High drama at US Olympic trials

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Olympic photographers had better get their motor drives ready, because once the starter's gun goes off there won't be much time to shoot sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, who could be among the most photographed athletes in Seoul. Suddenly she is the talk of the track world - and not just because of her striking fashions, which may have to stay in the closet during the Games. Now her times are a match for her head-turning attire and exotic fingernails, which once grew to 6 inches. Her current trademarks are one-legged body suits she designed and brightly polished curved nails, sometimes with multicolored stripes.

In the blisteringly hot opening days of the US Olympic Track and Field trials which end here on Saturday, she won the 100 meter dash by obliteratiang a world record that had stood for four years.

Her feat caught nearly everyone off guard, even the public-address announcer, who shared the news with the crowd, then added, ``the reason I sound incredulous is because ... it's incredible.''

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In fact, many in the press corps laughed in disbelief when Joyner's 10.49-second time was displayed. In an event where even a 100th of a second improvement would be cause for rejoicing, lowering a world record by 27/100ths seemed sheer fantasy.

Nothing like that had happened since Bob Beamon's history-making long jump in the 1968 Olympics, when in Mexico City's high altitude he leaped nearly two feet farther than anyone ever had.

Joyner is a good sprinter, a 200-meter silver medalist at the '84 Olympics and the '87 World Championships. By improving her starts, however, she has become exceptional, and her consistency here seems to indicate that there was nothing fluky about her record time. She also legally broke the world record in two other 100-meter rounds, including the semifinals and final, when she led Evelyn Ashford, the world record holder and 1984 Olympic gold medalist, across the finish line.

Initially, some felt her record-breakimg effort might have been wind-aided, but the gauge in the infield indicated that the wind was sweeping across the track and registered 0.00 miles per hour behind the runners. The record thus will go into the books and could stand as the most spectacular track and field achievement of 1988.

Of course there is plenty of time left, including the Olympics still ahead. But during this one glorious weekend at least, she was front and center, unwilling to be upstaged by any of the established superstars, including:

Sister-in-law Jackie Joyner Kersee, who broke her own world record in the heptathlon, with 7,215 points.

Carl Lewis, who ran what would have been a men's 100-meter record of 9.78 seconds if not for a tailwind that exceeded the allowable maximum. Lewis also won the long jump and his first two heats in the 200, bringing him to today's semifinals and finals in position once again to qualify for the four events in which he won gold in '84 (both sprints, the long jump, and the 4x100 relay).

Mary Decker Slaney, who won the women's 3,000 meters to give herself another shot at the Olympic medal she missed out on in 1984 when a collision with Zola Budd ended her dreams.

Edwin Moses, the ageless wonder of the 400-meter hurdles, who outran a field of younger rivals, including Danny Harris, the only man to beat him in a decade.

And triple jumper Willie Banks, who twice exceeded his own world record (but with illegally high tailwinds) to earn a trip back to the Olympics, where as the favorite in 1984 he finished a disappointing sixth.

Participation in the trials can be an excruciating test for athletes even of this caliber, since only the top three in each event make the team.

Consequently, there are always some heartbreaking results. Chief among the early entries was probably Mike Conley's failed attempt to get a triple jump remeasured. Mike, an early favorite for Olympic gold, missed third place by a half inch after his final jump was measured to a spot where his shorts apparently brushed the sand instead of to his heel marks.

Right behind Conley was Al Joyner, the '84 gold medalist, who managed a personal best of 57 ft. 8 in., yet now is left with almost no chance of joining his wife and sister on the US team. Al will try in the high hurdles beginning Friday, but this is a much lesser event for him, and one in which he would need a big upset to qualify.

While they hope for a surprise in the hurdles, he and his wife of a year want to see form hold in the women's 200, which is supposedly Florence's best event.

Until she improved her starts, this was the race that took full advantage of her tremendous velocity.

Her newfound acceleration has come only since undertaking an intensive weight-training program during the past year. She can now squat-lift 325 pounds, which gives her the leg strength to really explode out of the starting blocks. This training regimen was the idea of her coach, Bobby Kersee, who is Jackie Joyner's mentor and husband.

Kersee claims that Florence was a total reclamation project when he took her under wing. She, however, says that reports of her being 60 pounds overweight were greatly exaggerated. In her version, she was 15 pounds overweight and assessing what she wanted to do next in a track career that had reached a standstill.

``I had been running 20 years at that point and I knew I had to run better or move on,'' the 28-year-old Californian says.

She enlisted Kersee, her former coach at UCLA, to help her, but made the mistake of agreeing to a weigh-in on the very day of a potluck dinner at the bank where she worked. ``I had peach cobbler, macaroni and cheese, you name it,'' she remembers. ``He put me on a scale and it just happened to be broken. He embarrassed me every day on the track after that, calling me fatso.''

Kersee may be a good-natured kidder, but he admires his pupil's work ethic. ``She's like Jackie. You give her a training program and you can go to sleep at night, because you know she will follow it,'' he says.

One thing he doesn't seem to know is what outfit Florence will show up in next. She changes constantly.

And what happens once these running suits have been worn? ``I put them in a suitcase and find another color,'' she says.

At this point, of course, the greater suspense involves how fast she''ll run the 200 Friday and Saturday, not what she will wear doing it.

``Right now I'm on world-record pace. I won't say the time, but I'm ready,'' she says convincingly.

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