A reverent hush fell upon Zurich's Letzigrund Stadium on the night of Aug. 16 as the 110-meter hurdlers settled into their blocks. The air was hot and muggy, a portent of the rain that would blow across the track in gray sheets an hour later. But for the moment, all was still. The pole vaulters turned to watch, as did the high jumpers and long jumpers. In the middle of the track, in lane 4, Roger Kingdom was surprised to find that he was nervous.
"It was strange," he said later, "because I had been perfectly calm all day. But I had never faced a field that strong. Not even in the Olympics."
Over the next five days, track and field caught fire as it had not done since last year's Seoul Olympics. By Sunday, three world records had fallen, and two of the most revered names in the sport's history, Renaldo Nehemiah and Henry Rono, had been erased from the record books. Kingdom's magnificent performance presaged the end of an era.
He would have been satisfied just to have won in Zurich, for despite the absence of Nehemiah, who had pulled out in a dispute over his appearance fee, the field of seven was the fastest ever. Besides Kingdom, the gold medal winner in Seoul, it included Colin Jackson of Great Britain and Tonie Campbell of the U.S., the silver and bronze medalists, respectively, in Seoul, and two-time world champion Greg Foster.
Even so, it was not like the 26-year-old Kingdom to worry. He is one of the few competitors on the circuit who has proven himself willing to race anybody, anytime. In the 26 days leading up to Zurich, Kingdom had run in London; New York; La Coru�a; Spain; Los Angeles; and Grosetto, Italy. But the toll on his body had been enormous. By the time he got to Zurich, Kingdom was worn down by bronchitis and allergies.
There was one false start, by Tony Jarrett of Great Britain. False starts are often distracting, but this one gave Kingdom a crucial insight. "I noticed my first step was too long," he said. "That was because my butt was too high. So I lowered my butt until my body was parallel to the ground. That enabled me to attack the first hurdle."
Kingdom's start has never been his strongest point. In even his best races he has trailed early before gathering momentum midway. Breaking Nehemiah's eight-year-old record of 12.93 would require a complete race, from gun to tape. Hoping to improve, Kingdom had spent the previous weekend in Rieti, Italy, practicing with sprinter Lee McRae, one of track's slickest starters.
The workouts paid off. Kingdom got a better first step than anyone else in the field. Indeed, he seemed almost unprepared for it, and had to adjust his stride at the first hurdle, which he knocked over. Though he scraped the second and banged the fourth, Kingdom knew by the third hurdle that he was in control of the race. "I knew I would win," he said, "if I didn't get hurt."
That wasn't a concern until he reached the tenth and final barrier. That one Kingdom clobbered. "It caught me right behind the knee," said Kingdom.
His coach and girlfriend, Joy Shepard, who watched the race on television in Pittsburgh, where she and Kingdom live, saw Kingdom's collision with that tenth hurdle as a blessing in disguise. "When you're at the brink of disaster, that's when you do your best," she said. "Roger bore down when he hit that hurdle. It may have given him the record."