Athletes are seldom conspicuous by their absence. There are always hundreds more ready to rush into any vacuum. So the U.S.S.R.-led boycott hasn't wrecked the Olympic track and field meet itself, only preview stories about it. All the best track and field athletes in the world won't be at the Los Angeles Games, but by the time the women 800-meter runners, say, have fought their way through two qualifying rounds and nervously lined up for the final, the stupidity and injustice that make it impossible for Jarmila Kratochvilova, Czechoslovakia's world-record holder (1:53.28) in the event, to be present will have been transmuted into mild regret, mere wistful yearning for a better world.
That was the way it was four years ago in Moscow. Then the missing Americans were the ones you thought about after the racing was over, when you were walking along the Kremlevskaya Embankment by the Moscow River, and it came to you: "I wonder how Mary Decker would have done against that Kazankina in the 1,500. I wonder if Tony Sandoval could have kept up with Waldemar Cierpinski in the last four miles of the marathon."
That the here-and-now is so much more real than the might-have-been is a matter for profoundly mixed feelings. It's this tendency to forget those might-have-beens that lets governments get away with depriving athletes of truly Olympic expression, which is evil. It's this same forgetfulness that lets a depleted entry list still produce a great race, which is good. In other words, life goes on. Nothing is perfect. Compromise is everywhere.
But you can bet that Kratochvilova, or East Germany's Marita Koch (the gold medal winner in the Moscow 400) and Sabine Paetz (the new world-record holder in the heptathlon), or the Soviet Union's Sergei Bubka (the world-record holder in the pole vault) will know when their events are being contested in Los Angeles. The dates and hours have been posted on their walls, entered in their journals, idly scribbled on their telephone pads for four years. And they'll be thinking that if they must feel as empty as they do, some great good will come out of that void, somehow.
Certainly some little good will accrue to the athletes they probably would have beaten. In the vacuum left by Kratochvilova and the Soviet women, the 800 is unexpectedly wide open. Margrit Klinger of West Germany and Doina Melinte of Romania now will be among the challengers for the gold medal; with them, with as solid a chance to win as any, is a woman from Ambler, Pa. named Kim Gallagher.
She's 20 and doesn't look even that because of her huge doe eyes and sparkling braces. She holds American junior records in the 800, 1,500 and 5,000 (2:00.07, 4:16.6 and 16:34.7, respectively). She set the 5,000 mark when she was only 15. For the five years ending last September, she was coached by her brother Bart. She quit running for three months last summer, then moved to Santa Monica and began again with Chuck DeBus of the Puma and Energizer club. This was with Bart's blessing. "And I love him even more since he's not my coach," says Kim.
"If you ran their physiological characteristics through a computer, she and Mary Decker would come out virtually identical," says DeBus. "Same speed. Same aerobic potential. Mary's just six years older." Decker and Gallagher also share a girlish directness that sometimes shades into faintly loony non sequitur. "Training has to be everything," Gallagher said at the U.S. Olympic trials in late June, "...but not too much." Asked about L.A.'s air quality, she said, "It's fine. I cough a lot more than I ever have."
When Gallagher started running, her idol was Decker. She was eight; Decker, then 14, had just gained notice by beating 1972 Olympic silver medalist Niole Sabaite of the U.S.S.R. in a dual meet at 800 meters. "My brother took me out running first," she recalls. "Everyone told me I looked like a little pony. I had long hair and was this thin." Here she makes a little circle, with thumb and forefinger. This is hard to believe, because at the same time Gallagher was incessantly stuffing herself with sugar. "My parents gave me money for lunch, and I'd spend it on SweeTarts," she says. "I'd just sit in my closet and eat for an hour."
Gallagher attained all her junior records despite such habits, but last year they caught up with her. "I knew I had anemia going into the nationals," she says. "I didn't want the doctor to tell me, though." She finished last in her heat in the TAC 800 and didn't make the final. That prompted her three-month layoff.
Then last fall she set about reconstructing herself. "If you have the will to control it, anemia isn't really a major illness," she says. This doesn't mean that she saw pretty colors during the fainting spells but that the disease could be curtailed by careful attention to sleep and diet. On occasion her attention wasn't as careful as it might have been—"You go out with friends; you want to eat freezie pops," she says—but she's healthy again.