A reverent hush fell upon Zurich's Letzigrund Stadium on the night of Aug. 16 as the 110-meter hurdlers settled into their blocks. The air was hot and muggy, a portent of the rain that would blow across the track in gray sheets an hour later. But for the moment, all was still. The pole vaulters turned to watch, as did the high jumpers and long jumpers. In the middle of the track, in lane 4, Roger Kingdom was surprised to find that he was nervous.
"It was strange," he said later, "because I had been perfectly calm all day. But I had never faced a field that strong. Not even in the Olympics."
Over the next five days, track and field caught fire as it had not done since last year's Seoul Olympics. By Sunday, three world records had fallen, and two of the most revered names in the sport's history, Renaldo Nehemiah and Henry Rono, had been erased from the record books. Kingdom's magnificent performance presaged the end of an era.
He would have been satisfied just to have won in Zurich, for despite the absence of Nehemiah, who had pulled out in a dispute over his appearance fee, the field of seven was the fastest ever. Besides Kingdom, the gold medal winner in Seoul, it included Colin Jackson of Great Britain and Tonie Campbell of the U.S., the silver and bronze medalists, respectively, in Seoul, and two-time world champion Greg Foster.
Even so, it was not like the 26-year-old Kingdom to worry. He is one of the few competitors on the circuit who has proven himself willing to race anybody, anytime. In the 26 days leading up to Zurich, Kingdom had run in London; New York; La Coru‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±a; Spain; Los Angeles; and Grosetto, Italy. But the toll on his body had been enormous. By the time he got to Zurich, Kingdom was worn down by bronchitis and allergies.
There was one false start, by Tony Jarrett of Great Britain. False starts are often distracting, but this one gave Kingdom a crucial insight. "I noticed my first step was too long," he said. "That was because my butt was too high. So I lowered my butt until my body was parallel to the ground. That enabled me to attack the first hurdle."
Kingdom's start has never been his strongest point. In even his best races he has trailed early before gathering momentum midway. Breaking Nehemiah's eight-year-old record of 12.93 would require a complete race, from gun to tape. Hoping to improve, Kingdom had spent the previous weekend in Rieti, Italy, practicing with sprinter Lee McRae, one of track's slickest starters.
The workouts paid off. Kingdom got a better first step than anyone else in the field. Indeed, he seemed almost unprepared for it, and had to adjust his stride at the first hurdle, which he knocked over. Though he scraped the second and banged the fourth, Kingdom knew by the third hurdle that he was in control of the race. "I knew I would win," he said, "if I didn't get hurt."
That wasn't a concern until he reached the tenth and final barrier. That one Kingdom clobbered. "It caught me right behind the knee," said Kingdom.
His coach and girlfriend, Joy Shepard, who watched the race on television in Pittsburgh, where she and Kingdom live, saw Kingdom's collision with that tenth hurdle as a blessing in disguise. "When you're at the brink of disaster, that's when you do your best," she said. "Roger bore down when he hit that hurdle. It may have given him the record."
"I knew I had to attack the tape," said Kingdom. His teeth were clenched on his final two strides. He finished 2½ meters in front of Jackson, who was second, and looked up at the stadium clock. He saw a strange number: 12.89. "At first it didn't register," said Kingdom. "Then I realized that that clock had never been more than one or two hundredths off."
In fact, it was off by .03. Kingdom was given credit for 12.92, and one of track's most respected world records had fallen. Kingdom jumped and twisted and danced halfway around the turn, pumping his arms crazily. He then ran back to the people who understood his achievement best, the men he had just beaten. He was wrapped in a muscular embrace by Foster, who had come in fifth, as the other hurdlers swarmed around them. "It's about time you got it," Foster told Kingdom. "Now take that lap."
"I was almost too tired to take it," said Kingdom. "I was hyperventilating." For many of the 24,000 fans, simply applauding was not enough. They raised their hands over their heads and clapped rhythmically as Kingdom took his victory lap.
One person who could not have been too surprised by Kingdom's performance was Nehemiah. Last summer at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, Nehemiah had said, "The days of the pretty hurdler are over. It's getting the job done [that counts]. The day hurdlers overcome their fear, and are willing to take risks, that's when you'll see another sub-13."
Kingdom is not the most elegant of hurdlers but must surely now be judged the greatest. Not only does he have two Olympic gold medals, a distinction he shares with Lee Calhoun, who won the 110-meter hurdles at the 1956 and '60 Games, but he also has run fast more consistently than anyone else.
"I know," said Kingdom after setting the record, "that 12.85 is possible. And if I can run a more aggressive race with the same start, or better, I can get down to around 12.79."
But the race he had just been a part of reminded Kingdom that if you are lucky, you run against not only the clock but also other athletes. "I ran my strongest race," he said, "against the strongest competition I have ever had."
No doubt Arturo Barrios would have appreciated some company two nights later in Berlin. En route to smashing the world 10,000-meter record, Barrios followed Doug Padilla and then Steve Plasencia, both of the U.S., for half of the race's 25 laps before pushing on alone through the cool night as 35,000 voices pleaded for him to keep going. Barrios crossed the finish line in 27:08.23, more than five seconds faster than Fernando Mamede's 1984 mark of 27:13.81. Barrios, 25, is the first Mexican runner to set a world record. For a moment after the race he looked remarkably fresh. Then, as if he too had been oblivious to the toll such efforts take, he collapsed.
For one man the very notion of strong competition is oxymoronic. That would be Morocco's Said Aouita, who proved on Sunday afternoon in Cologne, West Germany, that he can turn any race into a time trial. The 29-year-old Aouita had seemed more vulnerable this year than ever before. In June he had lost a 5,000-meter race for the first time in 10 years to Yobes Ondieki of Kenya, and had been left to clutch at foolish excuses. He was rumored to be ducking stiff competition. Anyone who knows Aouita knows those whispers must have rankled him. He needed to do something special.
The 3,000-meter mark of 7:32.1, established by Rono in 1978, was the longest-standing individual track record. "It is the hardest of all world records to get," said Aouita, who is more qualified to pass judgment than anyone else, having come within 1.2 seconds of Rono's time on four previous occasions. Aouita's nearest miss had come on the same track in Cologne three years ago. Needing a final lap of 56.7, he had produced only a 56.83. His time, 7:32.23, was so maddeningly close that it left him shaking his head.
"Every year," he said on Sunday, "I have gotten closer and closer to [Rono's record]. When I was younger I wasn't so worried because I had time. Now I'm getting older."
On Saturday, Aouita and his agent, Jalil Bencheikh, sought out Ondieki, the one man who could force Aouita to race rather than just run for time. "We asked him if he wanted to go fast," said Bencheikh. "He said yes."
The 13 runners were called to the start in the late afternoon light. The crowd of 25,000 cheered when Aouita's intentions were announced. At the gun Ondieki and Aouita fell in behind Markus Trines of West Germany and Charles Cheruiyot of Kenya, the rabbits. There was no jostling or changing of pace, nothing to divert energy from the simple task of running very fast.
Aouita followed Trines through the first kilometer in 2:31.5 and Cheruiyot through the second in 5:03. That was two seconds slower than required, which meant that Aouita would need to kick. Cheruiyot pulled off the track with two laps to go, and with 400 meters remaining, Aouita's time unofficially was 6:33.4. He needed a final lap of 58.69 to break Rono's record, and this time he was leaving nothing to chance. Aouita surged away from Ondieki, who folded immediately.
The crowd stood. Aouita ran the final straight as if possessed by grimacing, straining demons, his eyes screwed tight with effort and his head and shoulders pitching back and forth. Perhaps because his eyes were closed, Aouita actually ran 10 yards past the finish before easing up and looking warily at the stadium clock. It showed 7:29.46. That would be adjusted officially to 7:29.45. Aouita had run the last lap in 55.95 to knock an astonishing 2.65 seconds off the record.
He raised his arms and turned his eyes briefly to the sky. He then set off on not one but two victory laps, grinning and shaking his head, as if he had done something so amazing that he amazed even himself. "Rono did something special in the 3,000," Aouita said in 1986, after having come so close to his record. "It's not possible. I thought it would be easy, but it's not easy."
In Cologne, he proved himself wrong, and oh, so right.