Carl Lewis' name had been called. His clock was running. By the rules, he now had to begin his first sprint down the runway of the Helsinki World Championships' long-jump finals within a minute and 30 seconds or have the jump ruled a foul. He could get more time only because of a compelling distraction.
He had one. "Turn that thing off," he told the official. "I have to watch this." He trotted to the side of the track as the deep-throated roar of 50,000 Finns caught up in a distance race broke over him. It was the last lap of the women's 3,000 meters. And Mary Decker had led all the way.
Each time she had passed the long-jump area she had heard shouts of encouragement from Lewis and U.S. teammate Jason Grimes. Lewis knew that Decker had rejected the theoretically safe tactic of laying back and harboring her strength for a final killing sprint. Instead, she meant to set a pace that at once drained the kicks of her pursuers and saved some of her own. "I am confident of my finish," Decker had said. "So the only thing to be concerned about is staying out of trouble. I personally do that best in the lead." It was a plan that was built on Decker's bedrock character. She wanted to be out front, controlling.
But Lewis also knew how formidable were Decker's pursuers. On her heels since the gun had been Tatyana Kazankina of the U.S.S.R., the 1976 and 1980 Olympic 1,500 champion, who in 1980 in Zurich had beaten Decker by nearly seven seconds in setting the world 1,500 record of 3:52.47. A few yards back was Kazankina's teammate, Svyetlana Ulmasova, the 3,000-meter record holder at 8:26.78.
Decker had hopes of 67-second laps, world-record pace. She had begun with a 66, but then slowed to 70s. She seemed unworried, her expression almost casual, but Lewis could see that Kazankina's scooting, mechanical stride was unaffected by the pace. Her winning kicks in Montreal and Moscow had been rockets. And she obviously was trained to a taut edge. "You could open a Coke bottle on her cheekbones," said Olympic marathoner Frank Shorter.
With three laps to go, Decker ran a 72. "By then I'd gotten mixed up because there was a clock at every 200 meters," she would say. "So I just ran as I felt." The pack soon bunched up, boxing Ulmasova. Decker's coach, Dick Brown, looked sick. "I hope she hasn't let them save too much," he said. "But the only important thing now is that when she moves, she goes progressively, not all in one burst."
With 600 meters to go, Decker picked it up, to no apparent effect. With 400 to go, the pack had formed a menacing wing behind her. Britain's Wendy Sly was there, and Italy's Agnese Possamai, and West Germany's Brigitte Kraus. But the whole stadium knew the challenge would come from Kazankina.
At the start of the last backstretch, Decker gradually accelerated again. By the last turn they were flying. Ulmasova had to drop to fifth to get out of the box and would only reach fourth by the end. But Kazankina was right where she wanted to be, on Decker's shoulder.
Decker, astonishingly but characteristically, would later say of this crucial moment, "It was fun win or lose, because it's a nice feeling to come off the last turn with runners there. It's competition."
Then Kazankina cut loose for home. In a few strides she was beside and then past Decker. "I didn't tense up," said Decker. "I took a deep breath, relaxed and went." She sprinted beside Kazankina for a moment and then drew away, her stride open and free. The shocked Kazankina sagged and lost second to the charging Kraus.