When we remember New Orleans, it will be for the heartbreak. Time and again the crowds at the 1992 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials were transfixed by champions running or vaulting in pursuit of their dreams, or for justice, or for millions of dollars. And time and again they saw dreams dashed, justice thwarted, fortunes squandered. There was classic racing, crowned by a near world-record 19.79 in the 200 meters by the masterful Michael Johnson. There was wild gratification, as displayed by Jim Spivey in winning the men's 1,500 after years of injury and fourth-place finishes. A tough, seasoned team was chosen. But it was the losses, the mounting losses, that imparted a melancholy gravity to the occasion.
Four of the nine Americans who won individual world championships last year will not be going to Barcelona. A fifth, 100-meter champ Carl Lewis, will only be long jumping, having finished sixth in the 100 and fourth in the 200 in New Orleans. In the 110-meter hurdles, 1984 and 1988 Olympic gold medalist Roger Kingdom and '91 world champion Greg Foster didn't make the team. Middle-distance runners Steve Scott, Joe Falcon and Mary Slaney didn't make it, either. And even these losses, tearful and wrenching as they were, paled before that of Dan O'Brien, the most talented decathlete who has yet lived.
Last Friday night, after finishing the first five events of the decathlon with a record total of 4,698 points, O'Brien was relieved. He had sprinted the 100 and the 400 strongly, had jumped long and high and had put the shot a personal best of 54'5½", despite the fact that he was still recovering from a stress fracture of his right fibula. All that concerned him now, he said, was the pole vault. He had not vaulted in a meet all spring.
But the next day, after scoring solidly in the 110-meter hurdles and the discus, O'Brien warmed up well in the vault. On his last practice jump, he cleared 16'¾" with a foot to spare. With his lead a yawning 512 points, it did not enter the imagination that he would not win this decathlon from his friend and celebrated rival, Dave Johnson, by an embarrassing margin. Indeed, if O'Brien were to vault somewhere near his best of 17'¾", he would have an excellent shot at Daley Thompson's world record of 8,847 points. O'Brien passed four early heights and started at 15'9".
July 5, 1992
His first jump was an awkward somersault below the bar. He hadn't been able to control the bending pole and bailed out. "This scares me," said Fred Samara, TAC's decathlon coordinator, who was sitting with Mike Keller and Rick Sloan, O'Brien's two coaches. They all knew a decathlete scores no points if he makes no height. Jim O'Brien, Dan's father, knew it too. He had tried to take a picture of his son vaulting but found he was so nervous he couldn't press the shutter release.
On his second attempt, O'Brien rose encouragingly high over the bar but came down on top of it, sending it bouncing off the standards. He had one try left. Samara was ashen.
Twice O'Brien started his run and stopped halfway to the pit, sensing that his steps were off. After the second abortive attempt, he walked back, toweled off, took up the pole like a long lance and started his final approach. He slammed the pole into the box, swung up and began to stall. Well before he neared the bar, he knew he could not clear it. He kept a hand on the pole and curled almost into a fetal position before dropping to earth, his eyes shut, his face a mask of agony. He was suddenly in 12th place with only the javelin and the 1,500 remaining. They are his weakest events.
"I felt numb at first," O'Brien would say. He attributed the misses to pressure, to the way a man's chest becomes granite when he suddenly sees the abyss. "I wanted to turn to somebody and say, 'Hey, this shouldn't be happening to me. Do something. Somebody do something.' "
O'Brien went to a skybox at Tad Gormley Stadium and wept. Then he, Keller and Sloan huddled with decathlon expert Frank Zarnowski, who confirmed for them the awful, unbelievable truth: It would be impossible for O'Brien to make the team. Their decision to start at 15'9" now looked like the worst tactical blunder in trials history, with immense costs both competitive and financial for O'Brien (box, page 18). "You'd think they'd get something down, some mark, something in the bank," said Jim O'Brien with terrible wistfulness.
Yet there had been good reasons for Dan to let the bar climb past the early heights. The temperature was 91°, and it was hotter on the track. The heat and his stress fracture made it important that Dan not take too many jumps. Further, Team O'Brien believed that 15'9" was safe, mundane. "I jump that as an opening height in practice," said Dan. "I can't remember a day when I didn't clear that height."
"He made 16 feet in warmups," said Keller, "so we decided to come in one height below. You're talking about a 17'¾" vaulter. We felt confident about it. We'll take the consequences." O'Brien's coaches are good, sympathetic men, but it is O'Brien who will have to endure the consequences.
Johnson, meanwhile, climbed into first by clearing 17'¾". He then set an American decathlon best in the javelin with a towering throw of 244'8" and ran the 1,500 in 4:27.17 to finish with 8,649 points. In the trying, muggy conditions it was a superb score, and he will go to Barcelona as a lonely favorite.
O'Brien's failure was enough to shake one's faith in the U.S.'s time-honored, cutthroat, one-shot, first-three-finishers-go-to-the-Games, no-exceptions trials. "I don't know how good our system is," said Johnson, his tone combining yearning and anger, "if it doesn't get Dan O'Brien to the Olympics." Hearing this, O'Brien, who displayed affecting humor and grace to the trials' end, applauded wildly.
O'Brien met his end with no warning. Butch Reynolds, however, went to his fate deliberately, through a week-long gantlet of police escorts and ostracism by his competitors in the 400 meters (page 98). On June 20 the Supreme Court had barred TAC from enforcing an IAAF ban—the result of a hotly contested suspension for steroid use—on Reynolds's participation in the trials. The IAAF, stung, had then threatened to suspend the 31 other 400-meter men if they ran against Reynolds. While TAC officials pleaded with IAAF president Primo Nebiolo to relent, the runners blamed Reynolds for their fix.
In all of track history, six men have broken 44 seconds for 400 meters. Four of them were in the trials final. Reynolds, whose world record is 43.29, was in Lane 4, his eyes cloudy, green and hot. To his inside was NCAA champion Quincy Watts of USC, who had run 43.97 in the semifinals. Outside Reynolds were the 1988 Olympic champion, Steve Lewis (a best of 43.87), and the bronze medalist in Seoul, Danny Everett (43.98). Everett was one who had castigated Reynolds for jeopardizing the whole field to pursue his case.
"I tried to explain, tried so hard to make them see," said Reynolds, "that the injustice the IAAF was doing me—suspending me after I was exonerated by TAC's own doping review board—it could do to them, and that the IAAF threat to suspend them was wrong, and that we had to stick together to challenge it. But I couldn't do it. The money they could make running in Europe in the summer seemed to mean so much to them. They'd rather have one summer's financial gain rather than the rule of law."
It was more complicated, more human, than that for most 400 runners. The man most able to bridge the opposing camps was John Smith, who held the world record for 440 yards, who coaches Watts and who coached Everett and Lewis at UCLA. Smith was not insensitive to the IAAF's capacity for overkill because he was suspended in the mid 1970s for taking part in the International Track Association, the first, failed attempt to make track a professional sport in the U.S. "I was hung out to dry for five years," said Smith.
Smith told Watts that in the short run the IAAF he knew would proceed without mercy against any rebellious runners. He also told him that in the long run, if Reynolds prevailed in his cause and the IAAF's abuse of power were checked, the sport, and Watts, would be better off. Watts asked whether he should go long or short. "Based on my experience," said Smith at last, "I can't advise you to challenge the IAAF that I know."
And no 400-meter man did, save Reynolds and his brother, Jeff. When the athletes marched in for the first-round heats on June 23, few would shake Reynolds's hand. "The isolation was the worst then," said Reynolds. "I thought of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the victory stand in 1968. I thought of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Those guys had it hard. I can only admire their strength now."
While in the blocks before his first-round heat, he heard a spectator cry, "Make them pay, Butch!" and he did, blasting to a 44.58, an unprecedented time for a heat and a waste of energy. "The emotion was so great I couldn't hold back," he said, panting and exultant. In his quarterfinal that evening, he burned to a 44.68. Clearly he had the ability to transform anguish into performance, but for how long? "What we're witnessing is the outrage of an innocent man," said Reynolds's coach, Brooks Johnson, "but sooner or later he's got to hit the wall."
By the semifinals on June 24, a shift was occurring. Some of Reynolds's opponents were voicing grudging respect. Watts was so excited at having Reynolds in his semi that he flew to a 43.97, drawing Reynolds, who came in second, to what seemed a controlled 44.14. Reynolds seemed capable of capping his crusade with one last, angry, victorious run, although the IAAF was certain to throw out his Barcelona entry once it was submitted by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
In Friday's final Watts began tentatively, feeling fiat. Everett, in Lane 6, established a swift, even pace, and Lewis keyed on him. Reynolds dug out hard, feeling little rhythm but determined to substitute force of will. That never works in the 400. Reynolds led on the backstretch, but Everett and Lewis caught him on the last turn and strode smoothly ahead. Watts passed Reynolds in the stretch. Reynolds eased and lost fourth to Andrew Valmon.
Everett's winning time was 43.81, the second-fastest 400 ever run. "This was the culmination of years of learning," he said. Lewis ran 44.08 and Watts 44.22. Reynolds's 44.65 for fifth made him only a relay alternate, with no guarantee of running in Barcelona. "I'll go," he said, "but I won't try to make them let me run. How can I? I didn't earn it. I went crazy making my statement in the early rounds. I had nothing left."
He will pursue a civil suit against the IAAF, and one of his lawyers, John Gall, spoke intriguingly of extracting millions in damages from the international governing body. But a day after the final, Reynolds was in a gentler mood. "It's hard to know the effect I've had on how people feel about the issue," he said. "I wonder how many hearts I've touched."
Smith's for one. "Butch believes in what he's fighting for," he said. "A lot of us could take a lesson."
Slaney took a lesson in every round of the women's 1,500, practicing running with the pack. Precariously short on training after an operation on her left foot in March, the 33-year-old Slaney had withered in the 3,000 early in the week as PattiSue Plumer, Shelly Steely and Annette Peters ran away from her. But the 1,500 is her natural distance, and she knew if the pace was not killing, she could kick with anyone.
So Plumer, no fool, made the pace killing in the final on Sunday. Slaney ran lightly off her shoulder until the last back-stretch, where Regina Jacobs bolted past her. Then Suzy Hamilton passed Slaney off the curve. Jacobs won in 4:03.72, followed by Plumer in 4:04.04 and Hamilton in 4:04.53. Slaney was fourth in 4:05.43. Uncrushed, Slaney said, "You don't think this is the end, do you?" She spoke of moving to the 10,000 and of her idea of nirvana: a year of going through training uninjured.
Plumer dedicated her race to Reynolds. Hamilton dedicated hers to her puppy, Otis, who had died two days earlier.
Spivey's hopes in the men's 1,500 lay in blunting the kicks of the likes of Terrence Herrington and NCAA champion Steve Holman. The 5'10", 134-pound Spivey once was on the verge of greatness; in 1986 he ran the mile in 3:49.80. But at the '88 trials he was bumped twice on the last lap and narrowly missed third place. He also has had a mysterious glandular infection in his groin. A sore hip kept him out of last year's world championships. Two months ago, while carrying his two-year-old son, Sebastian, Spivey tripped. Twisting to keep from falling on the child, he landed hard on his left hip and missed another two weeks of training. "He's such a delicate little creature," said Dr. David Martin, one of TAC's medical directors.
And the 1,500 is hardly a race for the birdlike. After 200 meters, 3:49.31-miler Joe Falcon was tripped and spit out the back of the pack. He rolled up and gave chase from 50 meters back, savagely biting his lip. He would never catch up, because the pace was fast, and when Spivey sensed it slowing, he took over with 700 meters to go. Holman and Herrington kept close, but at a price: Their kicks were draining away. Spivey cruised down the stretch to win in 3:36.24, unconcerned that Holman had almost caught him, because he was celebrating as no other winner did, pounding his head on the track in prayer—"All I could say was 'Thank you, Lord,' about 20 times"—and weeping in the arms of one of his coaches, Ken Popejoy. The strength of Spivey's reaction meant that great emotions had been bottled up for far too long and that when he gets to Spain, he will be a man afire.
As will be 800-meter winner Johnny Gray, who has made two Olympic finals (he was seventh in 1984, fifth in '88) but approached neither of them in the condition he showed at these trials. Flowing past 400 meters in a lightning 49.46, Gray drove serenely on as if no one else were on the track and won going away in 1:42.80, the fastest time ever run on U.S. soil. One of Gray's Santa Monica Track Club teammates, George Kersh, had looked safe for second because Mark Everett had dawdled 20 meters back in sixth with 200 to go and Jose Parrilla was behind Everett. "You have to know," said Everett later, "that whatever Mark Everett is going to do is special. I let God use me as his instrument."
On the wings of angels, Everett roared around the pack and reached second in 1:43.67. Parrilla came with him and barely outleaned Kersh for the final spot, 1:43.97 to 1:44.00. "I made the admission ticket worth it," said Everett. "I can't wait to go back and look at the videotape."
Michael Johnson approached the 200 final with Carl Lewis, among others, rather more solemnly. "Give Carl credit," said Johnson just before taking it away. "He was the best once, years ago, but I expect a better race from Mike Marsh."
Johnson drew Lane 8, where he could neither see nor chase anyone until the stretch. "That upset me," he said later, "but face it, in Lane 8 you run your own race." Lewis would have traded. He was way inside, in Lane 2, where the tightness of the turn taxes his long legs. Still, Lewis started well.
Johnson hit the stretch just ahead of Marsh and opened up strongly to win by a meter, 19.79 to 19.86. Behind them, a picket line of desperate men hurled themselves at the line. The finish photo showed that former Arizona running back Michael Bates doesn't have to report to the Seattle Seahawks' training camp in July, because he's an Olympian. He was third in 20.14, inches ahead of Lewis's 20.15.
Johnson was only .07 from Pietro Mennea's world record of 19.72, which was set at altitude. Since the New Orleans air was so dense that you could barely tell where it ended and the Spanish moss began, Johnson had every right to crow, and to promise. "It's only a matter of time," he said. "Time and the right conditions."