The best T-Shirt slogan for the opening of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in New Orleans last week was NO PAIN, NO SPAIN. And pain, in all shapes and forms, was plentiful. Torn Achilles tendons and exploding knees. A javelin thrower hurling her own arm out of its socket. Jackie Joyner-Kersee on an IV and a prayer. Carl Lewis finishing sixth in the 100-meter dash, in which he holds the world record. And in the most bizarre episode at the trials, Butch Reynolds, the world-record holder in the 400, taking his opponents to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Why all the carnage and litigation? Here's why. The trials, which will continue through this Sunday, stand between every American track athlete and a goal so deeply embraced and embracing that it cannot be shed without disorienting anguish. The Olympic goal seeps into athletes' bones. Dreams strengthen, with performances, into visions, into a sense of destiny for hundreds of determined people. Those hundreds fight it out at the trials for the three places in each event. Those whose destiny is thwarted must ache. The very best athletes perform miracles to avoid that pain. Or they discover that there are no more miracles.
So it was with Lewis, whose hopes for a third straight Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters wilted in Louisiana's heat and humidity. "The 100 was not a matter of who was fastest," said Leroy Burrell after qualifying. "It was a matter of who adjusted best." The task, the first day, was to run the heats through the muggy 92° air at Tad Gormley Stadium.
These preliminaries, where the true contenders often reveal themselves, showed only that Burrell, Mark Witherspoon, Mike Marsh and Dennis Mitchell all seemed equally strong. Lewis didn't display his usual late-race lift, but neither did he struggle. With his head closely shaved, he seemed the sprinter of his youth, just before he found his mechanically perfect, disdainfully confident top gear. For a moment it was possible to wonder if we had seen the last of it. But his world-record race of 9.86 last year at age 30 made the thought seem silly, faithless. And since Lewis had bemoaned the rigors of running four rounds of both the 100 and 200 in the trials (sensibly wishing not to be so exhausted by making the team that his Barcelona preparations would be compromised), surely he was pacing himself.
June 28, 1992
Which was vital. Burrell felt so drained after the first two rounds that he forced nourishment on himself. "I don't eat much during competition days," he said, "but I had a big breakfast and drank grape juice constantly and ate candy to keep my sugars up. I never eat candy."
Nothing caused Burrell to suspect anything was amiss with Lewis, who is one of his training partners. No, the prime concern of all the semifinalists was their vanishing confidence in the different starters.
The moment one keyed-up sprinter begins to sense that a starter might allow an opponent to get away with a flying start, he thinks he has to try to anticipate the gun himself. As the athletes jump and jump, growing more skittish with each recall gun, order can slip toward chaos. Officials in New Orleans often waited 20 or 30 meters before they decided someone had beaten the gun and fired the recall. So the sprinters were many times emotionally committed to their races only to be wrenched out of them. None of this was pretty. Lewis had both calves briefly cramp during one false start. And since all the 100-meter races were run into a breeze, the times were unremarkable.
By the men's 100 final, things seemed barely under control. First, the field was recalled because Witherspoon had not anchored his blocks, and at the gun they, and he, had slipped.
Mitchell, who was third in the 1991 world championships behind Lewis and Burrell, hated to hear that recall gun. "That start was my best," he said later. "I've been concentrating on my start to take Leroy and Carl out of their comfort zone, and I wanted that one." He willed himself to keep his composure.
He needed it through two more aborted starts, the latter charged to Burrell. Burrell showed his exasperation, bounding high and wincing, when the recall gun sounded. "That was my race right there," he said.
Then, almost unexpectedly after all the draining recalls, they were off. Lewis felt he had a good start, for him, but Mitchell was out fastest. "Everything fell into place," he said. "I had good acceleration, and at 50, I shifted gears."
Marsh, who had run the season's second-fastest time, 9.93, had kept close. Burrell, who had to be cautious on his getaway, lest a second false start disqualify him, boomed up from the pack in mid-race, bringing Witherspoon with him. Feeling them beside him, Marsh, in his words, "had a terrible reaction. I pressed. That cost me, and that's life."
Witherspoon and Burrell gained eagerly on Mitchell, whose strength has not been his finish. As they did, Burrell thought what he always thinks in the last 20 meters: "I thought Carl was going to come at any time."
Lewis was almost two meters behind. There have been occasions when he has made up more, over less ground. But he knew he would not find what he needed.
"I was dumbstruck at Carl," Burrell said. "The race went to the men who still had legs in the final."
They were Mitchell, in first in 10.09; Witherspoon, an inch behind in the same time; and the leaning Burrell, third in 10.10. Marsh completed the relay team with his fourth-place 10.14.
Lewis seemed to ease in the final yards and was sixth in 10.28. "I was sure I could do well today," he said. "I thought I would make the 100-meter team." When it hit him that he had not, Lewis went hollow-eyed for a moment, and then that was the end of that. Minutes later he was remarkably graceful in speaking of his race, and his remaining events, the 200 and the long jump. "I don't think the false starts meant anything more to me than anyone else," he said. "I was just flat. Now I have to rest and go on." The final irony: On the day Lewis learned that he couldn't run the 100 in Barcelona, Ben Johnson, his old nemesis, learned that he could, placing second in the Canadian trials in 10.16.
The women's 100 mirrored the men's. It had several strong contenders and a 1984 Olympic champion, Evelyn Ashford, now 35, who, like Lewis, was trying to summon one more good race when it counted most. Lined up against her were Gwen Torrence, the silver medalist in the 1991 world championships; Gail Devers, the 100-hurdles silver medalist in those world championships; Carlette Guidry, the powerful 1991 TAC champion; and Michelle Finn, the 1990 TAC champion.
"I didn't know if I could last the rounds," said Torrence. "There's a pain behind my knee, and the more I favor it, the more I strain my hip flexor. Third place would have done me just fine."
The women endured a false start before their final as well, and then began in earnest. Devers led at 50, but Torrence was with her. "I felt good to 60," said Torrence. "Then I lost all form and just ran desperately for the line. I think we all did." She beat Devers by half a meter, 10.97 to 11.02. That left one spot. Guidry and Ashford leaned for it.
"It was a matter of who kept her head in the race," Ashford would say. "I wasn't sure. I thought I was fourth. I dipped my shoulder and hoped."
She was third, in 11.17 to Guidry's 11.18. "I made it, whooo!" said Ashford exultantly. "It's a gift. God gave it to me." God and that Ashford spirit have taken her to fifth place in the 1976 Olympic 100, to gold in '84, to silver behind Florence Griffith Joyner in '88, and now onto the '92 team. "My last Olympics." she said.
For many on the first weekend in New Orleans, the suffering seemed to overpower the joy and relief of the men and women who escaped on to Barcelona. There was javelin thrower Karin Smith, 36, favored to make her fifth Olympic team, turning away after her first throw in the preliminaries with a grisly bulge in her right shoulder; she had dislocated it. There was sprinter Andre Cason, leadoff man on last year's U.S. world-record-setting 4 x 100-meter relay team, going down during the first round of the 100 meters with a shout and a torn Achilles tendon. There was 1990 NCAA heptathlon champion Gea Johnson blowing out her patellar tendon in the heptathlon high jump. There, indeed, was the heptathlon world-record holder, Joyner-Kersee, watching Johnson, who is her training partner, being carried off ashen and weeping, and fearing for herself. Perhaps because of that fear—and dehydration that had her on an intravenous drip between events—Joyner-Kersee almost went down in the turn of the heptathlon 200, the very point in the race where she strained a hamstring and fell in last year's world championships. She recovered and drove on to finish in a solid 23.67. "It was mental," she said of her stumbling. "I went into the turn, and my arms just stopped. I thought what happened in Tokyo was behind me, but I guess it wasn't."
Everywhere, deep feelings proved overwhelming. After their respective 100-meter finals, both the men and women had been led to a dusty area under the stands to change shoes, put on their sweats and begin to come to terms with what had taken place. Burrell, who had made the team, embraced his friend Finn, who had not. Softly, intently, Burrell spoke into Finn's ear, pulling away every few seconds to see her face. Knowing what she was enduring, what he had escaped, he hugged her once more, still talking, as she buried her face in his shoulder and cried her heart out.
The 32 qualifiers for the men's 400 also had to deal with a wide range of emotions because of Reynolds's quest to compete. He had sued the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), claiming he was falsely accused two years ago, because of faulty drug-testing procedures, of taking an anabolic steroid. The IAAF, the international governing body of track and field, had suspended Reynolds, but on May 28 in Columbus, Ohio, U.S. District Judge Joseph Kinneary granted him a temporary restraining order. Last Friday, Kinneary granted Reynolds's application for a preliminary injunction, and a wild legal scramble was on. The other runners in the 400—with the exception of Reynolds's brother, Jeff—feared that if they competed against Reynolds, the IAAF would ban them from competition. Kinneary's ruling was overturned by federal appeals Judge Eugene E. Siler Jr. in Cincinnati on Friday afternoon. Reynolds and his attorneys then turned to U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who ruled on Saturday afternoon, shortly before the preliminaries of the 400 were to begin, that Reynolds could run.
TAC, hoping to get the issue before the full Supreme Court, postponed the prelims until Saturday evening and then until Sunday at noon, but on Saturday night the court let Stevens's ruling stand. Once again, this time hoping for a resolution with the IAAF, TAC postponed the start of competition until Tuesday. On Monday TAC officials said it appeared likely that the IAAF would not penalize those who raced against Reynolds, but it also seemed likely that Reynolds would still be barred from the Olympics if he qualified.
Sunday's other events, thankfully, brought some pleasant moments, especially for 400-meter hurdlers David Patrick and his wife, Sandra Farmer-Patrick. Their memories of the 1988 trials could hardly have been more ghastly. Sandra ran out of her lane in her semifinal and was disqualified. David ran 47.75, the seventh fastest of all time, yet finished a devastated fourth, .03 behind Kevin Young.
In New Orleans their finals were 15 minutes apart. Sandra was up first, glittering in a blue, red and silver sequined two-piece outfit with a red chiffon skirt that made her seem a Bourbon Street Tinker Bell. Farmer-Patrick really blazed, roaring away in the stretch to win by 10 meters, scaring her American record of 53.37 with a 53.62.
David, in humdrum black, was two lanes inside the favorite, who was none other than his 1988 tormentor, Young. Patrick closed dramatically but ran out of race a few meters before he could overhaul Young, who won in 47.89 to Patrick's ecstatic 48.01.
The favorite of the sunblasted crowd in New Orleans was Joyner-Kersee, who gave them her best, ragged though it was. Her first heptathlon long jump was barely over 20 feet (her best is 24'5½"), and her second was a foul. Then, on her last, she hit 22'10¾" to pad her lead. After a winning javelin throw of 153'3", she went to the concluding 800. "Bobby wanted 2:14," she said of her voracious husband and coach. "I gave him a look." Her 605-point lead let her indulge in the luxury of starting slowly and easing off. Yet she looked haggard at the end. She ran a 2:32.53 and still won by more than 400 points, with 6,695.
"After the 800, Bobby asked if anything was wrong," said Joyner-Kersee. "I said I just didn't want to push it too much. I always have my taskmaster yelling his expectations, but I'm determined to keep all this fun." The way she looked after the 800, the message of New Orleans might as well have been: If it's fun you want, we can't help you.