carl Lewis, Joyner-Kersee, Willie Banks, Mary Decker Slaney and Edwin Moses would show again that the hungry tiger hunts best. And nothing gnaws and growls like Olympic pangs. Griffith Joyner, fueled on "vitamins, amino acids and water," was ravenous, bolting to a huge lead by 50 meters.
"I had a good start, a relaxed middle and kept my knees up at the end," she said. "It was more or less a perfect race."
She won by four meters over Diane Williams, crossing the line an asymmetrical purple streak. "I didn't design the suit with any special theory in mind," she would say. "I just liked it. I call it the one-legger."
The clock stopped at 10.49, a time so absurdly fast that it refused to be absorbed. Yeah, sure, everyone thought, the wind again....
But when the eye came to rest on the gauge, there it was: 0.0. Apparently no wind at all had spun that little propeller while Griffith Joyner was sprinting.
"Incredible!" cried announcer Bob Hersh. Lord, was that the word.
How, when the gauge at the triple jump runway—which was but 30 feet away—was showing 4.3 meters per second, had the air on the adjacent track remained motionless? The official story was that it hadn't. The wind was just blowing from the side, so no advantage was given the runners.
"What seems really possible is that she got a crosswind at the point of the gauge, but a tail wind at the beginning and end of her race," said Carl Lewis's coach, Tom Tellez. If so, the purpose of having a gauge at a single location would seem to have been defeated.
How could this converted 200-meter runner, in only her fourth serious 100, take a huge .27 of a second off the world record? That's 2½ times the slice Ben Johnson cut from the men's 100 record last year with his watershed 9.83. According to projections based on past improvements, no woman was supposed to reach even 10.65 until the year 2000.
"When I saw the time, I couldn't believe it," said Griffith Joyner. "But the 10.60 had made me realize I could get into the 10.50's. It made me realize if I kept concentrating, I could go faster."
Griffith Joyner, 28, has always been an excellent sprinter but never a record breaker. She took the 200-meter silver in the L.A. Olympics behind Valerie Brisco-Hooks. But by 1986 she was working as a bank secretary and was, Kersee confidently informed the press, "60 pounds overweight."
"You said 60 pounds?" gasped Griffith Joyner. "It was 15!"
"You were this wide," said Kersee. "I couldn't tell whether you were coming or going."
"It was after the bank potluck, and I had macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler...and...and the scale was broken!"
Whatever it was, Kersee shamed her into the weight room and things started to improve.
She placed second to East Germany's Silke Gladisch in the 1987 World Championships 200. She married Joyner. New strength gave her a better start. "Now she's putting acceleration in front of that amazing velocity," said Kersee. "But I'd be a liar if I said I saw 10.49."
She had run 10.89 in San Diego in late June. Her husband found he could no longer beat her at 100 yards. "I figured 10.58 off training with her," said Joyner. "She's learned to sprint relaxed and smooth. And hey, it's the trials. It's in the atmosphere. The athletes are breathing it in, the pressure, the...the..."
The heat. These trials, predictably, arrived in the midst of a midwestern furnace. Sprinters, warming easily and cooling slowly, went happily mad. Distance runners had to give thought to their survival. "Call them murder trials," groaned Slaney's coach, Luiz de Oliveira.
But trials, American style—the top three live on, forever-anointed Olympians, and we'll see the rest of you failures on the indoor circuit—are designed to make you burn.
As in sizzle. Joyner-Kersee did just that. She has brought herself to such a state of grace that her heptathlon seemed not a matter of muscle, timing and will, but of special effects, as if she had been animated into the scene, like Roger Rabbit.
She glided through the 100-meter hurdles in 12.71, an American heptathlon record accomplished in 92° heat while the National Weather Service was warning, "Excessive heat and humidity in central Indiana. Outdoor activities must be performed in a slow manner."
Joyner-Kersee did dawdle on her high jump approach. "She's backing off as she curves in," a fretful Kersee said. Her clearance of 6'4", also an American heptathlon record, was more a result of power than of form.
Untroubled by a passing shower, she put the shot a strong 51'4¼". Then came the 200. For the first time, Joyner-Kersee called on her true speed in this race, bolting through the curve and driving herself to the finish in 22.30, yet another American heptathlon record—and her personal best by more than half a second. Twenty yards behind, Jane Frederick, a former holder of the U.S. heptathlon record, saw the time and crossed the finish line clapping for Joyner-Kersee. "It was goosebumps," Frederick said. "It was 22.30. It was patriotic. It was out there."
This staggering first day of 4,367 points exceeded even Kersee's voracious hopes. "I'm trying to keep her under 7.300 now," said Kersee, his eye properly on Seoul. Joyner-Kersee's world record, set in 1986, was 7,158. While Kersee spoke, his wife, having her legs iced, lay before him on a table in the press tent as on an altar.
The next morning, Joyner-Kersee's first long jump looked to be 25 feet, well beyond world-record distance. But it was a foul. Then, playing it safe on the second of her three allotted attempts. Joyner-Kersee settled for 22'11¾". After lofting the javelin a respectable 164'4", she had only the 800 left.
It was 98°. She needed but 2:24.95 for the world record. She followed the pace of Cindy Greiner, who would place second overall, and clocked a 2:20.70. Her world record is now 7,215 points, but there will be more in Seoul. "It's not all together yet," she said.
It's almost certainly all over for 36-year-old Frederick as an Olympic competitor. She reinjured a hamstring in the long jump and, running on one useless leg in the 800, was beaten for third by USC's Wendy Brown. "I'm sorry," Frederick kept saying, as if she had not ripped herself apart trying. "I'm sorry."
These are the trials. People take risks. Jeanette Bolden, a 1984 Olympic finalist, risked a sore Achilles tendon in the 100 quarterfinals. It ruptured at 55 meters. Her future career is in doubt.
By supreme contrast, here was Carl Lewis at 10:34 a.m. of the first glaring, humid day, starting fresh at 100 meters. No more would he just floor it and then ease up and look around and wink like he has had the indecent luxury to do. Now he would apply himself throughout.
The result was something to behold, a 9.96 in his heat and another 9.96 in the evening's quarterfinal. No one had ever broken 10.0 in a prelim before, or twice in a day. "It's scary to run so fast," he said, "but not when it's so easy."
"I told him to get in the rhythm and stay in it the whole race," said Tellez. "You have to do that against Ben."
Ah, Mr. Johnson, we are in your debt. Last August, in the course of his 9.83, Johnson bestowed upon Lewis the one thing he lacked in this world: competition.
Lewis and Tellez studied the tape of that race and saw that Johnson had executed an uncanny start. "Ben's hands are off the ground before anyone moves," says Tellez. "The naked eye says he's jumping, but he's not putting pressure on the foot blocks until after the gun. And it's the sensors in the blocks that detect a false start."
So this is legal, but a hell of a distraction. "Carl, in the next lane, saw that motion and froze," says Tellez. "He didn't run his race. But he still did 9.93. I said. Wait a minute. Carl is as fast as this guy; he's just got to know what it is to ignore everybody else and run the same rhythm all the time."
Thus the 9.96's. That is to be Lewis's ho-hum race from now on. To make it so, he has slaved on starts and drills. "He's even done flexibility work," said Tellez. "He hates that, but he is more flexible. He is smooth as glass."
Always, Johnson was the whip and the 100 was the race. There had been speculation that Lewis would phase out the 100 and go more to the 200 and long jump now, but that talk was blind to one thing: Lewis the competitor. Lewis has repeatedly run astounding relay anchors. The sense of coming from behind works powerfully on him, as does the sense of drawing a team together. Too, the 100—where a mistake is a defeat—was the event beloved by his father. Bill Lewis, who died of cancer in May 1987. Buried with him in New Jersey is Carl's gold medal from the Olympic 100 meters in Los Angeles.
No, Lewis would abandon nothing.
The trials, and fate, delivered him some worthy teammates. Former world-record holder Calvin Smith won his semi in a windy 9.87. Lewis took his in 10.02, and close by, at 10.07, was Dennis Mitchell. The same Dennis Mitchell who, in high school, was coached during the summers by Bill Lewis.
In the final, Smith had the start of his life. Lewis, icily sure of his speed, caught him at 50 meters and went on to win in the fastest time ever recorded, 9.78 seconds. Mitchell, who would say, "I blacked out. I couldn't tell you what happened in this race," came on for second, in 9.86. Smith held third, in 9.87.
And this time the wind gauge read 5.2 meters per second. "Carl is always wind-aided," lamented his mother, Evelyn.
"It seems that way," said Lewis, who was excited nonetheless. "I don't believe 9.8 is unattainable anymore."
Little seemed unattainable in this crucible, at least in the shorter running events. "I watched those performances," said 400-meter hurdler Andre Phillips, "and I wondered what the hell we were going to do today, 46.0?"
Edwin Moses' world record was 47.02, but that was run five years ago, and he was now surrounded by remorseless youths like 22-year-old Danny Harris, who ended Moses' string of 107 victories last year. And like 21-year-old NCAA champion Kevin Young, who often runs but 12 steps between each of the first four hurdles and was composed enough to study texts for a summer school course in race and culture that he is taking back at UCLA. Add Phillips, ranked first in the world in 1985 and 1986, and you had that terrible number: four.
Heat-conscious, Moses took a wet towel to the start. Phillips took memories. He had been flu-ridden in '84, had failed to make the team and had heaved his shoes into the infield, a vow of surrender that he could not keep.
At the gun Moses broke on top, racing with the old fire. Yet the field simply refused to let "the patriarch," as Phillips called him, run away. Into the homestretch, Moses led by two meters. Phillips was second and closing. They would remain that way to the end, Moses winning in 47.37, the fastest ever run in the U.S., Phillips clocking 47.58.
Behind them Young and Harris fought for the third spot. At the ninth hurdle Harris missed his step while Young hit the hurdle. Young had some daylight at the final barrier but then to his left saw David Patrick, who had run an inspired race in the cramped inside lane, sprinting for home.
Patrick crossed the line, and in the bedlam was told by a cameraman that he had been third. He set out on a gleeful victory lap. Only later did he learn the crushing truth. Young was third, with a 47.72 to Patrick's 47.75. The distraught Harris was fifth, in 47.76.
Moses, who burned the brightest, paid dearly. He couldn't walk a victory lap, having to sit and be bathed with icy towels. He rose and tried to cut across the infield, but had to lie down. "It was just so hot out there," he said later, still drained, as empty as if he had been defeated.
The first distance final was the women's 3,000. "I've been dreading this," said Slaney, wary of the afternoon sun and 95°. But she romped away without reservation, building a 20-yard cushion over Villanova's Vicki Huber.
"Then I let my mind wander," said Slaney. Slowing, she was surprised to find Huber on her shoulder, with a kilometer to go. "I tried to change surprise into concentration," said Slaney. It worked, as she kicked away strongly over the last 200 to win in 8:42.53. Huber strode in at 8:46.48, a radiant Olympian. "This is beyond my dreams," she said.
Behind them, Sabrina Dornhoefer and PattiSue Plumer enacted a nightmare. They had fought to break free of each other throughout the last lap. It had exhausted them. In the stretch they were even, all out and desperate. Fifty meters out, the form of each was rapidly disintegrating. Ten meters out, Dornhoefer's leg buckled from the flailing effort and she pitched forward, toppling. Plumer plunged on, arms up in thanksgiving, into third, then sank to the ground. Dornhoefer righted herself, finished and went down again. Both lay dazed and were quickly taken to the medical tent.
David Martin, the physiologist who works with the TAC/USOC Elite Athlete Project, was asked whether it was safe to send off runners under these conditions. "Hard to say," he said. "No country in the last century has been stupid enough to run its trials in these conditions."
Better to pray for the athletes' safety and rejoin the sprinters to marvel at Griffith Joyner in a black two-legger winning her 100 semi in 10.70 with a legal 1.6-meter wind, her third race faster than Ashford's 10.76 world record.
Then she returned for the final in electric blue and white, her nails now a throbbing pink. Kersee stationed himself at the midpoint of the track. At the gun, he yelled, "There you go!" and himself bolted for the finish. Griffith Joyner beat him there in 10.61, this with a legal 1.2-meter wind. If, somehow, her 10.49 should be denied because of questions about the wind gauge, that 10.61 will be the new world record. She also beat Ashford (10.81) and Gwen Torrence (10.91), who, with her, will make up the strongest American sprint entry ever sent to an Olympics.
"My eyes are really opened," said Ashford. In fact, they had a Lewis-like gleam of determination. "I'm going to have to really run this year."
Griffith Joyner calmly turned her thoughts to the 200, to be run this week, and wouldn't be drawn into the furor over what the wind might really have been doing in her 10.49.
Yet her winning 10.61, under no such cloud, proves that she has revolutionized women's sprinting. One suspects that her purple 10.49, so wholly unexpected, will become, like Bob Beamon's 20-year-old long jump record of 29'2½", historic for its sheer mystery.