Polish sprinter back in the Olympics for the fifth time

Four years ago Irena Szewinska completed the amazine feat of earning at least one medal in four consecutive Olympic Games -- something no other runner, male or female, had ever accomplished. She did it in style, too, winning the 400 meters in world record time. But she had no illusions about trying to continue her streak any longer.

"These were the last Olympics for me, I think," she said in the flush of her historic victory at Montreal. "In moscow, I'll go as a tourist."

Well, Irena is in Moscow all right, along with her husband, Janusz, but it's not time for the sightseeing buses and museums just yet. First she has a few appointments in Lenin Central Stadium this week. For, incredible as it seems, the great Polish sprinter who began collecting all that hardware back in 1964 is still going strong -- and hoping to make yet another trip to the victory stand.

Can she possibly do it? Or will the inevitable passage of time and the awesome speed of the East Germans combine to deny her this time around?

Regardless of the answer, nothing can detract from the remarkable record Szewinska has hung up in a career that now spans almost tow decades. And although a victory here would unquestionably be an upset, one can hardly discount the possibility of such a great performer reaching back one more time and rising to the occasion as she has so often in the past.

She will get that chance in three events -- the 200 meters, 400 meters, and 4 X100-meter relay. Marita Koch of East Germany, who has repeatedly lowered the world record in both the 200 and 400, is the heavy favorite for the gold in the 400 and a co-choice with teammate Barbara Woekel in the 200. But Szewinska, even though she no longer dominates the field as she did in her heyday, has done well enough in recent efforts to rate at least a 1-2-3 chance in any given race.

Irena followed up her Montreal success, in fact, with a banner 1977 campaign, earning the No. 1 ranking in the world at both distances. In 1978, however, she slipped to fifth in the 200 and third in the 400, then last year dropped another notch or so to eighth and fourth, respectively. That's still up high enough to make her a bona fide contender, or course -- especially in events that are often decided by a few hundredths of a second. So another medal is certainly no out of the question for this phenomenal athlete, who has already won more individual medals (six) than any other female track and field performer in Olympic history.

Szewinska was an 18-year-old student just starting out at the University of Warsaw when she went to her first Olympics at Tokyo, where she won silver medals in the 200 and the long jump, plus a gold in the 4X100-meter relay. Four years later in Mexico City she won the 200 and took a bronze in the 100.

Between Olympics her career was interrupted temporarily by the birth of her son. Andre, who's now 10, but the next year she returned to competition, and at Munich in 1972 she won the bronze in the 200, keeping her string alive, if just barely.

"I think having a child turned out to be beneficial to my performance . . . , " Irena told me once. "I was happy to spend a year not thinking about sport. I think the rest was good both physically and mentally."

Through 1972, Szewinska had been primarily a 100- and 200-meter sprinter, but after Munich she began running the 400, too -- and eventually the longer distance took over as her primary event. At Montreal, in fact, she chose to concentrate all her efforts on that one race -- a decision that paid off when she won the gold medal in a world-record-breaking 49.29 seconds.

That 1976 final was really something, pitting Szewinska against 18-year-old Christine Brehmer of East Germany, who had also held the world record at the distance for a while. Irena was leading at the last turn when Brehmer ranged up alongside her, and for a moment it seemed as though the teen-ager was going to run down her older rival. Szewinska, though, had obviously been saving something for just such a challenge, and suddenly she pulled away with a tremendous final burst of speed to win by several meters.

It was a thrilling and dramatic climax to an incredible saga, but despite this victory and all the other medals and world records she has acquired, it would be a mistake to think of Irena as some sort of automaton programmed to spend most of her time grinding around the track. On the contrary, she is that rarity in today's semipro world of Olympic competition -- a well-rounded individual who has been able to combine sports with marriage, motherhood, and a professional career as an economist.

"I like to train; it makes me feel better," she told me once when I asked what kept her going. "Also, I like to compete -- especially in big meets like the Olympics. I'm not happy in meets where I know I'm going to be first. All my best results have come in major competitions where I know I have to fight to win."

Irena should be overjoyed in Moscow, then -- for at the current stage of her career, and against Ms. Koch & friends, she will certainly have quite a fight on her hands this time. But who is to say that she won't come out on top once more -- or at least get the medal that would add more laurels to her already incredible record?

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