Ten miles into Saturday's Rotterdam Marathon, John Graham of Scotland, the race's 1981 champion in 2:09:28, began to edge away from the field. Normally that has a salubrious effect on a competitor. Not Graham. Not this time. He turned, saw the 15-meter margin he'd gained and spread his arms wide, palms up, as if to say, "What have I done wrong?" and let the pack catch up.
Marathoners are almost like milers now. Graham was in the race as a rabbit, to set a world-record pace for half the distance, then drop back and eventually out. The only trouble was that the rest of the pack knew it. They had followed him to a 10-kilometer split of 30:21, a second faster than Alberto Salazar of the U.S. had run to that point in his world-best 2:08:13 in New York in 1981. But a few kilometers later it seemed everyone started to think things over. The pack slowed and let Graham go. That was when he began his arm-waving. To be any help at all, he had no choice but to slow as well.
"The race changed," said Rob de Castella of Australia. "It went from fast to tactical. Everyone was conserving, setting himself up, concentrating only on waiting for the right time to make a break."
The runners' caution was a measure of the race's pressure. This is what often happens in Olympic track events. No one wants to exhaust himself by setting the pace, thus risking being outkicked at the end. It's an expression of the mutual respect of all the contenders and of how much each wants to win—purely win, and hang the final time. This wasn't the Olympics, but it was clearly a historic confrontation, being the first marathon involving Salazar, the record holder (insofar as there can be a true record in marathoning, where race courses vary as much as golf courses), undefeated in all four of his marathons (three New Yorks and one Boston), and de Castella, the second fastest ever with his 2:08:18 in Fukuoka, Japan, in late 1981. They weren't alone. Also in the first group of six or seven was Carlos Lopes of Portugal, the 1976 Olympic 10,000-meter silver medalist, who had been second in the World Cross-Country Championships three weeks before (Salazar had been fourth in that race and de Castella sixth). There, too, was Rodolfo Gomez of Mexico, the defending champion, who had driven Salazar to the final quarter mile in last October's New York City Marathon. In fact, of all the claimants to being the best marathoner going, only Toshihiko Seko of Japan, who had won in Tokyo in February with 2:08:38, was absent. "It's going to be the most competitive marathon ever run," de Castella had said.
While milers seem to rise in pairs, as did Bannister and Landy, Ryun and Liquori, Walker and Bayi, Coe and Ovett, the marathon has had a single line of succession, from Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, the 1960 and 1964 Olympic champion, on through Derek Clayton of Australia, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers of the U.S., Seko and Salazar. The spectacular rise of de Castella, who won the Commonwealth Games marathon in Brisbane last fall over a rough, hilly course, beating the formidable Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania in 2:09:18, meant that for the first time in 30 years the two fastest-ever marathoners were racing at their best at the same time.
Yet Salazar and de Castella had followed a serpentine road to Rotterdam. Both are represented in race dealings by the same agency, IMG, which you'd think would help them get together. But when IMG plotted a match race in Brisbane, the Australian Amateur Athletic Association and the International Amateur Athletic Federation quickly moved to squelch it, seeing the role of the agency as a fundamental threat to their control of the sport.
How can this be simply explained? First by noting the eternal weakness of runners, their passion for that ultimate competition, the Olympics. As with all surpassing loves, it has made them vulnerable. Amateur officials always have been able to say to runners, "Do as we wish, or we'll disqualify you from the Games." Runners always have been forced to hang there, between choosing the Olympics and progress.
Until lately. Recent relaxation of the rules on accepting money for performances, brought about by the amazing increase in mass road racing and a concomitant flood of corporate sponsorship, has given promoters and agents the opportunity to round up the best athletes and create profitable races for them that might eventually equal the Olympics in appeal. In any case, such races will not be the traditional national championships and international dual meets that the established authorities want the best athletes to run.
So, instead of saying you can't go to the Olympics if you take money for running, the IAAF has begun saying you can't go to the Olympics if you use an agent to get the money. Thus, IMG's planned Brisbane race was denied official sanction. Enter Rotterdam. Its energetic pursuer of athletes, Michel Lukkien, had been inviting and reinviting Salazar and de Castella since last summer. It's an established race, approved by the Dutch authorities, on a fast course. "I made four trips to the U.S.," said Lukkien. "I told IMG, 'Your image is terrible. Athletes want to run, not wait and wait.' "
Then de Castella committed himself to run, and the rest was easy.