Slaney was surprised to find herself leading down the first backstretch Saturday afternoon. She floated past 400 in 59.2, with the pack jostling behind her. Down the second backstretch, Slaney began to look less comfortable, biting her lower lip and casting fretful glances down at the track. Celeste Halliday and Meredith Rainey, both of whom had broken 2:00 this year, were gathering menacingly behind her.
Halliday pounced first, slipping past Slaney on the second turn of the last lap. Farther back, Maria Mutola, a powerful 18-year-old from Mozambique, was surprising everyone. With 200 meters to run, she had been next to last, 15 meters behind Slaney and Halliday. Mutola passed seven runners in that final 200, swinging out into lane four to find enough running room. Thirty meters from the finish, it looked as if Mutola's lane had suddenly pitched steeply downward, so dramatic was her acceleration past the struggling leaders.
She won by two meters, and her momentum carried her halfway round the turn. Mutola's time was 2:00.22, Rainey's 2:00.51 and Halliday's 2:00.53.
Slaney was fifth, in 2:01.28. But the temperature at race time was 97�, and it was much hotter than that on the track, so she wasn't unduly distressed about her failure to break two minutes. "My legs don't hurt, my calves don't hurt," Slaney said. "It was good speed work for me."
Mutola, a senior-to-be at Springfield (Ore.) High School, grew up in Maputo, Mozambique's capital. She was 15 and playing soccer for a men's team when she caught the eye of Jose Graverinhas, Mozambique's poet laureate, whose son happens to be a track coach. Three months later, Mutola found herself in Seoul, where she clocked a 2:04.36 in the Olympic heats, an astonishing time for one so young and inexperienced.
While that did not qualify Mutola for the semis, it did grab the attention of the Olympic Solidarity Committee, an arm of the International Olympic Committee that sponsors athletes from developing countries who wish to train abroad. It took some time, but in March she enrolled at Springfield High. Mutola could not afford to compete in Europe this summer, but she hopes, not unreasonably, to medal in Tokyo.
On Aug. 4, Slaney will turn 33. "I want to stay healthy from now to the Olympic trials," she says, sounding very much the soul of moderation. "I will not double. I've found that too much."
If Slaney stays healthy, she will compete well with anyone in the world. In the three years that have passed since the Seoul Olympics, the next generation of American women has improved immensely. Plumer ranked first in the world last year in the 5,000 as well as the 3,000, and Lynn Jennings has won the last two world cross-country titles.
Whatever the varied reasons—political, chemical or both—the world has grown slower in Slaney's absence. At the Seoul Olympics, women from Eastern Europe won nine of the 12 medals from 800 to 10,000, including all four gold medals. Since Seoul, the formidable sports organizations that sustained such achievements in most of those countries have been crumbling.
Slaney smiles when she is reminded of this. "I don't think you can afford to go to the Olympics expecting things to be easier," she says. That, no doubt, is a wise policy. The Africans arc rushing into the vacuum left by the Eastern Europeans. A 22-year-old Algerian woman, Hassiba Boulmerka, has the fastest mile in the world this year, a 4:20.79. The Kenyan women edged the Ethiopians for the world cross-country team title this year. And with the International Amateur Athletic Federation's decision three weeks ago to readmit South Africa, Slaney may well find herself facing her old nemesis, Zola Budd Pieterse, who currently stands second on the 1991 world 3,000 list. It's hard to escape your past, especially when there's so much of it.