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Sweet Redemption
Kenny Moore
March 22, 1993
Three maligned athletes were vindicated during the world indoor championships
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March 22, 1993

Sweet Redemption

Three maligned athletes were vindicated during the world indoor championships

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Outside, as the Blizzard mounted, the clouds above Toronto were thunderously dark, but the driven snow was inexplicably bright, as if the world were lit from within. Inside, safe and warm in the SkyDome, three of the athletes at the IAAF world indoor track and field championships performed in another strange, altered light: In the case of these masterly champions, it was almost as if we were seeing them for the first time.

One was Dan O'Brien, who set a world record of 6,476 points in the seldomstaged indoor heptathlon and then spoke the theme of his event—and of the meet. "The only way to overcome is to hang in," he said. "Even I'm starting to believe that."

O'Brien, of course, persevered after his devastating (and expensive) failure to make the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in the decathlon. One month after the Barcelona Games he broke Daley Thompson's eight-year-old world record, with 8,891 points. O'Brien now holds world records in both multievents, the decathlon and the heptathlon. More remarkably, he shines with the resolve of a fully tempered competitor. Even before he was finished in Toronto, O'Brien was plotting an attempt on the decathlon's 9,000-point barrier at USA Track & Field's outdoor nationals in June in Eugene, Ore. "Now, that is a goal," he said. One worthy of the strength that has matured within him.

The test for 800-meter runner Maria de Lurdes Mutola of Mozambique was to exploit her own bursting strength and to transcend some of her competitors' cattiness about it. Five years ago, after she ran 2:04.36 in a preliminary round at the Seoul Olympics, Mutola, then 15 years old, was awarded a grant by the Olympic Solidarity Committee to study overseas. When Mozambique officials found a middle-school guidance counselor in Springfield, Ore., who spoke Portuguese, Mutola's native tongue, they shipped the petrified youngster there. She has lived in Springfield with coaches Margo and Jeff Fund ever since, and over the last four years she has studied English at Springfield High and Lane Community College. She has also proved herself a prodigy, with a world junior girls' outdoor record of 1:57.63 at the 1991 world championships, and found herself the most popular athlete in her destitute African nation.

Lately she has also found herself defamed. Mutola's womanhood and racing tactics have been questioned by some of her rivals from the U.S., especially by Joetta Clark. In discussing the frequency with which Mutola and Clark seem to bump into each other during races and Mutola's strapping muscularity, Clark said recently, "I've been around the sport a long time, and there are things that should be there that she's missing," refusing all the while even to speak the name of "that individual."

Clark's disciplinarian father, Joe, the upstanding, bat-wielding high school principal whose virtues were extolled in the movie Lean on Me, says that he has advised his daughter not to be intimidated by Mutola. In fact, were the Clarks to sit down with Mutola, they would find her a pleasantly chatty 20-year-old college coed; and if they were to examine tapes of races in which Mutola and opponents have collided, they would see that she has been far more sinned against than she has sinned. The Clarks might conclude that Mutola is simply one of God's great talents.

Mutola certainly seemed to be just that in Toronto. She ran the first turn of the 800 final with eagerness, emerging in front, out of traffic, and passed 400 meters in 58.85. Then she got serious. "I could feel I had more power," she said afterward, "so I used it."

She bolted free of Russia's Svetlana Masterkova and Clark, and for the final 200 meters the crowd was on its feet. "I was thinking of the world record," Mutola said, "but I'm not ready. Not quite." Even so, she finished in 1:57.55, the third-fastest women's indoor 800 ever, 1.15 seconds off the world mark of Christine Wachtel of what was then East Germany. Her out-flung arms and joyous grin seemed to be an embrace of a new life.

When Clark, who finished third in a personal-best 1:59.86, was asked to pose with Mutola on the victory stand, she did, and she smiled, although her reluctance was visible. The gesture was enough for Mutola, however, who was still savoring the first playing of the Mozambican national anthem in world-championship track history. Mutola's expression made it clear that this particular win had helped heal her wounds.

Butch Reynolds, too, is triumphing over his critics. In December a federal judge awarded him $27.3 million, mostly in punitive damages, from the IAAF after ruling that track's international governing body had acted falsely and with malice in reporting that Reynolds had flunked a drug test in 1990 and in suspending him for two years. Reynolds has yet to collect, but he plans to attach sponsorship money that U.S. companies owe the federation. In fact, Reynolds is willing to settle the case for less than he was awarded, but IAAF president Primo Nebiolo seems yet unable to grasp the seriousness of the situation and has made no peace offering.

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