As much as they change, the Olympics are in one regard strikingly stable. Spheres of excellence endure. Thus the Seoul Games were a showcase for American speed. Eastern European strength and Kenyan endurance. The U.S. men swept the 400, the Soviets the hammer. In fact, Eastern Europeans won every throwing event but the men's javelin. That was won by a Finn. Kenya enjoyed its finest Olympics, superior even to its gold medal haul in the familiar high altitude surroundings of Mexico City in 1968 (5 to 3). Kenyans swept the three gold medals from 800 meters through the 5,000. In the steeplechase, Julius Kariuki and Peter Koech of Kenya had a wonderful shot at countryman Henry Rono's 10-year-old world record of 8:05.4 but weren't watching the clock. Kariuki would have to be satisfied with a relaxed 8:05.51, an Olympic record and the second-fastest steeplechase ever, while Koech moved to third with his runner-up 8:06.79.
The 5,000 proved two-time world cross-country champion John Ngugi was not only fit but also smart. When he ran the 5,000 at last year's world championships in Rome, he learned that he could not kick with the best Europeans at the end of a slow race. So he devised a new plan for Seoul. After the field had completed 1,000 meters, Ngugi blasted from last to first with a 58.22 lap. At the 2,000 mark, his lead had grown to 40 meters. Frequently he cast a glance back. In some runners that would be a sign of vulnerability, but Ngugi continued to flow through in 64-second laps. With 1,600 meters to go, Domingos Castro of Portugal broke from the trailing pack and drove after Ngugi. He never made it. Ngugi, upped his pace to 62's and ran away to win unthreatened in 13:11.70. Castro, now spent and weeping, was caught just before the line by Dieter Baumann of West Germany and Hansjorg Kunze of East Germany and got no medal at all.
Ngugi's diminutive countryman, Peter Rono, used much the same strategy to win the men's 1,500. He surged into the lead at the midpoint and held on as Peter Elliott and Steve Cram, both of Great Britain, came at him on the final backstretch. Thirteen times in the last 200 meters Rono shot glances to his right to gauge the threat he faced. Despite their straining, Elliott, Cram and Jens-Peter Herold of East Germany could get no closer than two meters as Rono crosssed the line in 3:35.96.
Kenya almost added another gold medal in the final event of the Games when Douglas Wakiihuri, the 1987 world champion, was beaten by 15 seconds in the marathon. Gelindo Bordin of Italy had overhauled both Wakiihuri and Amhed Salah of Djibouti in the final two miles.
After finishing 10th in the 3,000 earlier in the week, Mary Slaney got her final shot at a medal in the women's 1,500 on Saturday. At the gun Slaney broke for the lead, but Paula Ivan of Romania was there first and set a pace that grew ever more punishing. Her third 400 was her fastest, a 62.56, and it left the dispirited field 50 meters in her wake with still another lap to go. Ivan drove across the finish line in 3:53.96, an Olympic record. Slaney finished a distant eighth in 4:02.49, and one has to wonder if she and the Olympics have mixed for the last time.
Slaney and high jumper Louise Ritter were two of the few athletes to have survived the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games and make the team for Seoul. Whereas Slaney was a medal favorite, Ritter had been given little chance to beat Stefka Kostadinova of Bulgaria, the world champion and record holder at 6'10¼". Yet when the bar reached 6'8" neither jumper had missed. But both failed all three attempts at that height. So they went to a jumpoff; each would have one more attempt at 6'8". Kostadinova, up first, missed. Ritter, bounding in from the right side, arched over the bar, brushing it ever so slightly with her right thigh. "I may have touched it," she later said, "but that bar wasn't going anywhere." It didn't. It shivered but stayed up.
For five years Sergei Bubka of the U.S.S.R. has ruled the pole vault. Last Wednesday in Seoul the powerful Soviet was in fourth place, with only one chance left to clear 19'4¼". All day swirling winds had played havoc with the vaulters' steps. Now, as if on Bubka's command, the air calmed. He raised his pole and sprinted down the runway. He planted, rocked back and sailed slightly to the right of center. As he curled safely around the bar, Bubka screamed like a berserker. He fell to his knees in the pit and collapsed on his back, shaking his fists at the windy skies. When his teammate Rodion Gataullin missed three times at 19'6¼", Bubka had won his first Olympic gold.
Even as Bubka was claiming his medal, across the track Daley Thompson was trying to win an unprecedented third gold in the decathlon. But with one event to go, Thompson was in third place, trailing Christian Schenk of East Germany by 78 points and Schenk's teammate Torsten Voss, the world champion, by 16.
The Briton's undoing had come in what is normally one of his strongest events, the pole vault. With the bar at 15'5", Thompson charged down the runway and planted. At the critical instant, when the pole bent to its maximum, it exploded, filling the air with fiberglass shards and propelling Thompson into the pit on his back. For an instant he lay dazed, then he gathered himself and limped off. When asked what had gone through his mind when the pole snapped, Thompson shrugged and said, "That I still had to make the height." But make it he did, and later, with a new pole, he cleared 16'¾", but he had reinjured the adductor muscle on the inside of his left thigh.
It was 9:15 p.m. when Thompson went to the start of the 1,500, his left thigh smothered in bandages. It had been the longest day of decathlon competition—13 hours—in Olympic history. At the gun Thompson fell to the back of the pack, and it was clear that it was not a tactical move. There would be no miracle. He struggled to the finish in 4:45.11, more than 16 seconds behind Schenk, the new Olympic decathlon champion.
The 30-year-old Thompson knows something of pressure. But Steve Lewis, 19, who will become a UCLA sophomore when he returns from Seoul, was an Olympic innocent. The night before the final of the 400 meters, he revealed the tenderness of his age when he asked a friend, "What's oxygen debt?"
"Running your first 200 in 20.5," said the friend. "Don't do it."
But in UCLA sprint coach John Smith, Lewis had an experienced adviser. In 1972 at the Munich Games, Smith and his former UCLA teammate Wayne Collett took their marks for the 400-meter final. Smith made it through 80 meters before suffering a severe hamstring pull that ended the race for him. Collett finished second to U.S. teammate Vince Matthews.
On Wednesday, two current UCLA quartermilers. Lewis and Danny Everett, 21, took their marks for the Olympic 400-meter final. Both are coached by Smith. "I'd never really talked about my plight in '72," says Smith. "But as they heard about it from others, they began to sense what was driving me to share what I've learned in those years."
Lewis drew Lane 6. Everett was in 4, and 24-year-old Butch Reynolds, the world-record holder, was in 3, where he could keep an eye on them. Everett went out hard and Lewis moved with smooth power on the backstretch. Even through the last turn Reynolds lagged. "The hope," said Smith, "was that when he looked up, it would be too late."
"I got too confident." Reynolds admitted after the race.
Entering the stretch six meters behind, Reynolds finally began a desperate sprint. He caught Everett with 20 meters to go, but Lewis, the tenderfoot, ran smoothly and poised all the way to the tape. When Reynolds's lunge fell short, Lewis had won in 43.87 to Reynolds's 43.93 and Everett's 44.09. "We stood and looked at the replay on the scoreboard," said Smith. "When Steve saw that he had won, he said, 'That one is for you, Coach.' "
Tears ran down Smith's face. "I held it in for 16 years," he said.
Three days later the three U.S. 400-meter medalists, joined by Kevin Robinzine, set out to break the oldest running record, the 2:56.16 set by Matthews, Lee Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman in the 4 X 400 relay at Mexico City.
Everett began with a strong 44.0, and then Lewis blew to a huge lead with 43.6. After Robinzine ran a steady 44.7. Reynolds knew he had a shot. "The hardest part is that an anchor runs by himself." he said. "I gave it all I had. But I should have tried harder."
Reynolds described the outcome best: "We got the record. But we didn't break the record." They tied it, running an identical 2:56.16.
Smith, eager that his generation's best be bettered, said, "It's O.K., for sure, as long as they earn it." Indeed, it is proof that excellence endures.