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The Wednesday Wipeout
Anita Verschoth
September 20, 1982
The record book and Seb Coe got obliterated during a hot day in Athens
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September 20, 1982

The Wednesday Wipeout

The record book and Seb Coe got obliterated during a hot day in Athens

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By the time the pole vault competition began at 2 p.m., the temperature in the Olympic Stadium was in the 90s. Still, Thompson was unable to stomach either fruit or juice for refreshment. "I was too busy thinking," he said later, "that I had started off winning and that I was going to finish winning." He was also thinking about a vaulting accident he'd suffered only six weeks earlier in which a pole had snapped, its jagged end piercing his left elbow. Seven stitches had closed the wound, but the memory remained. Yet he again outdid Hingsen, clearing 16'4¾" to the West German's 15'9". Now it was Thompson against not Hingsen but Hingsen's record.

Thompson remained roughly on record pace through the eighth and ninth events, but he was exhausted by the time he went to the line for the 1,500. He rubbed his hands together and stared straight down at the track, repeating "4:26.5" over and over to himself. He had run 4:30.55 while setting the record in May and seemed unlikely to surpass that time here. Three plodding laps seemed to confirm that evaluation. After 1,200 meters, Thompson was in ninth place, three seconds off 4:26.5 pace.

"It's not far any more," he told himself as he entered the final lap. "I can give it everything I've left." To the amazement of the 60,000 fans who had lingered through the long evening, Thompson accelerated. To eighth, to seventh, to sixth. At the end he was actually displaying his specialty; he was sprinting. He crossed the line in 4:23.71, a personal record. For the third time in his career, Thompson had established a world record. His total of 8,743 had broken Hingsen's mark by a mere 20 points, or the decathlon equivalent of less than a tenth of a second in the 100. "I'll get it back next year," said Hingsen, who finished at 8,518.

Oddly, Thompson was hardly joyous. Draped in a Union Jack, he "celebrated" with a slow walk around the track. After some bitter comments about his more publicized countryman, Coe—"Tell me something," he said sharply to British journalist Neil Allen, "if I had finished second, would I have gotten a press conference?" as Coe had—Thompson asked to be left alone. "After the two days, when it's all over, you feel like an empty shell," he said. "You don't feel very good. You want some fresh air." And with that Thompson was off, thereby ending a night that to everyone else had been gloriously full, a great gust of fresh air.

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