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For three laps of the women's 1,500 meters in last weekend's U.S.-East Germany dual track and field meet, Mary Decker led East Germany's Christiane Wartenburg. Wartenburg is her country's record holder with a 3:57.71. Decker owns the U.S. women's best, 3:59.43. She ran with her head cocked to one side, her gaze slightly elevated as if in deepest thought, as if she were listening intently to something beyond the cheers echoing for her in the Los Angeles Coliseum. And she was. She was attending the voice of good sense. She was pacing herself through modest 400-meter splits of 64.3 and 2:09.9. She was saving something.
She never needs to do that when running against American women. Time and again her natural exuberance and nervous energy have taken her to 60-second opening quarters and huge leads, and it hasn't mattered if she slowed at the end, because there is no one in the West good enough to catch her. But there is in the East. Decker's career will ultimately be measured by how she does against women such as Wartenburg. Thus, this was a rare chance not only to race against a true peer but also to test the 1984 Olympic track for the only time until next year's Olympic Trials, to breathe the atmosphere, to imagine.
With 300 meters left, Wartenburg moved to Decker's shoulder, gathering herself. "I felt her there," said Decker. "I felt strong. I knew it was time to go."
She accelerated. Wartenburg went right with her. In the last turn the crowd was up, calling Decker home. So she kicked harder. Wartenburg could go no faster.
"There was such electricity that last lap," Decker said. "I felt so smooth and free, nothing could have kept me from doing whatever I wanted." She sprinted steadily ahead in the stretch and crossed the line in 3:59.93, eight meters clear of Wartenburg's 4:01.29. Decker's final 400 was a 60.3.
"Coming down the last 50 yards, I tried to visualize how it will be next year," she said. "I wanted to store it all up: the people cheering, the way I had run a smart race and how really, really good it was to take on good people and win."
There could be no clearer statement of the twin themes of this splendid meet in which the U.S. team took on the most organized, scientific and mysterious of athletic nations and did it on the Coliseum's new Rekortan surfaces installed for the Olympics. But as always, flesh and effort upstaged polyurethane. It was a meet of spectacular battles.
Even as Decker ran, Dave Laut of Santa Barbara, Calif. was shocking his good friend, shotput world-record holder (at 72'8") Udo Beyer of Potsdam, with his second put, a throw of 71'9". "I thought, 'O.K., he wins,' " said Beyer later. " 'I have no chance.' " Beyer had turned an ankle while practicing earlier in the week, and it was sore and tightly wrapped. He hadn't thrown as far as 71'9" all year. He'd fouled on his first two throws this day, and then his third was only 67'¾".
Still, this was Udo Beyer. "Seventy-one, nine may not be enough," said a worried Laut. "But he's struggling. His timing is off."
That was because Beyer has more strength than ever to control. This year he has raised his best bench press 22 pounds to 627. Now he took up Laut's heavily chalked shot, ground it into his black-stubbled jowl, bent low in the back of the ring and exploded across it. His timing had returned. The shot fell to earth at 72'10¾", a world record.