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They began in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium at 3:05 last Sunday afternoon under a blue Finnish sky. Ahead lay 26 miles, 385 yards of racing across an archipelago of granite islands in the Baltic Sea. Although marathons traditionally conclude major games, this one was the first final of the first World Championships in track and field outside of the Olympics. That was satisfying and proper because these marathoners, 62 of them from 30 countries, were women. Eighty-seven years after the first Olympic marathon for men, women finally were equals in the eyes of international officialdom.
But if this race was historic for its justice, Norway's Grete Waitz and those clustered around her as the field departed through the stadium tunnel would make it unforgettable for its performances. Carey May of Ireland and Rumiko Kaneko of Japan led early. At 6.2 miles, May and Canada's Jacqueline Gareau, the 1980 Boston winner, were in front in 36:13. "I was surprised that it wasn't very fast," said Waitz afterward. "We were sitting in the pack, watching each other."
Caution seemed well-advised. It was 70° and the air was dry, with that bright sun. The course rose and fell incessantly. "I don't think the time will be very fast because of the hills and the conditions," Julie Brown of the U.S. had said. "But I expect it to be competitive." That meant she had no intention of letting Waitz, who took the women's world record from 2:32:30 to 2:25:42 in three successive New York City Marathons, run away. Brown, who in June had won the Avon Marathon in Los Angeles with 2:26:24, becoming the fourth fastest woman ever, placed herself at Waitz's elbow. There she would stay for another 17 miles.
By 9.3 miles, Gareau had built an eight-second lead on a pack of 14. Waitz led the second group. "This was different from all other marathons I've run," she said. "It was my first all-female race. If we had been with men, I'd have begun faster because there is always someone to share the pace. Here, the final time didn't really matter. The idea was to win the Championship. It was my first tactical marathon."
As soon as the runners had departed the stadium, the grand march of the rest of the athletes began the opening ceremonies of this week-long meet. One hundred fifty-eight nations paraded in, more than in any Olympics. It was startling to realize that this was the first time since the 1972 Games that the best track athletes from the U.S., Africa, Europe and the U.S.S.R. have been able to strain at each other in championship competition without being driven apart by Olympic boycotts. Unlike swimming or cycling or practically any other Olympic sport, track and field had never allowed itself a world championship in non-Olympic years. There seems no good reason for that oversight, as the inaugural attracted almost every contender on the planet.
Two notable exceptions were Sebastian Coe, who had come down with another mysterious glandular infection, similar to the one that had prematurely ended his 1982 season, and Joan Benoit, the women's marathon record-holder, who chose to concentrate on shorter races this summer.
The International Amateur Athletic Federation found in Helsinki a politically neutral site and an athletically rabid one. Finland, thanks to its decades of wonderful distance runners, from Hannes Kolehmainen to Paavo Nurmi to Lasse Viren, has won more men's gold medals in Olympic track over the years than any other nation besides the U.S. And the Finns put on the most moving opening pageant imaginable. The stadium rang to Sibelius' Finlandia, the austere hymn of patriotism that was banned by the Czar before Finland declared its independence from Russia in 1917. And much as Nurmi had unexpectedly appeared at age 55 to carry the torch into the 1952 Olympics, this time it was Viren bearing the country's white and blue standard.
Eleven miles away, Ireland's Regina Joyce surged into the marathon lead. There was no reaction from the pack, save worry. "Should we go after her?" said Waitz to Brown. "She'll come back to us," said Brown. So Joyce reached halfway with a 30-second lead and continued on beside Helsinki's docks and central marketplace, past the salons of Marimekko and Arabia, her green uniform and red cheeks and bouncing, wet, raven hair impressing the area's fashionable onlookers as much as her courage.
Back in the stadium the second-round heats of the women's 100 meters were being run. One matched the two favorites, Marlies Göhr of East Germany and Evelyn Ashford of the U.S. Ashford displayed the remarkable mid-race acceleration that had deserted her when she lost to Göhr in the U.S. vs. G.D.R. dual meet in Los Angeles in June, and won by two feet, in 11.11. Then she immediately created doubt about whether she could do it again in the final when she grabbed her right hamstring. "Just a twinge," she said, looking unwell. "Where's the ice?" But it didn't augur well. Though she had won her semifinal in 10.99 on Monday afternoon, later that evening she was 50 meters into the final, just at the point where she should have been accelerating, when the torn hamstring, an old injury aggravated during the week, gave way. Göhr went on to win. Ashford was out of the race, out of the meet and out of commission for at least eight weeks.
Carl Lewis fared considerably better. He had looked around five times in his first-round heat in the men's 100 meters before winning in 10.34. In the second round he did it only once in a 10.20. He was on his way. The next evening, in the final, Lewis beat the new world-record holder, Calvin Smith, in 10.07. Emmit King was third, giving the U.S. its first medal sweep in the 100 in world competition since the 1912 Olympics.