As she stood on the steamy track at Columbia University's Wien Stadium last Saturday afternoon, awaiting the start of the women's 800 meters in the New York Games, Mary Slaney stared into the wind and the sun and the glare of her own expectations. "If I don't get under 2:00," she said, "I'm going to be disappointed."
Slaney hadn't run the 800 outdoors in six years, and you would have thought that the last thing she needed was to put additional pressure on herself. Whatever else it may turn out to be—tragedy, drama, comedy, soap opera, farce—her career has already been an epic, a trip so long and strange and fraught with hard luck that it could almost be broken down into periods, like Italian art or English literature.
Slaney blew onto the athletic stage 18 years ago, a 98-pound whirlwind of ponytails, braces and flying batons. She ranked fourth in the world at 800 meters in 1973, the year she turned 15, and the next winter she set a world indoor record for the distance. People swore she would burn herself out. Put your money on the sun to do so first.
"I've always got such high expectations for myself," says Slaney. "I'm aware of them, but I can't relax them."
July 28, 1991
Those singular expectations have been both blessing and curse to her. Slaney's best year was 1983. She won a 1,500-3,000 double at the first World Championships, in Helsinki, beating a gang of Soviets and leaving one of them literally sprawled on the track in her wake. Slaney was given the Sullivan Award as the U.S.'s top amateur athlete and was named this magazine's Sportswoman of the Year.
But the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were a nightmare. What lingers horribly in the mind is that photograph, taken as she lay next to the track, her face twisted into a mask of rage and pain after her collision with Zola Budd. Never mind that in 1985 Slaney set the world mile record, or that she still holds U.S. records in the mile, 800, 1,500 and 3,000 meters. Nothing was going to soften the shock of that photo.
More often than not, the demands Slaney makes on herself have broken her down. Slaney's mind, it seems, is stronger than her body. Her Achilles tendons are the weak link. She has lost count of how many lower-leg operations she has had. "I really should work it out, because I'm hearing that question quite a bit lately," she says. "It's somewhere in the teens." Four of those operations have come in the past 2½ years, two on her left Achilles, one on her right Achilles and one on her right calf.
This year began promisingly. Though she lost her first race, a 1,500, to Shelly Steely in the Oregon Twilight Meet in Eugene, Ore., Slaney's time of 4:08.51 was her fastest in more than two years. Two weeks later, she won the 1,500 at the Bruce Jenner Classic in San Jose in stunning fashion, pushing from the start and then holding off PattiSue Plumer, last year's top-ranked 3,000 runner, in a tight sprint for the tape. Slaney's time was 4:04.92. Not only was that the fastest 1,500 in the world to that point, but it was also the fastest by an American woman since 1988.
Slaney arrived in New York for the USA/Mobil Championships in mid-June with high hopes. The top three finishers in each event were to qualify for the World Championships in Tokyo in late August. Because she had missed the last World Championships in 1987 due to—what else?—Achilles surgery, Slaney was especially eager to run in Tokyo.
Instead, she ran smack into a patch of her old bad luck. While warming up for the first round, she got a cramp in her right calf. Taping her leg didn't help and painkillers would have violated the doping rules. Slaney pulled out of the meet in tears. She went home to Eugene and got cortisone injections and acupuncture treatments. She was disappointed with a 4:32.15 mile in Oslo on July 6, but she was encouraged by a second-place finish over 2,000 meters in London on July 12.
Slaney was surprised to find herself leading down the first backstretch Saturday afternoon. She floated past 400 in 59.2, with the pack jostling behind her. Down the second backstretch, Slaney began to look less comfortable, biting her lower lip and casting fretful glances down at the track. Celeste Halliday and Meredith Rainey, both of whom had broken 2:00 this year, were gathering menacingly behind her.
Halliday pounced first, slipping past Slaney on the second turn of the last lap. Farther back, Maria Mutola, a powerful 18-year-old from Mozambique, was surprising everyone. With 200 meters to run, she had been next to last, 15 meters behind Slaney and Halliday. Mutola passed seven runners in that final 200, swinging out into lane four to find enough running room. Thirty meters from the finish, it looked as if Mutola's lane had suddenly pitched steeply downward, so dramatic was her acceleration past the struggling leaders.
She won by two meters, and her momentum carried her halfway round the turn. Mutola's time was 2:00.22, Rainey's 2:00.51 and Halliday's 2:00.53.
Slaney was fifth, in 2:01.28. But the temperature at race time was 97°, and it was much hotter than that on the track, so she wasn't unduly distressed about her failure to break two minutes. "My legs don't hurt, my calves don't hurt," Slaney said. "It was good speed work for me."
Mutola, a senior-to-be at Springfield (Ore.) High School, grew up in Maputo, Mozambique's capital. She was 15 and playing soccer for a men's team when she caught the eye of Jose Graverinhas, Mozambique's poet laureate, whose son happens to be a track coach. Three months later, Mutola found herself in Seoul, where she clocked a 2:04.36 in the Olympic heats, an astonishing time for one so young and inexperienced.
While that did not qualify Mutola for the semis, it did grab the attention of the Olympic Solidarity Committee, an arm of the International Olympic Committee that sponsors athletes from developing countries who wish to train abroad. It took some time, but in March she enrolled at Springfield High. Mutola could not afford to compete in Europe this summer, but she hopes, not unreasonably, to medal in Tokyo.
On Aug. 4, Slaney will turn 33. "I want to stay healthy from now to the Olympic trials," she says, sounding very much the soul of moderation. "I will not double. I've found that too much."
If Slaney stays healthy, she will compete well with anyone in the world. In the three years that have passed since the Seoul Olympics, the next generation of American women has improved immensely. Plumer ranked first in the world last year in the 5,000 as well as the 3,000, and Lynn Jennings has won the last two world cross-country titles.
Whatever the varied reasons—political, chemical or both—the world has grown slower in Slaney's absence. At the Seoul Olympics, women from Eastern Europe won nine of the 12 medals from 800 to 10,000, including all four gold medals. Since Seoul, the formidable sports organizations that sustained such achievements in most of those countries have been crumbling.
Slaney smiles when she is reminded of this. "I don't think you can afford to go to the Olympics expecting things to be easier," she says. That, no doubt, is a wise policy. The Africans arc rushing into the vacuum left by the Eastern Europeans. A 22-year-old Algerian woman, Hassiba Boulmerka, has the fastest mile in the world this year, a 4:20.79. The Kenyan women edged the Ethiopians for the world cross-country team title this year. And with the International Amateur Athletic Federation's decision three weeks ago to readmit South Africa, Slaney may well find herself facing her old nemesis, Zola Budd Pieterse, who currently stands second on the 1991 world 3,000 list. It's hard to escape your past, especially when there's so much of it.
"I think I've been good, but I want to be better," says Slaney. "I think women reach their peak in their mid-30's. If I can just stay healthy for one whole year, I know I can run better."