Abdi Bile has the brightest smile in all of track and field. That much was evident after he won the mile at the New York Games last Saturday. But it wasn't Bile's time that sparked his joy—what's a 3:58.62 mile to a former world 1,500-meter champion? "I've been hurt for three years," said Bile, a 30-year-old Somali. "My knee, my gluteus, my lower back. There is no feeling as great as running pain-free."
Yet injuries have been only a small part of Bile's troubles. In 1990 his fiancèe, Shadia Nur, was visiting an uncle in Kuwait City when the Iraqi army rolled in. Trapped there for a year, she went long stretches of time unable to telephone Bile in the U.S. to assure him that she was unharmed. Bile has also watched from afar as his homeland has been ravaged by famine and civil war, and his family scattered in refugee camps in Somalia and Kenya. In 1991, 11 of his relatives drowned when the boat they were on capsized in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Kenya.
Through it all, Bile has been encouraged by the U.S.'s involvement in his country's plight. "I'm hopeful," he says. "Good things are starting to happen."
Since December, Bile has been running without pain. He and Shadia, who are now married, have moved to Albuquerque and are expecting their first child. "I'm so excited," he says.
Excitement was everywhere at the Reebok New York Games. As always, there was a bit too much wind whipping around the northern tip of Manhattan, snapping the flags above Wein Stadium, but the athletes—12 of them winners of Barcelona gold—were magnificent. The best race was the women's 800, thanks largely to Maria Mutola of Mozambique.
Two years ago Mutola came to the New York Games a virtual unknown. She was only 18 and attending Springfield (Ore.) High as part of an IOC-sponsored program. When she crossed the finish line first that year and jubilantly punched her fist into the sky, she might as well have been saluting her arrival as the next standout middle-distance runner.
On Saturday no one was surprised when Mutola turned into the backstretch 10 meters ahead of the field. Not until she charged up the homestretch did she feel someone closing on her. Mutola looked right and did a double take: It was her 19-year-old cousin, Tina Paulino, who was running her first race in the U.S.
Those who have accused Mutola of elbowing other runners will be pleased to learn that she doesn't spare anyone—not even kin. As the pair strained for the finish, Mutola drifted toward Paulino, holding her wide. With one last lunge Mutola reached the tape inches ahead of Paulino. Mutola ran 1:56.56, Paulino 1:56.62.
Paulino's performance grew more astonishing as she described her brief career. She took up running only 15 months ago, at the urging of Mutola's Mozambican coach, Stelio Craveirinha, who was amazed by the speed Paulino displayed on the basketball court. Six months later she ran the 400 in the Barcelona Olympics. Though her time (52.34) was not fast enough to advance her beyond the heats, it showed Craveirinha that they were on the right track. Last winter the pair moved to Pretoria to train, and Paulino became the scourge of the South African track circuit, winning all eight 800s she entered.
The meet's most ebullient winner was Jon Drummond—who, in the intense, stony-faced world of sprinting, is a refreshing oddball. "I do a little yelling and jumping around to loosen up," says Drummond. "The other runners think I'm crazy, but I am not a hot dog."
Drummond had won the 100 at both the Penn and Modesto relays this year, but he hadn't faced a Held as strong as the one in New York. He settled into Lane 3. In Lane 4 was Olympic 200 champion Mike Marsh. And in Lane 5, Carl Lewis.
Drummond bolted from the blocks first. As he rushed for the finish, he found himself in a familiar place of dread. "You just know Carl is going to come," he said.
When Drummond realized that he had reached the tape first, he turned to the crowd, opened his mouth as wide as he could and emitted a scream of delight. Surely a little hotdogging was not out of line. His time was 10.16, respectable—Lewis's world record is 9.86—but not as impressive as the scalps he claimed.
Despite losing, Lewis, in his first 100 of the year, was pleased. "I didn't start well," he said, "but I did compete well. By the nationals [next month] I'll be ready."
At the ripe old age of 31, Lewis has simplified his life. He has no books to write, no morning radio shows to do. "I spent my 20's as a workaholic," Lewis says. "Now I'm on vacation."
The biggest change is that Lewis won't be long-jumping. The decision was made for him last February, when his car was broadsided in Houston by a driver who had run a stop sign. The accident aggravated a condition in Lewis's back, which is chronically sore from the stress of long-jumping. No doubt his decision to drop the event will disappoint a lot of people, not the least world-record holder Mike Powell, an old nemesis.
The decision could have a profound effect on another event as well. The prospect of Lewis finally exploring the depths of his talent in the 200 is tantalizing. The race is perfectly suited to his long, elegant stride, but at major championships it follows hard on the heels of the long jump. Thus, whenever he long-jumped, he arrived at the 200 worn down. Already this year he has run 20.16, only .44 off the world mark. "It's going to be fun," says Lewis. "I'm excited to see what I can do."
So is everyone else.