The best decathlons end like the worst disasters: Bodies are strewn everywhere. In the Goodwill Games decathlon last week, moments after the eight survivors—out of the original 10-man field—staggered across the finish line of the 1,500 meters, Seattle's Husky Stadium came to resemble a MASH unit. The Soviet Union's Roman Terekhov, who had won the 1,500, lay dazed on the ground on his back, rocking like a boat. A few yards away one of his teammates, Soviet champion Mikhail Medved, was curled in a fetal position. And Dave Johnson of Montclair, Calif., was draped heavily around the neck and shoulders of his U.S. compatriot Dan O'Brien of Moscow, Idaho. Johnson had won the gold medal with 8,403 points, 45 more than O'Brien, who finished second. As the pair congratulated and consoled and supported each other, they seemed a single, exotic, eight-limbed creature.
The Americans' weary bonhomie was entirely fitting. It was the most significant victory by a U.S. athlete in a major international decathlon since Bruce Jenner's Olympic victory in 1976 and the first time the U.S. has finished one-two in a premier world competition since 1975. It was the highest three-man total—Sheldon Block-burger of Eugene, Ore., finished sixth with 8,002 points—in decathlon history, suggesting that for the U.S. a renaissance has finally begun.
This event was meaningful in another way: If camaraderie is the real aim of the Goodwill Games, no event succeeded in fulfilling it like the decathlon. "There's an unwritten law among decathletes that you help each other out," explained O'Brien. In Seattle the common enemy was sullen weather. Swirling winds buffeted the athletes, and the temperature, which never rose above the mid-60's, turned muscles stiff. "You had to battle the conditions as well as the events," said Johnson. "It was 10 athletes fighting against the elements."
So they helped each other from the beginning. In the 100, they took turns making false starts in hopes of catching a moment of calm between headwinds. "Even the Russians were in on it," laughed Johnson later. "We were all talking in the set position. 'Is it too windy?' 'Yeah.' 'Quick, false start.' "
August 5, 1990
But after six false starts they gave in. It made no sense to procrastinate. There would be no records in Seattle anyway. In the first section of the 100, Johnson ran 11.18 into a two-mile-per-hour headwind. O'Brien, facing a five-mile-per-hour headwind in the second section, ran 10.99. After long-jumping 25'11½"—a remarkable distance on such a day-O'Brien held a lead he would not relinquish until the last event.
"Dan paced the whole field," said Johnson, admiringly. "He kept us going, kept us alive." On that first day O'Brien also put the shot 49'9", high-jumped 6'9¾" and ran the 400 in 48.38. His first-day total of 4,470 points led the then runner-up Blockburger by 280 points and Johnson by 293.
That was to be expected. O'Brien rates behind only world-record holder Daley Thompson of Great Britain—who is past his prime and did not participate in these Games—as the discipline's finest first-day performer. "He's definitely in the Daley mold," says Frank Zarnowski, author of The Decathlon, the event's definitive history. "But where he has it on Daley is that he's a better thrower."
The source of his magnificent powers is a mystery to O'Brien. He was adopted, at age two, by Jim and Virginia O'Brien of Klamath Falls, Ore. The adoption agency in Portland gave them very little information about his natural parents. Says Larry Hunt, who coached O'Brien in high school and now is the president of the Dan O'Brien fan club, "[The agency] told them that his father was black, 6'3" and very athletic; that his mother was at least part Finnish; and that one or both of them were college professors."
O'Brien showed little athletic promise until his sophomore year at Klamath Falls's Henley High, when he grew six inches. "He grew so much his bones hurt," recalls Jim O'Brien. By his senior year the younger O'Brien had also grown into the state champion in the 100, the long jump and both hurdles.
O'Brien's specialties came early in the decathlon's two-day schedule, so he was forced to act as front-runner. "We've got a neat thing going," said Johnson. "Dan's got a great first day, I've got a great second day."
On the second day Johnson began to hack away at O'Brien's lead, picking up 120 points in the vault (16'2¾" to 14'11") and 170 in the javelin (225'3" to 188'4"). Not that O'Brien surrendered. On the contrary, he revealed how rugged a competitor he is, throwing the discus a personal decathlon best of 152 feet on his third and final effort and then hauling himself to a personal best of 14'11" in the pole vault, also on his final try.
After nine events O'Brien had 7,656 points, Johnson 7,633 and Medved 7,622. That left only the 1,500 meters. To win, Johnson would have to beat O'Brien by 3½ seconds; Medved needed to beat him by five. "I knew I had a good 800 in me," said O'Brien later. "After that it's just blood and guts."
He hung with Johnson for 600 meters before both blood and guts howled in protest. "It's a strange feeling," said O'Brien. "You start to get numb and your body doesn't work right. After nine events there are limitations." Johnson crossed the line in 4:26.19, 10 seconds ahead of his friend and rival.
Another moment of high drama in Seattle came in the 100-meter showdown between the world's top sprinters, Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell, which was run the night before the decathlon started. Lewis, 29, the two-time Olympic champion in the 100, holds the world record of 9.92. Burrell, 23, nearly matched that time with a 9.94 at the 1989 TAC championships. This year Burrell has run 9.96, and Lewis 10.05.
Though Lewis had beaten his protègè in each of their five previous confrontations, they had not faced each other this year. In fact, they chose to run in separate 100-meter races as recently as July 12 in Lausanne, Switzerland, and thus arrived in Seattle undefeated.
A rambunctious crowd of 28,555 packed the lower stands of the stadium to watch the duel, and at the gun it was almost startling to find six other sprinters in the race. In Lane 2, Cuba's tiny Andres Simon got out so fast that by 10 meters he had a stride on the celebrated pair. Lewis got out of the blocks no better than fifth, and Burrell was dead last. "I got a rather bad start," Burrell said later. "I told myself, That was awful! and really went to work toward the middle." This figured to give Lewis an edge, for he has been the world's best sprinter over the second 50.
At 40 meters Burrell caught Lewis. At 60 he hit the front, with Lewis right off his left shoulder. It was now time for Lewis to move away magnificently, as is his custom. But in Seattle the move never came. "I didn't feel as sharp as I could have been," Lewis said later. "It's lots of things: a hectic schedule, a lack of races."
They dipped for the line in unison, with Burrell getting there a foot ahead of his rival. Burrell's time was 10.05, Lewis's 10.08. In third place was their Santa Monica Track Club teammate Mark Witherspoon, in 10.17. Burrell knelt for a moment on the track, and Lewis patted him on the back before they took a victory lap.
As good a race as the 100 was, it had the aura of an anticlimax. This may have been due in part to the Goodwill Games' finals-only format; in more traditional meets, the preliminary rounds generally serve to build suspense. And as Mike Hurst of the Sydney (Australia) Daily Telegraph said, "You get the feeling that this is nothing special for Lewis and Burrell, because they do this every day in Houston." The great rivalries of the past—Roger Bannister and John Landy in the mile, Lee Evans and Martin McGrady in the indoor 600 yards, Lewis and the since suspended Ben Johnson in the 100—have derived much of their appeal from the unknown quantities of the matchups. As training partners Lewis and Burrell know precisely what to expect from each other.
Asked if he can go faster than 9.94, Burrell shrugged. "I don't feel 9.8's are out of the question. But the track and the conditions would have to be perfect." He may well find them perfect next Wednesday when he runs in Sestriere, Italy, nestled 6,300 feet above sea level in the Alps.
And Lewis? Two nights later he was once again his seemingly invincible self, long-jumping 27'6" to beat a strong field. It was Lewis's 64th straight win in the long jump, a streak that dates back to February 1981, when he was beaten by Larry Myricks. Said Lewis, "After some of those victories I've said, 'My goodness, Lord, what did you put in this body?' "
Although Lewis suffered a cramp in his left hamstring in the New York Games on Sunday, it would be a profound mistake to write him off just yet in either of his specialties. "I still feel I have the best race I'll ever run left in me," Lewis said. "There's no question or doubt in my mind."
Certainly Burrell is paying heed. "One race does not a king make," advised Burrell, with kingly wisdom.
So the torch has not yet been passed. For now, let's say that Burrell and Lewis each have a hand on it. Let's hope, too, that they'll favor us by struggling for it fiercely and frequently in the future.