One almost feared for said Aouita last Friday night as the tiny Moroccan awaited the start of the men's 3,000-meter race at the Panasonic Millrose Games in New York's Madison Square Garden. Not only was he the slightest runner (5'8¾", 128 pounds) in the field of 12, but also he had run only one indoor race in his life—two years ago in Spain. Now he was facing the tight, slippery boards of the Garden track, on which it pays to have sharp elbows and no conscience. "I am taking a big risk just to run with these guys," Aouita said.
Coming from what has been the brashest mouth in the world of track and field, that was a startling admission. Aouita holds outdoor world records at 1,500,2,000 and 5,000 meters and at two miles, and he was the 1984 Olympic 5,000 champion. If at times the track world has been a trifle reluctant to proclaim his mastery, it is only because Aouita has done such a tremendous job of that himself.
But his performance at the Seoul Olympics seems to have chastened Aouita. He had been picked by almost everyone to win the 1,500 and at least to medal in the 800, but he strained his right hamstring in a workout two days before the heats for the 800. "I couldn't get my muscle to run fast," he said. In the final he was a well-beaten third to Paul Ereng of Kenya and Joaquim Cruz of Brazil, both of whom he had defeated earlier in the season. The injury forced him out of the 1,500. "It was a mistake to run the 800," he said. "I should have waited for the 1,500."
When he went home to Casablanca, Aouita experienced pain of a different kind. His countrymen apparently had short memories. "It was very hard because everybody knows me to win," he said. "If I win, everyone is with me. If I lose, people speak bad about me."
February 13, 1989
He stayed just three days in Casablanca. "When I come back home, I take my wife and my young daughter and I go to Orlando, Florida, for one month. We did everything. Disney World. Epcot." However, it wasn't all fun in the sun. Aouita trained, too. "Hard, hard, hard. I want to run well before I go back home."
If Aouita was the meet's most intriguing newcomer, then Olympic champions Louise Ritter and Jackie Joyner-Kersee were its reliable veterans. Ritter, the women's high-jump winner in Seoul, cleared 6'5½" to beat Galina Astafei of Romania. She then had the bar raised to 6'7", which would have been an American record, but she missed on all three attempts.
That was O.K., though, because early in the evening Joyner-Kersee had ensured that the meet would have a world best. It came not in the long jump or the heptathlon—the two events in which we have come to expect the spectacular from her—but in the 55-meter hurdles. With no major multievent competitions on the international schedule this year, she and her husband-coach, Bob Kersee, have chosen the hurdles, both the 100 and 400 meters, as the next events for her to conquer. Indeed, both believe that a world record in the 400 hurdles is possible. For now, they are using the shorter indoor races to hone her speed and technique.
Joyner-Kersee blew to a huge three-meter win in the trials. Her time was announced as 7.38 seconds, one tantalizing hundredth of a second shy of the indoor world mark set two years ago by Cornelia Oschkenat of East Germany. When a closer inspection of the photo changed that to 7.37, Joyner-Kersee had a share of her first indoor world best. "Oh, it means a lot," she assured someone who guessed that by now she might be blasè about records. "I didn't have one of those [indoor world bests] before."
In the final, Joyner-Kersee came out of the blocks slightly behind Kim McKenzie. "I popped straight up," she said after the race. She and McKenzie came down off the first hurdle together, but then Joyner-Kersee pulled away over the four remaining. "I concentrated on snapping my lead leg down," she said. Once again her time was 7.37, and once again her perfectionist husband saw room for improvement. "She's still losing a little velocity over the fourth and fifth hurdles," Kersee said.
Aouita was not the only runner at the Millrose who had experienced disappointment in Seoul. Mary Slaney also had a humbling Olympics, finishing eighth in the 1,500 and 10th in the 3,000. In Friday's mile, she got another crack at muscular Paula Ivan of Romania, the Olympic 1,500 champion.
"I didn't want to lead," Slaney explained after the race. "But I found myself having to take it." She led until four laps remained on the 11-laps-to-the-mile track. Then Ivan, with her strong, wide stride, charged past. Slaney did not respond, and the Romanian's lead grew to 10 yards at the¾-mile mark, which she passed in 3:20.
From there it grew no wider. With two laps to go, Slaney was gaining. By the final turn, she had hauled herself up onto Ivan's shoulder. But to go around Ivan, Slaney had to swing out, and she lost three crucial feet. She came at Ivan again in the short homestretch, but it was too late. "I didn't give myself the time to make it up," Slaney said. Ivan beat her to the tape by three feet, 4:23.72 to 4:23.91.
After the race Ivan was all shy smiles. "Yes, I felt Slaney at my back," she said through an interpreter. "I wasn't sure if it was for me or for her, but everyone said, 'Go, go!' " If Ivan found that confusing, what must she have thought when, halfway through her victory lap, she was passed by Slaney, who was waving to the crowd while impulsively taking what can only be described as a runner-up lap?
As Slaney and Ivan ran their separate laps of honor, Aouita was thinking of redemption. He wanted a record. And to help him get it, meet director Howard Schmertz provided John Hinton, who has run a 3:40.22 1,500, to pull the field through a 4:05 first mile. That would put Aouita about a second ahead of pace to break that hoariest of individual indoor world records, the 7:39.2 run by Emiel Puttemans of Belgium in 1973.
At the gun, Hinton sprinted to the lead with Aouita close behind. The field strung out as Hinton passed 440 in 59.7. That was a little too ambitious, and Aouita wisely hung five yards back in second place, as the pace slowed to 2:05.4 for the first half mile.
With a mile to go, Hinton stepped off the track, and Steve Scott, the U.S.-record holder for the indoor mile, took the lead. The time for the first mile was 4:14, leaving all hopes of a record gone. But slow races often end with frenzied stampedes, and the crowd in the Garden leaned forward hungrily. "Position became very important," said Doug Padilla, who by now was positioned quite nicely in fourth place. "It was your nightmare of an indoor race."
With 2½ laps to go, Aouita took the lead with the move everyone had been waiting for. It was calm and controlled: There was more to come if needed. One lap later it was Padilla's turn. Still in fourth place, he gathered himself and sprinted the length of the backstretch, cutting in front of Aouita just as they entered the turn. Here was a move from which there was no backing down. The crowd rose. Padilla seemed to pull slightly away from Aouita as they swept into the final lap.
But on the final backstretch, Aouita inched closer. "I was tying up," Padilla said afterward. "It was my hope that he was tying up, too. Obviously he wasn't."
Aouita caught Padilla just as they hit the final turn. His flailing left arm smacked Padilla's right shoulder. Aouita stumbled, recovered and moved wider, into the second lane. His legs churned with cartoonish speed as he dug desperately into the belly of the turn. He raced down off the turn and, with 25 yards to go, finally, gratefully, passed Padilla and ripped through the tape. Aouita's final 440 was 55.2, and his 7:47.07 for the race was a meet record. Padilla finished second, .28 of a second back.
Two days later, at the Mobil 1 Invitational in Fairfax, Va., Aouita would win the 5,000 in a swift 13.22.56. Thus the first two of the five indoor races he plans to run in the U.S.—for a reported total of $100,000—were distinct successes. After his Millrose race, he sat grinning in the press area. In Casablanca, he said, it was not quite 5 a.m., but yes, he would soon call home with the news. "Now they will say, 'Yes, he must have been injured in Seoul.' "
And what did he think of his U.S. indoor debut? "C'est magnifique! C'est magnifique!"