In kayaking, unlike baseball, it sometimes isn't over even after it's over. That's what the U.S.'s Greg Barton discovered last Saturday shortly after he crossed the finish line of the 1,000-meter singles final on the fog-shrouded Han River Regatta Course. At first it appeared that Barton had won, barely beating Australia's Grant Davies. But when he looked up at the scoreboard, Barton saw that he had lost. Moments later, the decision was reversed, and he was declared the winner—by a mere hundredth of a second.
Someone else might have been distraught after being pitched and tossed from gold to silver and back to gold again. But Barton, who is known for being cool under pressure, went out an hour later and paddled to another gold, with partner Norman Bellingham, in the 1,000-meter doubles. The margin of victory this time was downright leisurely: .29 of a second, though the race still qualified as a photo finish.
Barton's singles victory was the first gold medal the U.S. has ever won in this sport of milliseconds. To achieve it, he had to knife through strong and chilly head winds much like the ones he had braved to win the 1,000-meter world championship last year in Duisburg. West Germany. Barton, who has always been a strong closer, also took the grueling 10,000-meter race (a non-Olympic event) in Duisburg. Capturing both races was comparable to a runner winning the gold in the 1,500 meters, then moving on the next day to do likewise in the marathon.
In Seoul, Barton started slowly as usual and was in seventh place at the 250-meter mark. By 750 meters he had moved into second, but when he and Davies flashed across the finish line, neither dared raise a paddle in celebration. Some members of the U.S. team, watching from the shore, thought they had seen Barton win by a smidgin. And when they leapt joyously in the air. Barton broke out in a grin, believing that he had won.
October 9, 1988
At last year's worlds. Barton had not accounted for the short interval between the singles and doubles finals, and finished a distant fourth in the two-man, 1,000-meter event. So in Seoul he had promised himself that after the singles he would cool down properly and immediately begin concentrating on the doubles. But when the scoreboard flashed the times—Australia 3:55.00, the United States 3:55.57—Barton's heart sank to the bottom of the Han.
Dazed but stoic, Barton visited the officials' building to sign for the silver, as Davies's supporters whooped it up in the stands. "I just hoped somebody was up there looking at this in the photo-finish room," said Barton.
Somebody was. Soon the scoreboard flashed again: United States 3:55.27, Australia 3:55.28. Barton had indeed won the gold, officially by the slimmest margin permissible. "It was really five thousandths of a second," said Charles F. Dambach, the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team chairman. "They were considering giving two gold medals. They had to magnify the photo a couple of times to declare the winner."
"That's the breaks," said a gracious Davies. "If that's my biggest disappointment in life, I can handle it. Mind you, if they had given me the gold, I wouldn't have given it back." The bronze went to Andre Wohllebe of East Germany, who finished in 3:55.55.
Not long after the confusion died down, the winds did too, and Barton teamed up with Bellingham for the 1,000-meter doubles. Bellingham's style of kayaking is so different from Barton's that in a odd way they complement each other. Unlike Barton, Bellingham goes out quickly, as the powerful Hungarians do, hoping to seize an intimidating lead and hold on. On Saturday, however, Bellingham's arms had turned to goulash by the 500-meter mark. Then he saw the New Zealanders out in front and got nervous. "I was so scared," he said. "I looked over and we were a boat length behind the Kiwis. I just totally relied on Greg the last 500 meters."
Barton, the son of a Michigan pig farmer, was born with two clubfeet, but he says of his handicap, "Even if you're dealt a poor poker hand, you can still win the game." He's also an engineer, and he had the race figured: "Norman is used to racing in front of the pack," Barton said. "I just hoped he wouldn't get psyched out." If he was, it didn't matter, because Barton had enough left to pull the two of them past New Zealand's Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald, 3:32.42 to 3:32.71. Peter Foster and Kelvin Graham of Australia took the bronze in 3:33.76.
It wasn't yet noon, and Greg Barton had never known a more tumultuous day. Nor American kayaking a more glorious one.