When the Olympic track-and-field events begin in Seoul on Sept. 23—seven days after the opening ceremonies—disparate personalities from around the world will congregate at the main Olympic Stadium. Somalia’s Abdi Bile, 26, one of his father’s 15 children by three wives, spent the first eight years of his life as a nomad, herding cattle, goats and camels in the arid highlands of northeast Africa. Now, he is the reigning world champion 1,500-m runner. Sweden’s Patrik Sjöberg, 23, a six-foot, six-inch, Porsche-driving playboy, has smoked since he was 6. Lighting up two packs a day, Sjöberg set the world high-jumping record of 2.42 m between puffs in Stockholm last year. Norway’s Ingrid Kristiansen, 32, won the 10,000-m Houston Marathon in January, 1983, while three months pregnant. And four months after the birth of her son, Gaute, Kristiansen returned to Houston and shaved 2:18 off her world-record time for the 10,000 m. “There will many fantastic competitions,” said Geoffrey Gowan, 58, president of the Coaching Association of Canada. “And any one of the characters could become an Olympic champion.”
In the field and on the track at the
XXIV Summer Games, the leading men and women from as many as 167 countries will run, jump and throw in a record 42 events—the women’s 10,000 m having been added as a medal event. But two stars stand out—Ben Johnson, 26, the stoic Canadian, and Carl Lewis, 27, the loquacious American—in the 100-m sprint. Johnson, the world’s fastest human, hopes to win the gold to cap his world record in the event—9.83 seconds—set at the world championships in Rome last August. Lewis wants to repeat his four-gold-medal performance of the 1984 Games and beat Johnson for the gold in the Games’ most elemental event. At 11:30 p.m. EDT on Sept. 23, the
rivals will settle into the starting blocks.
Their long-awaited Olympic encounter should last less than 10 seconds in the nine-day track-and-field competition. Before and long after, the stage will be dominated by the supporting, and stellar, cast. The leading trackand-field nations—East Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States—are expected to dominate. At last year’s world championships in Rome, of 165 medals available, the East Germans won 37, the Soviets, 34, and the Americans, 19.
But, increasingly, countries outside the Big Three are shuffling the rankings in individual sports. African nations have traditionally produced daunting distance runners, and the Seoul Games will not be an exception. Three of the top six finishers in the Rome marathon hailed from East Africa, including goldmedal winner Douglas Wakihuru, 25, of Kenya. Morocco’s self-assured Said Aouita, 27, won the 5,000-m Olympic gold in 1984 and has since set the world 1,500-m record. “I am the top runner in the world, and there is no race tactic that can beat me,” says the national hero, whose Casablanca villa—a gift from King Hassan II—has different mo-
tifs in each main room, ranging from Arabian to art deco. Britain’s veteran distance runner Steve Cram, 27, may also be heard from in Seoul. He won the 1,500-m silver medal in 1984 and has since set a new record for the mile of 3:46.32. Another strong British runner is Elizabeth Lynch-McColgan, 24, of Dundee, Scotland. She defeated record holder Kristiansen in a 10,000-m race in Oslo this summer in a triumph of youthful energy over age and experience.
The Olympics will provide many such encounters. American Mary DeckerSlaney, 30, will make another bid for an Olympic gold medal in the 3,000 m. And the grand old man of the track, 33-yearold American Edwin Moses, will try again as well. The 400-m hurdles gold medallist in 1976 and 1984 was unbeaten for nine years, nine months and nine days until fellow American Danny Harris, 25, beat him in Madrid last year. In Seoul, Moses will face other young challengers like Harald Schmid, 20, of West Germany and Amadou Dia Ba, 20, of Senegal. But Moses claims, “I’m in good enough shape to go for a long time yet.”
For British decathlete Daley Thompson—from London’s tough Notting Hill Gate district—time is growing short. At 30, the two-time Olympic gold medallist1980 and 1984—will attempt to become the oldest man to win the two-day, 10event ordeal. He says that he tries not to think of the young East and West Germans—Torsten Voss, 25, who won the decathlon in Rome, and Siegfried Wentz, 28, who was second. “I get up in the mornings and I can’t touch my toes,” admits
Thompson, the progeny of a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother, who finished ninth in Rome. “But then I tell myself that winning the Olympics a third time is what all the aches and pains are about. I’m not going to let my body quit on me now.”
Among the younger athletes who appear destined for gold is 24-year-old Soviet pole-vaulter Sergei Bubka. The native of Voroshilovgrad, 650 km southeast of Kiev, set the world record of 5.99 m at age 21. This summer, he broke his record for the ninth time by clearing 6.06 m, displaying a lifelong determination. “I remember once he fell from a high oak tree and was suspended by his braces upside down from a branch for two hours before he was rescued,” recalls his brother Vasily. “His reaction was immediately to climb the tree again to prove it didn’t frighten him.”
Bubka, married to rhythmic gymnast Libya Tyutunik, expects to eventually vault more than 6.30 m—almost 1.2 m higher than the first world record set with a Fiberglas pole in 1961. But Bubka says without hesitation that his goal is realistic.
Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee, 26, has been realizing her own goals ever since leaving the slums of East St. Louis, 111. Joyner-Kersee, the 1984 silver medallist, smashed her own heptathlon record at the U.S. trials in July. Still, it is unlikely that the U.S. track team will match the 16 American gold-medal performances of 1984. But a gold may go to 24-year-old Harry (Butch) Reynolds of Akron, Ohio. The six-foot, three-inch graduate of Ohio State University shattered the 20-year-
old world record in the 400 m in Zurich last month. Reynolds, with his 8 Vi:-foot strides, covered the distance in 43.29 seconds, 0.57 seconds faster than American Lee Evans’s time at the Mexico Games in 1968. Said Reynolds: “This is it. It’s done and it’s history.” But East Germany’s Thomas Schönlebe, a 23-year-old physical education student from Frauenstein, beat Reynolds last year. And Reynolds’s teammate Steve Lewis, 19, set a world junior—under age 20—record of 44.11 seconds at the trials.
The top woman sprinter is American Florence Griffith-Joyner, 28, sister-in-law of heptathlete Joyner-Kersee. At the U.S. trials, Griffith-Joyner set a new 100-m world record of 10.49 seconds, wearing an eye-catching, one-legged leotard of her own design. She will be pushed by East Germans Silke Gladisch, 24—world champion in the 100 m and 200 m—and Heike Drechsler, 23, the European champion in the same events. Also coming on strong is the striking 23-year-old American Gwen Torrence, who follows an unusual diet for an athlete. “I eat greasy food,” says Torrence. “I’m a burger-and-fries and hotdog girl. I can’t make myself eat leafy greens.”
Whatever their fuel, whatever their motivations, track and field’s characters—the young, the aging, the smokers, the nomads and the mothers—will gather in Seoul. And whether for less than 10 seconds or for nine days, they all plan to run faster, jump higher and be stronger than everyone else in the cast.
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