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What a glorious conceit it is to pick a Sportsman of the Year. Can anyone really study the ranks of different champions and record setters and know who did the best? Are not victorious golfers, hurdlers and tennis players ultimately apples and oranges? Even more presumptuous is judging who came closest to attaining private potential, for that might be, remember, an athlete who didn't come near winning. Perhaps most arrogant of all is to proclaim which athlete serves the rest of us as the most luminous example.
But, Lord, we want to. Who follows sport, who understands competition, who does not care to know an overall winner? At year's end, we almost involuntarily return to those few moments when an athlete's movement and personality joined to lift us into ecstatic assent, be it partisan, esthetic or moral.
We know what we like. We know how we feel. In 1983 we honor Mary Decker as our Sportswoman of the Year. We do so for her dramatic double victory in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters in the first World Championships of track and field, in Helsinki; for coming to hold all seven American records from 800 through 10,000 meters; for breaking, over the past two years, seven world records—an unprecedented feat both in terms of absolute number and in the span of distances over which those marks were achieved—and for being undefeated this year in 20 finals, on tracks indoors (three) and outdoors (16) and on the undisciplined surface of a road, an unrivaled and masterly accomplishment.
We also honor her for the devotion that sustained her through 14 years of effort and injury and renewed effort, after which she still has not had the chance to participate in an Olympic Games. It is a remarkably long period, yet she is but 25, and by no means is her career completed; we look forward to what is still to come. But we are drawn to her, ultimately, for the jubilant response her running has evoked in us, for her being ineffably but indelibly charismatic.
Decker is moved by a competitive yearning that rises from so deep in her character that it connects with her will to be loved. Since she was a child, she has tried to transform her hunger for comforting approval into dominating athletic performance. In 1983, she succeeded supremely. Not coincidentally, she found a sanctuary in the reassuring embrace of British discus thrower Richard Slaney. Seeing her there, so majestically rewarded, is satisfying, seeming to signify that her compelling wish to please has come true, even if it is her own feeling that there are miles to go before she can be truly content.
America has always adored Mary Decker, though for shifting reasons. When she was 15 and 89 pounds and in braces and pigtails, she was Little Mary Decker. When she threw a relay baton at a Soviet runner who cut her off in an indoor meet in Moscow, she was applauded for her spunk, for what it foretold. And she didn't like that one bit.
"I always wanted to be accepted in running," she says now. The braces are gone, but at 5'6", 108 pounds she is still not too far removed from the "Little Mary" of the observer's mind. "I wanted to prove to people that I was noteworthy because of my performance, not for simply being young."
Or beautiful, or sexy, or our only hope against an Eastern European juggernaut, which were, and are, some of the succeeding reasons she later won affectionate regard from her countrymen. No, despite her willing acceptance of being all that and more, she holds that running for its own sake has been her constant aim, her deepest solace. "It was a means to early approval," she says. "It was therapy in the rough times, but mainly it was just such a great physical joy that I know I was born to run. Thinking back over the days in Helsinki, I don't think I did what I did for anyone but me.
"Besides," she goes on, "if winning was for other things, then anyone could have won, whoever had the greatest cause or deepest obligation...or something." She doesn't conclude the thought, because that wasn't the way it happened. What happened was that the best runner won.
Decker went into the Helsinki championships with an odd lack of support from track and field's experts. She had set 11 world and American records in 1982, but had never seemed to race well in the few chances she'd had at the best Europeans. In 1980, Tatyana Kazankina of the Soviet Union had beaten her by nearly seven seconds in setting the 1,500 world record of 3:52.47. That defeat remains a memory, says Decker, "as clear as yesterday."