Dash to Glory

Aug. 10, 1992
Aug. 10, 1992

Table of Contents
Aug. 10, 1992

XXV Olympic Summer Games
Dream Team
XXV Olympic Summer Games/Point After

Dash to Glory

Gail Devers's victory in the 100 highlighted a heavenly week of Olympic competition

Ninety-five meters into the Olympic women's 100-meter dash, the crowd had quit cheering. The sprinters crossed the finish line to exhalations of disbelief, to stunned muttering. The question of who was the fastest woman in the world had just been decided. But no one could tell who she was. She herself didn't know. Here, in a heavenly grove atop Barcelona's Montju‚àö√òc, five sprinters had expected to reach a lonely pinnacle. Instead, they found themselves on a plateau crowded with virtual equals.

This is an article from the Aug. 10, 1992 issue Original Layout

Pale, powerful Irina Privalova of Russia and short, quick Gail Devers of the U.S. had started best. At 50 meters, Jamaica's Juliet Cuthbert and Merlene Ottey came on. If you demanded a deserving winner, Ottey, 32, was your woman. This seemed her last chance at gold. The most consistent sprinter of our time, she had won 57 consecutive finals over four years before being beaten in the 1991 world championships by Germany's Katrin Krabbe and by the woman who was closing fastest of all in Barcelona, Gwen Torrence, the U.S. Olympic trials victor.

Five meters from the finish, Devers was passing Privalova, Cuthbert was catching Devers, Ottey was catching Cuthbert, and Torrence was catching Ottey. The five seemed to merge at the line. Even the blurry, warped finish photo on the scoreboard, freezing the sprinters in the throes of their final efforts, was of no immediate help. But wait. If it's a sentimental favorite you want, look again at Devers, leaning there in lane 2, and listen to what she has endured over the last Olympiad.

Devers set an American record in the 100 hurdles in 1988 but suffered a mysterious decline that wrecked her Seoul Olympics that year—she didn't make the hurdles final—and ruined her health. Her weight fluctuated wildly. She lost vision in her left eye and had fits of uncontrollable shaking. With time and telling, Devers's bubbly candor now lets her describe her symptoms with zest. "I had three menstrual cycles in a month," she said last week. "I was always wearing two super plus tampons, and the blood was running down my legs."

After almost two years of bad diagnoses (diabetes, exhaustion), Devers at last discovered that she had Graves' disease, the hyperthyroid condition that has afflicted George and Barbara Bush and can be controlled with medication. But the medication, a beta blocker, is on the Olympic banned list, and Devers refused to take it. She opted instead for radiation treatments, and the side effects of those treatments began to eat away at other tissue in her body.

"My feet were swollen and oozing yellow fluid," Devers said with her eerie jauntiness. "I had little holes all over my skin." Her feet could not bear her weight. Her parents moved in with Gail to be able to carry her to the bathroom.

Astoundingly, neither Devers nor her doctors knew what was causing all this. A podiatrist insisted that she had an extreme case of athlete's foot. In March 1991 she was taken to another doctor in such a condition that he told her if she had walked on her feet for two more days, they would have had to be amputated. Only then did it dawn on anyone that Devers's body was reacting violently to the radiation for Graves'. The therapy was changed. Within a month she was able, painfully, to walk a lap of the UCLA track, in socks. She called it her first workout in more than two years.

Devers, 25, is coached by Bob Kersee, whose aspirations for his athletes expand as does the universe. He had her hurdling in May. Five weeks later Devers won the TAC 100 hurdles. Later in 1991 she won the silver in the 100-meter hurdles at the Tokyo world championships, and then cut the American record to 12.48. But the greatest comeback in modern track history wasn't enough for Kersee. He always believed that Devers's true talent was for the unimpeded dash, so this year she made the Olympic team in both the hurdles and the 100.

Before Devers went out to run the Olympic 100 final, Jackie Joyner-Kersee compressed all Devers's travail into two simple sentences. "You worked hard for this," she said. "You better get it."

And now Devers had made it to the finish line and knew only that the race was perilously close. Cuthbert beside her was saying, "You got it." Devers didn't quite trust her. What if she were wrong? But then the cameramen were rushing her, and the officials were saying yes, and she was hunting for Kersee, hearing him yelling but not finding him, running toward the voice, and finally she was in his arms, and he was saying, "You wanted it. You got it. You got it."

Devers had won in 10.82 against a one-meter-per-second breeze. Taking the wind into account, only world-record holder Florence Griffith Joyner (10.49) has ever run faster. Cuthbert and Privalova took silver and bronze with 10.83 and 10.84, respectively. Torrence was fourth in 10.86, and Ottey fifth in 10.88. No one has ever run so fast and placed so low.

Torrence, shut out of a medal despite running the best time of her life, spoke her angry mind, spoke perhaps the first thought of every defeated sprinter in this post-Ben Johnson age. "I think three people in the race were not clean," she said. "But Gail won it clean."

Torrence refused to name the three but said the evidence was clear to her. "As athletes, we just know who's on drugs," she said. "Everybody knew about Ben. I'd go tell them to their faces, but you don't want to be all over the papers."

That seemed an odd wish, since she was speaking to reporters. They walked over and repeated what she had said to Devers, Cuthbert and Privalova. Devers said her only drug was the Synthroid for her Graves': "When you hear my watch beep, it's nine in L.A.—time to take my pill."

Cuthbert said, "Gwen's a sore loser. She had a bad day and is upset. I'm 100 percent clean and willing to take a blood test." Blood tests, unlike standard urinalysis, are believed by many to be harder to fool and far more sensitive.

In the midst of Cuthbert's reply, not knowing that Torrence had exculpated Devers, Bob Kersee erupted. "With all apologies to the Reverend Devers [Gail's father] for the language I am about to use," he thundered, "but anyone who believes Gail Devers has taken performance enhancing drugs can"

Privalova seemed to be Torrence's main target. Rather than take offense, she was interestingly muted. And oblique. "I don't think we should pay much attention to this thing," she said. "It is a matter of conscience."

Oh, that it were. What a relief it would be if the great question of synthetic strengthened could be left to individuals. If only each athlete could balance the danger drugs pose to health and to fairness, and choose wisely. But that would be expecting athletes to deny their own vital urge. The appeal of a drug that will make you better is as powerful as your own passion to improve, to win, to ascend.

And on Montju‚àö√òc, surely the most beautiful setting for any modern Olympic venue, the need to ascend, in metaphor or in fact, was inescapable. The crowds were lifted toward the track and pool and gym by escalators rising past waterfalls and pine woods. Is there a more cinematic image of mounting toward heaven than riding an escalator through mists? With a great light glowing from above? People were falling over each other to snap a picture of the Olympic flame when it appeared above the trees.

Then they amiably allowed themselves to be divided and herded through the Mediterranean heat and dust by far from angelic police on dappled gray horses. Improbably, standing against the crush, there was a man carrying a sign saying that Jesus died to save our souls. "Look at your faces," he said, in many languages and angrily, as if he would shame this crowd, turn it back, disabuse it of its pagan hunger. "Look at your faces."

Some people did look around at the throng—and saw faces eager to be a part of this festival of physical, earthly excellence. And someone called back, not defiantly, "We look pretty happy."

They seemed especially delighted to see Joyner-Kersee, a good Baptist who can also get physical, rise to the occasion of her third Olympic heptathlon. For eight years she has so ruled her event that she now battles not only fresh opponents but the best of her former self. She started superbly, with 12.85 in the 100-meter hurdles and 6'3¼" in the high jump, on schedule to approach her world record of 7,291 points, set in Seoul. But just as she was coming to believe herself ready to scale that peak, she put the shot 46'4¼", or about five feet less than she wanted.

Bob Kersee, who says that until 1990 he was too hard on Jackie, immediately scaled back the family goal. "Now it's not for the record," he said. "It's to win." Germany's Sabine Braun and the Unified Team's Irina Belova were clear threats, which was new. Since she took the silver in the '84 Olympics, Joyner-Kersee has never had a close, competitive heptathlon. If she has lost, it has been to an injury such as her dramatic cramp and fall in the turn of the 200 meters at the Tokyo world championships.

Thinking to toughen them mentally, Bob took Jackie and Devers to the bullfights the Sunday before their events. He is a student of the corrida. With the force of parable he told Jackie she had to be the matador, had to put herself over the horns of her opponents, draw back the sword and go in for the kill. "Only thing I don't want you doing," he said, "is cutting off their ears after they're dead."

The gentle heptathlete and the ebullient sprinter hated the spectacle and cheered, to Bob's dry dismay, for the bulls. "I don't need to act mean," said Jackie. "Not if I do what I'm capable of."

For that, she had to exorcise her Tokyo fall. She had almost reenacted it in the U.S. trials, windmilling her arms for five meters before resuming sprinting. "That wasn't really a flashback," she said. "I was hugging the inside of my lane so close I was almost on the line and had to tiptoe—whoopity, whoopity—so I wouldn't interfere with the runner inside of me."

She ran her turn in Barcelona without a trace of whoopity and finished in a solid 23.12. Still, she had not put away Braun and Belova, whom she knew to be strong in the late events, the javelin and the 800.

But first, to start the second day, Jackie had the long jump, in which she is world champion. "Just give me a seven," called Bob, pacing the stands, meaning seven meters, or 22'11¾", "and get out of here." Jackie took off about a foot behind the board and gave him 21'2½". She caught his stare and looked down.

Now Bob yelled that he wouldn't rest until she went 7.05, or 23'1¾". So Jackie chopped her steps near the board on her second try but sailed high and gave him 23'3½", and they were out of there. Then Braun fouled her last two tries and had to settle for 19'9", dropping to 350 points behind. Belova, meanwhile, jumped 22'4½" but was 239 points behind, and this heptathlon had become another Joyner-Kersee exhibition. A 147'7" javelin throw and a well-paced 2:11.78 in the 800 gave her a total of 7,044 points.

While she took a slow, relieved, chatty victory lap, Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion, told everyone around him that Joyner-Kersee had now proved herself "the greatest multievent athlete ever, man or woman." Again and again he marveled at how she had lasted. And she's not done. "Wouldn't it be great," Joyner-Kersee said, "to complete my career back on American soil, in Atlanta in 1996?"

Off to one side Bob Kersee was asked when they planned to start the family that Jackie sometimes mentions. "Well," he said, "she says she wants to do the worlds in '93, and then it's the sports festival in her hometown of St. Louis in '94.... I don't know. I guess if she rises up in bed one night and says, 'If you want a child, tonight's the night,' well, I'm going to take advantage of that."

Then he stood back and looked with—was it longing?—at this extraordinary woman who, once she ascended, just never wanted to come back down. Jackie seemed at that moment the Olympian for her age, lighter than air, above all meanness, an athlete to match Barcelona's celestial setting.

The same couldn't quite be said of the medalists in the men's shot put. Texas A&M's Mike Stulce threw 71'2½" to become the first American to win the event since fellow Aggie Randy Matson in Mexico City in 1968. Switzerland's Werner Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár, who had loomed as the biggest lock of the meet, put only 68'7¼" for fourth. The other medals were taken by the U.S.'s Jim Doehring at 68'9¼" and the Unified Team's Vyacheslav Lykho at 68'8½". None of them was exactly giddy about it. They knew, as they were led before the press, that their means of ascent were suspect.

Stulce finished serving a two-year suspension for an excessive testosterone level earlier this year. Lykho was stripped of his European championship bronze in 1990 for using a stimulant. Although Doehring had a testosterone case overturned by USOC arbitration on procedural grounds, he also was convicted last December in federal court in California of possession and conspiring to sell amphetamines. Indeed, he had made the U.S. team only three weeks after being released from a halfway house.

Stulce said that he was innocent and had a stack of proof but had been subject to "a witch hunt" by a system under which he had no rights, and that he had served his suspension for want of any alternative.

"Please say," came the question, "why we should believe you."

Stulce, having heard that tone before, didn't try. It was left to Doehring to say that the sport needs both drug testing and protection of athletes' rights. "We need that balance," he said, and added, in echo of Privalova, "I wish we could focus on the hard work that goes into these performances and leave the other aside."

So, gladly we return to the track, to the men's 100, where the crucial ingredient was not drugs but seasoning. The semifinals, only 1½ hours before the final, revealed a clear favorite when Leroy Burrell of the U.S. ran down 32-year-old Linford Christie of Great Britain to win their semi in 9.97. Christie has paid his dues, finishing second to Carl Lewis in Seoul and fourth in Tokyo in a European-record 9.92. He had to be talked out of quitting the sport then and was a controversial choice for British team captain because, in the words of one critic, he has a perfectly balanced temperament, with a chip on each shoulder. "Am I angry?" Christie would say when asked about this. "Do I look angry?"

In fact, taking his mark before the final, Christie looked composed, as if resigned to his fate of always finishing second to some American flier. The starter held them in the set position for an eternity. Burrell flinched but forced his feet to stay in the blocks. Christie, in the next lane, reacted to the motion and jumped the gun. But it was Burrell who was rightly charged with the false start. Another and he would be out. When the runners were reset, the U.S.'s Dennis Mitchell felt uncomfortable, and he called the field up yet again, to the crowd's whistles.

Burrell's face seemed a portrait of nausea. Christie's was not. He had already put the scare behind him. "The others were getting a bit ratty with false starts," he said. "I stuck to the business of getting from one end of the track to the other."

Namibia's Frank Fredericks started best but couldn't escape Christie, whose eyes grew into wild, hard dots. "Apart from Carl Lewis," Christie would say, "I think I've got the best second-half surge. So I used it." He ran away to glory, winning by half a meter in 9.96 over Fredericks (10.02) and Mitchell (10.04).

Burrell wasn't able to mount a charge. He had committed a false start in the U.S. trials and said then that it had killed his race. He had barely recovered to make the team. Now he had done it again, finishing fifth in 10.10, and didn't stick around to discuss it.

Mitchell, who didn't get the start he needed to control the race, still exulted in his bronze. "Hey, when I get home, people in Gainesville [Fla.] will want to bite this medal like it was real gold," he said.

When Mike Conley was at last able to kiss his own gold medal for the triple jump—eight years after taking silver in LA.—he was still trembling. On his final jump Monday he had slammed into the sand eight inches beyond Willie Banks's world record of 58'11½". Conley had leaped 59'7½", knew it, felt it, yelled it out and then turned to find it wouldn't count as a world record. The wind was 2.1 meters per second. The allowable is 2.0.

A nice cool wind would have helped the women marathoners on Saturday. No one knew what finishing the race with a three-mile grind up Montju‚àö√òc would do to the runners. No escalators for them. The evening was terrible for running, in the mid-80's and humid. The early pace seemed cautious, yet world champion Wanda Panfil of Poland would place only 23rd, and 1988 Olympic silver medalist Lisa Ondieki of Australia wouldn't finish.

Two great stayers, Valentina Yegorova of the Unified Team and Yuko Arimori of Japan, waged a slow, painful race, each trying to break the other when she sensed a hint of weakness or felt a blessed moment of strength. They were almost within the shadow of the stadium when the more muscular Yegorova forced herself to one last surge and drew away to win by a bare eight seconds, in 2:32.41. Neither runner could muster anything but a hollow grimace when it was finally over.

Behind them ran 37-year-old Lorraine Moller of New Zealand. Four days earlier her ex-husband, 1968 U.S. Olympic marathoner Ron Daws, had died of a heart attack. "The best I could do to remember Ron was to run as he taught me," said Moller. "He loved this kind of race. He always said the seconds you give up early you gain back in minutes in the end."

Moller had duly hung well back and then worked up to third before 20 miles. But she needed one more minute. "And there was no catching anybody," she said, "once you got to that hill."

She finished in 2:33:59, the bronze a worthy memorial to both a good teacher and a race wisely run. Moller's expression as she received it might have been that of almost all who strove upon Barcelona's Olympic mountain. She showed far less joy than blessed relief.

ILLUSTRATIONPHOTOJOHN BIEVERPrivalova (second from left) got a jump on Devers (second from right) at the start, but in the end it wasn't enough.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThough the camera may seem to say otherwise, Devers (foreground leaned just enough to defeat Cuthbert (3).TWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLERAfter the 100, Cuthbert (1042), Ottey (1058), Torrence (1772) and Cuba's Liliana Allen, like all the fans, had to check out the scoreboard video.PHOTOJOHN W. McDONOUGHWhen it became clear to Devers (1687) that she had won, she dashed into Kersee's arms.PHOTOPETER READ MILLER[See caption above.]PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNJoyner-Kersee's 6'3¼" in the high jump helped her hold her first-day heptathlon lead.FOUR PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERJoyner-Kersee won despite her struggles in the shot put, in which she threw only 46'4¼", about five feet short of the goal she had set for herself.PHOTOGRAY MORTIMORE/ALLSPORTStulce came back from a drug suspension to give the U.S. a surprise gold in the shot put.PHOTOBILL FRAKESChristie (695) won the 100, shattering the golden hopes of Burrell (left) and Mitchell.PHOTOJOHN BIEVERCuba's Javier Sotomayor did not have his best day, but he won the high jump with a leap of 7'8".