San Jose, Calif. — Edwin Moses eased regally across the finish line ahead of young Danny Harris, while 13,724 fans at the 1987 national track and field championships enveloped him with emotional applause. The crowd stood to salute the last decade's most dominant track athlete as he walked and jogged his victory lap around San Jose City College's new blue track.
Three weeks earlier, Moses had lost only the second intermediate hurdles race of his life - a stunning upset by Harris that ended a seemingly impossible string of 122 victories in a row.
Meet after meet, year after year, if anything in the unpredictable world of sports had seemed certain it was Moses winning yet another hurdles race. Fans also knew him as the two-time Olympic champion, the world record holder, the holder of the 11 fastest times in history, and a much-honored sportsman elected to give the Olympic oath on behalf of all Olympic athletes in Los Angeles.
But on June 4 in Madrid he lost to Harris, the 1984 Olympic silver medalist. ``The Streak,'' as it had come to be known in track circles, had finally ended.
For the delighted track followers here last Saturday, therefore, Moses's victory was royalty re-coronated, an indisputable greatness confirmed.
Moses ran, for him, a fairly modest 47.99 seconds, with Harris foundering well behind at 48.70, barely outsprinting David Patrick for second.
A few moments before the victory celebration reached the north stands, the irrepressible triple jumper Willie Banks began clapping, urging the crowd to give him support for his own upcoming effort. Still flushed with enthusiasm, the crowd stomped on the aluminum bleachers as the world record holder charged down the runway to take the lead.
All the crowd enthusiasm was not just for new and potential national champions, but for the top three in each event - who would qualify for the 1987 world championships in Rome in early September (provided they also met that meet's qualifying standards).
With the political unrest in Korea leaving some athletes wondering about the 1988 Olympics, the world championships loom more and more important.
As marathoner Dave Gordon, who qualified earlier for the world championship team, said, ``I'm very pessimistic about whether there is going to be an Olympics in Seoul next year. I'm going to make the most of being in the world championships.
``After the worlds, I'll turn the page and begin thinking about the Olympics,'' he continued, with caution perhaps colored by a heartbreaking fourth-place finish in the 1984 Olympic trials, which kept him off the three-man US marathon team. ``The worlds lack some of the glamor of the Olympics, but they are the closest thing to the games. Just running, no politics, and everyone's there.''
Despite the support given jumper Banks, fellow competitor Mike Conley later soared to a tremendous final effort, dramatically spraying sand onto the track from the farthest part of the jump pit. Waving his fist triumphantly in the air, Conley hurried over to check the official measurement. He looked at the figures, turned expressionless to the stands, and then jubilantly jumped onto the track after the 58 ft. 7 in. measurement was announced - making him history's third longest jumper, only 4 inches from Banks's world record.
Banks put his hands over his face in relief at the near miss to his world record, but immediately congratulated the bouncing Conley. The latter impulsively sprinted down the track for an impromptu victory ``lap.'' Banks and Charlie Simpkins, who had just overtaken Olympic champion Al Joyner for third and the last spot on the world championship team, laughed at Conley's wild dash, then sprinted after Conley to joyously join him arm-in-arm for a group celebration around the track.
Earlier in the five-day meet, Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Al's sister) had missed a heptathlon record after a disastrously poor javelin throw, but still picked up history's third-best point total, the two better marks being her own. Friday's highlight was history's best men's long jump competition, where three jumpers, headed by Carl Lewis, all leaped more than 28 feet. Five pole vaulters on Saturday all cleared 18 ft. 8 in., headed by little Joe Dial's winning 19-ft. in. effort.
While the meet produced no world records, it didn't seem to matter to competitors or the enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd. ``The excitement of having a Moses-Harris matchup, the excitement of having Mark Witherspoon beating Carl Lewis in the 100 meters - the matchups, that is what a track meet is all about,'' triple-jumper Banks said. ``It's not so much if someone breaks a world record or an American record. It's two people locked in combat on the playing field.''
With only three places on the world championship team available, the competition was deadly serious. While other nations select athletes based on reputation and achievement over a period of time, Amercians must finish first, second, or third in uncertain, pressure-packed trials or they do not make the US team.
As something of a consolation prize some fourth or lower finishers could choose from a smorgasbord of meets including the Pan American Games, the World University Games, or the US Olympic Festival, provided some of the top three didn't queue up first. And the timing of these various meets makes it seem virtually certain that different athletes will be competing in at least some of them.
Last weekend's results left these superb athletes at home, at least for the world championships:
Sprinter Valerie Brisco, the triple Olympic gold medalist, who was fourth in the 400 meters after running a suicidally fast opening 200 in 22.5 seconds.
High jumper Jimmy Howard, the American record holder, who missed the extremely high opening height of 7-3.
High hurdler Tonie Campbell, the fastest in the world last year, who clobbered the last hurdle (and finished seventh).
Sprinter Evelyn Ashford, the Olympic 100-meter champion and former world record holder, who pulled a muscle in the final of that event.
And Al Joyner, the Olympic triple jump champion, who was third when injured and unable to compete further.
Among the stars involved in close calls were Moses, who fell at the start of a preliminary heat when his starting blocks slipped (the race was restarted), and Lewis, the defending Olympic champion, who barely made the 100-meter team in second after a terrible start and a slight muscle pull in the final yards (though he would have been on the team anyway, of course, as a long jumper).
Other Rome-bound athletes include Sydney Maree and Doug Padilla in the 5,000 meters; Henry Marsh in the steeplechase; Johnny Gray in the 800 meters; potential world record breaker Butch Reynolds and Olympic medalist Antonio McKay in the 400 meters; defending world 200-meter champion Calvin Smith; Jim Spivey and Steve Scott in the 1,500 meters; seven-time national champ John Powell in the discus; new US record holder John Brenner in the shot put; Lynn Jennings and Francie Larrieu-Smith in the 10,000 meters; and sprinters Pam Marshall, Diane Williams, and Alice Brown.
US sprinters should medal in every event at the worlds, with the men capable of placing two or more in the 100, 200, and 400 meters. All four relay teams should medal, barring injuries or dropped batons. US male long and triple jumpers are clearly the best in the world, and should take two medals in each event. Maree and Padilla could medal in the 5,000, and Scott will be a strong 1,500 candidate. Without Mary Slaney, who is injured, the only US female distance hope is 1986 world cross-country silver medalist Lynn Jennings in the 10,000.
Both the men's and women's teams are extremely deep, though it is unclear whom they will face in Rome. There are also always questions, of course, as to how any athlete will perform on a given day, how he or she will respond to the pressure of a big international meet, etc. But along with future uncertainties there is one present certainty, as expressed by announcer Gary Hill as Moses flashed across the finish line.
``Ladies and gentlemen, Hill cried out to another round of thunderous applause, ```The Streak' starts at one!''