The Olympics, it seems, are still with us, riling us, shaping the new track season. Of the 15 Olympic medals awarded last year for distances of 1,500 meters and longer, only one went to an American man. That was Brian Diemer's bronze in the steeplechase. Europeans, by pointed contrast, won 11. But last week at IAAF Mobil Grand Prix meets in Stockholm on July 2 and Helsinki two nights later, some balance was restored. In a surprising showing, U.S. men won five distance races against the Continent's best, and then nearly were upstaged by another L.A. Olympic presence. That was Romania's Maricica Puicǎ, who just goes on doing what she did in Los Angeles, beating Zola Budd and haunting Mary Decker Slaney.
But the athlete running through the richest context of Olympic associations was Henry Marsh. A third of the way through the steeplechase at the Helsinki World Games, Marsh was a yawning 10 seconds behind the leader, Peter Koech of Kenya, and his left shoelace was untied. "On the first turn, with 24 guys scrambling for position, somebody's spike just caught my lace," Marsh would say, "and I ran the whole race with it whipping my shin, or stepping on it, worrying about whether the shoe would come off."
Worrying, too, about Koech's pace, which was 2:38 at 1,000 meters. If he kept it up, he would break eight minutes, well below his Kenyan countryman Henry Rono's world record of 8:05.4. Marsh, in sixth place at that point, was 70 yards behind. "I was looking at the scoreboard to get his lap times," Marsh said, "and I knew he was either going to run a fast, fast race. Or die."
With four laps to go, Marsh had moved up to fourth, but was still nine seconds back. Then Koech began to look less nimble over the hurdles. Once he took a quick look back. Everyone in the field knew what that meant. Marsh began to close in. With two laps to go, he was second, only 15 yards behind Koech. He passed him off the next-to-last water jump, with 550 meters remaining.
Now all he had to deal with was his own star-crossed past. Marsh, arguably, has been the best steeplechaser in the world for as many as six years, but something always seems to happen. In 1979 it was mononucleosis. In 1980 it was the United States boycott of the Moscow Olympics. In 1981 he was forced around a water jump in the World Cup, finished first, then was disqualified for committing a foul. In 1983, in this same Helsinki Olympic Stadium—and this was looming large in his mind last week as he headed into the last lap—he fell as he went over the last barrier to lose at the World Championships. And in 1984, the year that all the frustration was supposed to be vaporized in the L.A. Olympics, the year he had planned to retire to give more time to his family and law practice, Marsh was sick all season and could barely train. Even so, he was third coming into the stretch of the Olympic final, but lost the bronze to the kick of teammate Diemer.
And now, in Helsinki, he was coming off the last turn and staring at the one remaining hurdle, a three-foot-high, sharp-cornered rail on steel posts, which weighs 200 pounds. He knew from bitter experience that if struck, the barrier would not yield. "I said to myself, 'You can't hit this one two races in a row.' " When hurdling, Marsh prefers to lead with his right leg. But his steps were such that he had to use his left. "I took it a little higher than usual," he said. But he took it. And he sprinted the stretch with teeth bared to win in 8:16.62. Koech held second in 8:21.52. Afterward, he went to Marsh and said, "Uh, I guess I went out too fast."
Marsh will race the best he can find in Europe, but selectively, to save something for the World Cup in Canberra, Australia, in early October. A big championship is what drives him. Even after such a stirring race as Helsinki's, he was subdued. "I would trade all these victories," Marsh said, with some poignance, "for Diemer's bronze medal."
Steve Scott, whose Olympic performance was also quite disappointing personally—he finished 10th—took the 1,500 in Stockholm with a sparklingly light-footed kick over the last 300 meters. His 3:37.30 was a couple of steps ahead of Britain's newly healthy Steve Ovett, who has recovered from a heart infection that caused his collapse at the Olympics and lasted until January.
But the gaudiest feather in any cap belonged to Denton, Maine's Bruce Bick-ford. In the Stockholm 10,000, Bickford ran away from both the world-record holder, Portugal's Fernando Mamede, and the Olympic champion, Italy's Alberto Cova. With true Maine candor, he at once said, "They're not in great shape right now."
Bickford may be right about that, but if he had let them get near enough to use their redoubtable kicks, they would have killed him. Instead, after passing 5,000 meters in a solid 13:54, he and Mark Nenow, of Lexington, Ky., began alternating the lead every 400 meters and took the lap times from 68s to 64s. "Mark and I planned to swap off after 6,000," said Bickford. "It worked out some." With six laps left they had built a 60-yard lead over Cova and Mamede in fifth and sixth. But with a mile to go, Nenow slipped back, and Bickford had to hang on alone.