The ideal of athlete as inspiration has been so beaten up by scandal, greed and lethargy that it is popular to say that a) all athletes are selfish, irresponsible millionaires and b) they always were, minus the millionaire part. It's hip to be cynical.
Then there is Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who last Saturday at a track meet in Edwardsville, Ill., not far from her hometown of East St. Louis, competed for the last time, in a long jump that was largely ceremonial. Her retirement at age 36 ended an 18-year career in which she took part in four Olympics and won three gold medals, held the world record in the long jump, and still holds the world record in the heptathlon.
Yet the measure of Joyner-Kersee's greatness came not from a stopwatch or the infernal charts that score the heptathlon. A fuller gauge was the purity of her efforts which seemed so often to rise from her soul, and the impact she made on her sport and on women. Her best qualities were on display in her last serious meet, the Goodwill Games heptathlon on July 21 and 22. Far past her prime and only modestly fit, Joyner-Kersee won with a courageous run in the 800 meters, the hep's final event, and one that she has always despised and feared. Come on, Jackie, just go with them, she told herself as she tried to stay with the other runners through the agony of the two-lap race. She cried at the finish, and her ever-present husband-coach, Bobby Kersee, cried even harder. "I can't believe it's over," he said.
It's common in this country to extol the rise of women's sports in the '90s, what with the birth of two pro basketball leagues and U.S. Olympic golds in women's hockey, soccer and softball. For all that, a debt is owed Joyner-Kersee, who helped make it cool for girls to play boys' games and play them hard. "All I ever wanted was to be able to compete," she says. "I don't take credit, because people came before me."
In the glow of her Goodwill triumph Joyner-Kersee apologized for high-jumping only 5'8", and laughed at her struggles in the 800. Her humility was, as always, in contrast to the hubris of the defensive back who turns a pass deflection into a 30-second dance or the sprinter who runs for 10 seconds and woofs for six months. She walked across a field that night in New York, illuminated by distant spotlights. Her USA jersey hung over her tights, and three young girls moved along in her shadow. Occasionally they would whisper and giggle, and their hero would laugh too, sharing her dream, their dream.