As Rome's Olympic stadium resounded through the nine hot days and thunderous nights of the World Track and Field Championships, it came to seem a small planet unto itself, glowing in the pine-scented air over the Tiber like a javelin-proof bubble. It was inhabited by the fastest, strongest, toughest, most arrogantly confident men and women, and when the meet was over this luminescent world belonged to Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who took possession of it with unaffected grace.
She first won the heptathlon by a staggering 564 points, 7,128 to 6,564 for runner-up Larisa Nikitina of the U.S.S.R. She rang up the highest first-day total (4,256 points) in history, with a 12.91-second clocking (worth 1,138 points) in the 100 hurdles, a 6'2¾" (1,106) high jump, a 52'6" (928) put of the shot and a time of 22.95 (1,084) in the 200, and all were accomplished with an eagerness that bespoke goals transcending mere victory.
Joyner-Kersee, like her name, is a blend. Her years of hard, thoughtful training are the Kersee part, the expression of husband-coach Bob Kersee's hatred of talent lying fallow. The Joyner half is Jackie in competition. She wants to win, but having won, wants to go on. She wants to impress, but having performed gloriously, still wants to go on. The Joyner gift is her open joy in practiced, powerful movement, in improvement for its own sake, and it causes observers to presume, in error, that what she does is without personal cost.
The second day of the heptathlon, she continued with a 23'5¼" long jump (1,220 points) and a modest 149'10" throw in the javelin (777). Somehow, Joyner-Kersee doesn't seem warlike enough for the javelin. Even so, she was 64 points ahead of the world-record pace she had set last year in Houston.
But as she warmed up for the final event, the 800 meters, Joyner-Kersee suddenly felt tight and dizzy. "I drank some water and hoped not to die," she said. A 2:14 would break the record, and 2:11 would put her over 7,200 points. Her goal was 2:10.
When the gun sounded, Anke Behmer of East Germany seized the lead and controlled the pace. "It felt fast," said Joyner-Kersee. But the going was slow; the time at 400 meters was 68 seconds. "I got into a pace I just couldn't get out of," she said. She finished in 2:16.29. She had missed her world record by 30 points.
Both Jackie and Bob were puzzled by her fade. "I felt more was there, but...it wasn't," she said. "We adjusted her training to allow her to long-jump at the Pan Am Games [where Joyner-Kersee tied East Germany's Heike Drechsler's world record of 24'5½]," he said. "Maybe that had an effect."
It was left to fellow heptathlete Jane Frederick, 35, whose bronze medal was her first World or Olympic hardware in a devoted 22-year career, to make certain truths clear. "In the heptathlon, you have to be completely free to dig into yourself to the limit, to gut out that last bit in the 800," she said. "But Jackie knew she had the individual long jump still to come, and she knew she had the heptathlon won. So I'll bet that try as she would, her body was holding something back."
Joyner-Kersee's archrival in the long jump also was marshaling her strength. Drechsler had finished second in the 100 meters to teammate Silke Gladisch, but she skipped the 200 (a race in which she is ranked No. 1 in the world) to be rested for Joyner-Kersee's challenge in the long jump. Gladisch won the 200 with a sparkling 21.74, a bare .03 off the world record shared by Drechsler and Marita Koch, the 1983 champion, now retired.
Gladisch is coached by Koch's husband, Wolfgang Meier, and after the 200, she presented her gold medal, nicely wrapped, to Koch, who burst into tears. "We are like sisters," said Gladisch in partial explanation. "She has always been my idol. She had such a beautiful big stride. I try to imitate it, but my stride was never so beautiful."