What I had done turned out not to be the best way to deal with Mac," admits Powell now. "Other people will wilt. But he channeled all of what he calls my abuse just as I would have, into work, into performance. After a while you say, 'Hey, I'm an idiot to give him stuff.' But how was I to know?"
Wilkins won the Olympic gold medal later that year in Montreal, with 221'5". Until the final round, Powell stood second with 215'7". Then the East German, the 22-year-old Schmidt, harnessed some of his potential and reached 217'3", taking the silver from Powell. When the distance was announced. Schmidt shot his arms up in the air and turned toward Wilkins, who was standing nearby. Wilkins, who knew Schmidt only slightly but sensed a kindred spirit, caught him in a bear hug.
"It was one of those rare times when the Olympics did what they're advertised to do," says former U.S. women's shot put-record holder Maren Seidler, who witnessed it. "A guy's respect for another guy's come-through effort transcended nationality and ideology. And what happened? People were offended by it. Offended"
Indeed. In the ensuing madhouse of a press conference Wilkins was repeatedly pressed to defend his gesture. He had congratulated an East German for beating his own countryman. If that was not un-American, then it had to be an expression of dislike for Powell, right? It wasn't, but Wilkins could not fully convince the press of that, in part because he and Powell were known antagonists.
There, amid undercurrents of misunderstanding, the Wilkins-Powell rivalry was inflamed and the Wilkins-Schmidt friendship cemented. In the following years, both relationships would mature and entwine like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, becoming ever more gothic, unearthly, titanic.
Wilkins paid for his embrace of Schmidt. The commercial doors that had opened for fellow champion Bruce Jenner stayed shut to Wilkins. But that was nothing compared with how Schmidt suffered. A good deal more relaxed with Westerners than most East German athletes were, Schmidt had the perfect thrower's youth. His father, Ernst, had been the East German champion in the shot and discus. He eventually became the national throwing coach. Ernst provided the weights, the technique, the discipline; Wolfgang provided the talent. By 19, the young Schmidt was European junior champion and earned the dizzying privilege of traveling, of appraising the world with his own eyes.
At a meet in Cologne in 1976, he had a talk with Wilkins. This was accomplished through subterfuge, while the two of them danced near each other with a pair of mystified girls in a disco so Schmidt's G.D.R. chaperone would be out of earshot.
They started discussing Vietnam and moved on to the Berlin Wall. "I said, 'Many things are not good about my country,' " recalls Wilkins. " 'And many things are not good about yours.' "
Schmidt was touched by Wilkins's candor. " Mac didn't gloss over it," Schmidt has said. "He didn't defend himself. He didn't accuse me of the Hungarian revolution, the wall, the orders to shoot. He said, 'Yes, Wolfgang.' I had never met such a man before."
Schmidt went home and talked about his American friend, which drove his father nuts. Ernst Schmidt warned him incessantly that his contact with Westerners would cause him trouble with East German officials. "You are running into an open knife," he said.