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Putting It All On The Line
Kenny Moore
August 22, 1983
Mary Decker won two golds and Carl Lewis three in track and field's magnificent first World Championships ever
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August 22, 1983

Putting It All On The Line

Mary Decker won two golds and Carl Lewis three in track and field's magnificent first World Championships ever

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Kratochvilova runs like a decathlete, her head bobbing, her rubbed-oak musculature seeming as much burden as engine, but she does not tire. She ran away from the 800 field to win in 1:54.68, only 1.4 seconds away from the world record of 1:53.28 she had set on July 26.

In the 400 final the next day, she and the U.S.S.R.'s Maria Pinigina moved with power down the back-stretch. Kratochvilova continued on to win, while teammate Tatiana Kocembova closed well for second. It had been such a competitive race, and Kratochvilova had been so controlled that the final time was a shock: 47.99, a world record, breaking the 48.16 East Germany's Marita Koch ran in 1982. Four days later, Koch gained a measure of equality with a spectacular 47.4 third leg of the 4 x 400 relay that gave East Germany a 3:19.73 win. Kratochvilova ran a 47.9 anchor to get Czechoslovakia past the Soviets for second.

"Now I know how hard this doubling is," said Kratochvilova, maintaining that her ease was illusory. "In Los Angeles, I'll pick one or the other."

There seemed a starkness to these Championships. The days were either piercing blue or cold rain. Moments of glorious mastery such as Kratochvilova's were always giving way to sickeningly swift disaster. Take Henry Marsh, approaching the last hurdle of the steeplechase on Friday, having worked himself smoothly up through the pack into second, feeling as strong and hungry as he ever has in a hard race.

Too hungry. All his attention was on catching leader Patriz Ilg of West Germany. "What you have to do before every hurdle is decide six or seven steps out which foot you're going to lead with," Marsh, the consummate technician, said later. "I was so intent on Ilg and cutting down his four or five yards that I just didn't make that decision. I got really close and realized I had to chop."

He took two stutter-steps, lost momentum and straddled the 200-pound hurdle. His trail leg struck, and he spun forward onto the track, landing hard on his left hip and side. Ilg sprinted away to an 8:15.06 victory, so overwhelming to him that he could not speak for five minutes, only weep.

Marsh wept, too, after he had pulled himself up and finished eighth in 8:20.45. "I had prepared so well. I would have broken the American record [his own at 8:15.68]. What's worse, I blew my chance to find out who is better, Ilg or me."

He spent a night without the release of sleep. "The only blessing," he said bleakly the next day, "is that after getting mono in 1979, hit with a boycott in 1980, getting disqualified after winning the World Cup in 1981, and now this, I'll be wild for next year."

Next to join the brotherhood of catastrophe was veteran quarter-miler Willie Smith, running the third leg on the U.S. 4 X 400 meter relay team. He had waited behind Nikolay Chernetskiy of the U.S.S.R. until late in the last turn, then moved to pass, but not wide enough. He collided with the much larger leader and crashed down so abruptly it seemed a crevasse had opened in the track.

Chernetskiy appeared not to notice the contact and strode on, while Smith, skin burned off his knee and arm and shoulder, frantically tried to pick up the fallen baton. As he reached it, Great Britain's Todd Bennett ran him down again.

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