His head lolled from side to side. His eyes stared vacantly wherever his head took them. For all the lack of expression, he had the look of a desperate man. His slender thighs rose up, his legs reached out, but the step was short. The lift, the almost unbelievable lift that so often had brought his watching countrymen to full Gallic throat, was not there. A good 20 yards ahead of his nearest rival, Michel Jazy gamely plunged through the wool yarn stretched across the four-lane track in August Bonal Stadium but before anybody looked at a watch, the truth was known. The national hero was a failure.
Jazy's time for the 1,500 meters was 3:36.3, not good, because it only equaled his own European record and was merely the third-fastest 1,500 meters ever run. It was, furthermore, all of seven-tenths of a second off Herb Elliott's world record—hardly a treat for a crowd that had already been told by the public address announcer, "This could well be a record. Let's hope for it."
Michel Jazy has just turned 30. For six years now he has been as important to French national pride as Algerian oil, its delta-winged Concorde, which will fly 1,500 mph at 18,000 meters "pour limiter les effets du 'BANG' " and its women, whose chic is still unchallenged by the miniskirt. The pressures of his position sometimes have been unbearable for Jazy, but as he got ready for his great effort last weekend he seemed not only to be enjoying his predicament but to be digging himself deeper into it. He dropped hints. At Rennes, where the year before he had set the world mile record, he ran a fast 1,500 meters and said, "I am ready." You could practically hear the nation turn on.
The August Bonal track, as good as any in France, sits in the middle of a huge Peugeot car manufacturing complex in Sochaux, an Alsatian city which, in turn, snuggles down between the Vosges and Swiss Jura Mountains at the bottom of a long, lush valley. Paternalistic Peugeot owns the track, along with almost everything else in Sochaux, where its 25,000 workers live in Peugeot housing developments and play on any of dozens of Peugeot teams. As Gaston Pretot, manager of the company's 165-man track team and himself an 8-to-4 man in the plant says, "Everything we eat, even that is Peugeot."
But not M. Peugeot himself could guarantee the condition of the track. For seven days the weather, usually changeable, held steady. On the eighth day Pretot cast an eye at the sky and said, "As long as the wind keeps up we're all right. When it stops, I worry."
He had lots to worry about. Radiodiffusion-Television Fran�aise, the national network, had announced that it was cutting the race in live on its 8 o'clock Saturday night news broadcast. All over France people who had never seen a track and field meet were talking about this race and predicting a new world record.
About the only person unaffected by all the excitement was the new Jazy. Behind the wheel of his cream-colored Peugeot with black convertible top, he made the tiring trip from Paris in five hours, arriving at noon Friday. He worked out easily for an hour that afternoon, repeated the performance on Saturday morning and retired to his quarters in the H�tel de France, a sequestered pile of gray stone and long shutters. Directly under his room the local electrical company workers had their annual banquet and sang, among other clever things, the uproarious chanson, "Swallow just a little at a time." It could be heard in the next canton, but Jazy slept like a hibernating bear.
When he arrived downstairs refreshed at 5:15 p.m., the once famously edgy athlete announced that he had been studying the Americans and had learned to relax. Over a cup of caf�, he explained with disarming candor that three weeks before he had been biting his fingernails, snapping at his wife and would not have spoken to a reporter for all the records in the book, including the triple jump. "But I am in shape," he said, "and when I am in shape I am relaxed."
The nervous tension and the responsibility of being a national hero did not really hit Jazy until he stepped out on the track 15 minutes before race time. Then he bit his nails, and for a few minutes he hung limply over stacked hurdles, looking very much like a seasick man at the rail. He had placed himself in the position of Babe Ruth pointing at the center-field stands, but his task was infinitely harder. Ruth had hit homers before. Nobody had run as fast as Elliott.
The wind blew away the clouds and then at 8 in the evening calmed to a whisper. It was refreshingly cool on the track, though not cold. Jazy, given the inside lane, whipped through 400 meters in 56.4 (to Elliott's 58.2), 800 in 1:56.2 (to Elliott's 1:58.8) and 1,200 meters in 2:54.4 (to Elliott's 2:54). By the middle of the third lap Jazy was all alone; his competition never developed. How could it at that pace? As he glided in that flowing, seemingly effortless style of his around the last curve and down the home stretch, the spectators shouted in unison, "Al-lez! Jaz-y!, Al-lez! Jaz-y!"