They exploded out of the blocks together on the evening of Aug. 22, world-record holder Evelyn Ashford in Lane 4 and her longtime rival, Marlies Göhr of East Germany, to her left in Lane 3, racing through the cool dusk at Zurich's Letzigrund Stadium for the No. 1 ranking in the world in the 100 meters, women. This was the real Olympic final, 17 days late. Ashford's gold medal in the 100, attained Aug. 5 in Los Angeles, had been won with Göhr, the world champion and former world-record holder, at home, a victim of the Soviet bloc boycott. To know the unyielding wills of Ashford and Göhr and the bitterness of their rivalry was to sense how fiercely each wanted to win. Without question, the race would be fast.
The Ashford-Göhr duel was at last bringing to life a post-Olympic track and field season that, except for the feats and flash of Carl Lewis, had been putting Europe to sleep. The entire Zurich meet would be superb, in vivid contrast to earlier competitions in Berlin, London, Budapest and Nice, which were plagued by illness, injury and post-Games letdown. World records hadn't been falling, bodies had. Also dampening spirits were the Eastern bloc's "Friendship '84 Games" in Moscow and Prague, at which ultimately eight of 24 men's and 12 of 17 women's '84 Olympic gold medal track and field performances were bettered and one world record was set. The stars from L.A. were being challenged, yet many weren't responding.
Not Ashford. When Göhr ran a 10.95 in Prague on Aug. 16, .02 under Ashford's gold medal time, Ashford went to Berlin and the very next night blazed 10.92 and 10.94 in her heat and final. Göhr-Ashford battles have often been fought on paper, by comparing times. Between them the two have run 16 of the 17 fastest women's 100s in history. It frustrated Ashford that Göhr held the world record in the event from 1977 all the way into '83; it has since nagged at Göhr that Ashford ran a 10.79 at the 7,200-foot altitude of Colorado Springs last summer to take the record away.
Astonishingly, only twice since 1979 had Ashford, now 27, and Göhr, 26, met over 100 meters when both were free of leg injuries. It seems the two share not just similar builds (about 5'5", 115 pounds) and dispositions (feisty, sometimes testy) but also, alas, a tendency to push their hamstrings a bit too far. Of their nine 100-meter matchups since 1976, Ashford had won six. Most recently, however, at last August's world championships in Helsinki, Ashford's right hamstring had given out 50 meters from the finish, handing the race to Göhr. But at Zurich the handicaps seemed minor and equal: Ashford had some soreness in her legs from Berlin, while Göhr was tired from having raced 31 times since early May and from having spent 12 hours the day before traveling to Zurich from her hometown of Jena by car, bus and plane.
Waiting to race, Ashford looked calm; Göhr was tense, unable to stand still. The sellout crowd of 25,000 was rapt. Both women started well, but 10 meters into the race Göhr was clear of Ashford and drawing away. "I always come to win," Göhr would say later. "Otherwise I shouldn't come at all, and hang up my spikes." At 30 meters her lead was almost a full meter, with Ashford not yet free of the six other finalists. A soft tail wind was pushing them along.
As the field approached 50 meters, Ashford was gaining. Her style is to come from behind, often dramatically, and here she was doing precisely that. "I don't really accelerate until 50 meters," she would later explain. "I just get out of the blocks even, and with 20 meters left, I relax and let my legs go." At 75 meters Ashford caught Göhr. The faces of both runners were twisted with effort. This was an extraordinary race. As Ashford would say later, "I knew I was better than I've ever been. I just had to keep my body from exploding on me." When Ashford surged yet again, Göhr couldn't respond. Ashford reached the line first by two feet. A small pacing clock on the infield grass was frozen at 10.77. The wind reading was + 1.7 (3.8 mph), not enough to disallow a record. After a 10-second pause, Ashford's time was announced officially as 10.76. A world record.
The crowd surged to its feet, applauding. Ashford took a jubilant victory lap, joined by her husband, Ray Washington. Another man, a stranger, jumped from the stands and hugged her.
"I can't believe it," said Ashford. "I'm so tired of seeing 'Ashford 10.79' [in the record book] with an 'A' after it." (Her old mark had borne the stigma of altitude.) Afterward, even Göhr, whose time was 10.84, offered a smile and a handshake. "In the last 10 meters," said Göhr, shaking her head, "she must have listened to a voice from above."
Ashford's world record set off an evening of inspired performances. Quadruple Olympic gold medalist Lewis, in the midst of a five-meet European tour that was teaching him both the value (a reported $30,000 per appearance) and the price of his new fame, followed Ashford by winning the men's 100 in 9.99, the same time as in his L.A. 100, leaving behind world-record holder Calvin Smith and the top Soviet bloc sprinters. "This is the first summer I've actually been successful in Europe," said Lewis, who in the past had peaked much earlier in the year and gone to Europe exhausted. Indeed, after a 20.21 for the 200 in the chill at Cologne on Sunday, Lewis had, in the course of a week, executed the best long jump ever on European soil (28'4½" in Brussels), run the second-fastest 100 and turned in a creditable 200.
But if life after Los Angeles had been one of first-class flights, deluxe hotels and preeminence on the track, not everything had gone smoothly. He had returned from the Olympics to find his house in Houston burglarized and his collection of crystal smashed. "And he'd spent all his money on an alarm system," joked his long-jumping sister, Carol. "It probably would've helped if the Houston papers hadn't printed his address."