After another half lap, Mary Decker would begin a long, ever quickening drive to the finish. She had led the women's Olympic 3,000-meter final from the gun, first at world-record pace, then slowing a second or so every lap. The last had taken her 71 seconds, bringing the field past 1,600 meters in 4:36.
She had shaken no one. Zola Budd of Great Britain and Maricica Puic? of Romania, her most heralded opponent and her most dangerous one, respectively, ran second and third.
Decker felt fine. Her sore right Achilles tendon, which had required a cortisone injection in July, was operating smoothly. Her semifinal win in 8:44.38 had been, as she put it, "Effortless. Except for Lynn Williams [of Canada] stepping on my heel four times."
"She was looking for about an 8:29 pace in the final," said her coach, Dick Brown. (The world record is 8:26.78, by Syvetlana Ulmasova of the U.S.S.R., who, of course, wasn't in L.A.) "With a kilometer to go, she would begin picking it up." This was similar to the tactic Decker had used to win the world championship 3,000 last year in Helsinki, but there she had started her drive 600 meters out. In Los Angeles she planned to go the last 1,000 because she was stronger now, because Puic?, the current world cross-country champion and mile-record holder (4:17.44), would produce a respectable kick if it weren't run out of her, and because these were the Olympics.
Decker had never run in an Olympic race. In 1972 she was too young, only 14. In 1976 she was injured. In 1980 the Carter boycott stymied her. But these Games were her own, in the city where she'd grown up. "Finally it all seems so perfect," she'd said.
That last brutal kilometer would begin in about 300 meters, on the backstretch. Now, as Decker relaxed, gathering herself, the slight, pale, barefoot, 92-pound form of Budd again came even with her. Budd had been outside Decker's right shoulder almost from the start, and Decker knew it. They had bumped elbows at 500 meters, a result of Budd's wide-swinging arm action, and Decker had shot her a sharp look.
Budd had sensed the slowing pace and didn't like it. Her training and temperament combine to make her natural race one of constantly increasing pressure. She and her coach, Pieter Labuschagne, knew that she couldn't kick with a fresh Decker or Puic?. If she was to run her best in this Olympic final, the pace would have to go faster. So she passed Decker on the turn, just after 1,600 meters. Decker felt her uncomfortably close. "She was cutting in on the turn, without being near passing," Decker would say.
By the end of the turn, Budd appeared to have enough margin to cut in without interfering with Decker's stride, but instead she hung wide, on the outside of Lane 1, as they came into the stretch.
Decker was near the rail, a yard behind Budd. Budd's teammate, Wendy Sly, had come up to third, off Budd's shoulder, and Puic? was fourth, tucked in tight behind Decker, waiting.
Decker sensed Budd drifting to the inside. "She tried to cut in without being, basically, ahead," Decker would say. But Decker didn't do what a seasoned middle-distance runner would have done. She didn't reach out to Budd's shoulder to let her know she was there, too close behind for Budd to move to the pole.