What she doesn't mention is that another British woman, Tessa Sanderson, won the gold, and their rivalry, occasionally bursting out in public, was intense and sour. Afterward she discounted Sanderson's gold in the light of the Soviet-led boycott and her own medical problems. (Because of the boycott, Felke hadn't competed in Los Angeles.) "There are only two javelin throwers," Whitbread said scathingly. "Petra [Felke] and Fatima." It was a less than charming comment, a reversion to the schoolyard Fatima.
But there might have been something to it because after the Olympics Whitbread beat Sanderson in seven straight meets. Their next big confrontation came at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
Reenter fate. Just before Christmas 1985, Gregg Whitbread was struck down by a rare illness called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which has symptoms similar to those of polio. The strain on the family was enormous. "Somebody had to be strong," Fatima says, "and I was the athlete, wasn't I?" For the four months that Gregg was hospitalized, her training schedule went by the board.
"I promised Gregg—the disease was leaving him like a slow-lifting fog—that I'd win the Commonwealth gold for him," recalls Fatima. "But I got beat by Tessa Sanderson."
Within a week, she made her best-yet throw of 237'1", in Gateshead, and less than a month later at the European Championships in Stuttgart, she broke Felke's world record of 247'4".
By last September's World Championships, Felke had regained the world record with her 258'10" in Leipzig, East Germany. Felke was ahead through the first three rounds in Rome, but Whitbread took the lead for good in the fourth.
There would be an unpleasant aftertaste. "When I got back to Britain, I was saddened that the first question I was asked by the press was, 'Do you use drugs?' " Whitbread says. She talks of the "wicked rumors and innuendos" that had followed her success, stories implying—with the help of her close friend and agent, Andy Norman—that she had used performance-enhancing substances. She angrily denies the drug rumors and points out that she was random-tested five times last year, twice at the World Championships, and passed each test.
Whitbread is not the sort to stay angry for long, though. "It was the great public reaction at home to my win that gave me the heart to put all that aside," she says. And when, last December, that same public voted her BBC Sports Personality of the Year, she accepted the award with a wink and a shimmy that was powerful enough, some joked, to keep the nation's TV repairmen working on popped tubes for weeks.
That party is over now, though, and almost as if on a schedule, Whitbread encountered another setback this summer. Just as her pre-Olympic training was getting under way, she got blood poisoning from infected teeth, and things were disrupted for three months. She sat out the British trials on Aug. 6 but was named to the Olympic team, along with Sanderson and Sharon Gibson.
Fatima, still recovering, is working hard to rebuild her strength and sharpen her technique. When asked for her Seoul forecast, Margaret Whitbread thinks carefully for a moment, then says with quiet understatement, "If Fatima can stay free from injury, I wouldn't like to be competing against her."