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When their anthems stopped, winners like Babers held up the flowers. The Olympic track and field victors knew that if they tried to lift their new medals for the great crowd to see, they would appear as if they were hanging themselves from the ribbons. So in festive salute they raised the African daisies and orchids and bird-of-paradise they were given, and for an instant you misplaced their events or times or distances and thought how right this was, how natural a shift from the showing of flags, the talk of gold that can never be taken away.
Bird-of-paradise takes more than a day to wither, but the idea was there, the sense that such Olympian excellence as these men and women represent rises only for the briefest of moments, then will fall away and not be seen for four more years. The decathlon especially follows this four-year phoenix cycle. Few care about it in any other form than this Olympic test to see who's the world's best all-around athlete. And no event seems more wholly composed of evanescent moments. Its two days of competition can be understood with reference to a handful of seconds, a few situations.
The Los Angeles decathlon, it seemed, couldn't avoid turning into a struggle between titans: the world-record holder from West Germany, J�rgen Hingsen, who would be taking on his long-time nemesis, the 1980 Olympic champion, Daley Thompson of Great Britain.
Thompson was unbeaten over the last six years, sound and in superb condition, with unmatched speed in the sprints. Hingsen, the far larger man at 6'6�" and 228 pounds to Thompson's 6'1" and 194, had an obvious leverage advantage in the throws. Indeed, in June, a 53'10�" shotput and a 161'11" discus throw (personal bests by 14" and 8'3", respectively) let him raise the world record to 8,798 points. His discus might let Hingsen take the decathlon to the final event, the 1,500, where he's clearly superior to Thompson.
Thompson set out not to let that happen. On the first day he was supreme. He sprinted the 100 in 10.44 to Hingsen's 10.91. Hingsen long-jumped 25'7�", 1� inches farther than he had in his world record. Thompson answered with 26'3�", his best ever without the aid of wind and a mark that would have placed him fifth in the open Olympic long jump the evening before.
In the shotput, Thompson threw 51'7", his best ever in a decathlon. Hingsen reached only 52'�", 21�" less than his record. Though he had hoped to beat Thompson by a yard, he wasn't shaken. This decathlon was becoming a test of counterpunching. It wouldn't be decided early.
In the high jump, Hingsen loomed closer, going 6'11�" to Thompson's 6'8", yet Thompson was the more relieved. The high jump had been his most erratic event all year, but now he had a solid mark behind him. And Hingsen had attained his height in pain. He had strained the patellar tendon in his right knee, but once he no longer needed to execute the twisting motion required in the jump approach, and had been shot with a pain-killer, he would be able to continue.
This he proved in the 400, the final event of the first day. Thompson blasted out to an early lead and then drove himself with his powerful upper body to hang on, to not slow. He finished in 46.97, nearly his best, but it was Hingsen who had hung on, with a 47.69, keeping his man within reach. At day's end, Thompson's score of 4,633 was a "world record" for the first five events. Hingsen had 4,519. "Being 114 points back is no reason for me to let my wings drop," Hingsen said. "My second day is always my best. And there's the discus...."
John Crist of the U.S., Thompson's friend and training partner, said, "Daley doesn't care what Hingsen does, so long as Daley keeps hitting marks that add up to something in the 9,000-point range." But if ever he should leave a gap....
There was no such break in the 110 hurdles. "Good morning, Mr. Thompson," Hingsen had said, stepping into the blocks. "Hello," replied Thompson. Thompson got a good start but seemed to pause for adjustment at the fourth hurdle, and Hingsen swept past. Thompson charged back over the last meters and lost by only a foot and a half, 14.29 to 14.34, holding the damage to just six points.