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 Montjuïc, five sprinters had expected to reach a lonely pinnacle. Instead, they found themselves on a plateau crowded with virtual equals.
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."