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.
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.