Decker, Smith highlight a golden event for the US
Helsinki — If there were the usual technical debates among teams and experts when the World Track and Field Championships concluded here last weekend, no one disagreed that the standard of the sport was the highest ever seen.
During the last eight days of often astonishing accomplishments and setbacks there was never any doubt that the standard was far higher than in any Olympic event. Athletes had to run up to, or even past, their personal best merely to make the finals.
America's Mary Decker made a winning dash in the women's 1,500-meter finals on Sunday, just making it for her second gold medal against the Soviet Union's Zamira Zaitseva, who stumbled at the finishing line. Two other Americans, triple-gold-medal-winner Carl Lewis and double winner Calvin Smith, were also undisputed stars of the championships, but for the US team there were also disappointments.
Evelyn Ashford's injury in the women's hundred-meter finals meant a blow to an American medal hope, and in the 3,000-meter men's steeplechase Henry Marsh made a characteristically late move to the front, only to trip on the last barrier in the last lap and finish in eighth place.
In Sunday's 4-by-400 men's relay, Willie Smith began a good run but tried to pass his Soviet opponent and fell, dropping his baton.
''Before I came to Helsinki,'' commented Scott Davis, an American team press attache, ''I knew that the relay was an event that would need unbelievable disaster to stop us getting a medal, and we had just that.''
True to form, the Soviet Union and Eastern-bloc states dominated the shotput, discus, and pole vault events, but the 50,000 spectators roared their approval when Finland's never-give-up Tiina Lillak snatched the gold medal from Britain's Fatima Whitbread in her last throw in the javelin competition.
Britain's Daley Thompson took the world decathlon title from world record holder Jurgen Hingsen of West Germany, earning an enormous 8,666 points, and Czechoslovakia's Jarmila Kratochvilova made a world record for the women's 800 meters of 47.99 seconds. Australia's Rob de Castella looked set to win the 40 -kilometer marathon from the beginning, and did not disappoint the crowd. The popular Australian long-distance runner did the course in 2 hours, 10 minutes, 3 seconds, just 24 seconds in front of the second place runner, the gritty Ethiopian Kebede Balacha.
The men's 1,500-meter event was perhaps the most keenly contested - certainly the most eagerly awaited - and also the most disappointing. Most observers had predicted a gold medal for America's Steve Scott, who finished second behind Britain's Steve Cram in a time some 10 seconds above the world record. Britain's legendary Steve Ovett came in fourth and acknowledged the ''end of an era.'' For New Zealand's miler, John Walker, finishing in ninth position meant a far cry from his gold-medal glory in Montreal in 1976.
Despite competition between a record number of countries - 157 in total - politics played no part in the athletics, a situation that led veteran athlete John Walker to predict that in time the World Championships will become more important than the Olympics in track and field.
''The absence of politics is an important factor,'' he said. ''The Los Angeles Olympics are starting to come around, and Iran has already withdrawn. I'm sure that if President Reagan goes and does his thing in Central America, somebody else will go somewhere else and boycott in the same way that things happened in Moscow. These championships cost only $3.5 million, while the Olympics cost about $100 million to stage, so they're going to price themselves out of the market in time. But an Olympic gold is still every athlete's ultimate goal.''
Common among many Americans was the feeling that their country's preoccupation with football and baseball means an overemphasis on final results, rather than personal achievements that may be admirable but not produce a medal. Finns, they felt, were far more knowledgeable in track and field and recognized such accomplishments.
Gestures of goodwill between the teams were common: East and West Europeans often shared the same supper tables. Another example was the delighted way an American official was seen showing his teammates the caviar that his friend Nicolai had presented him with.
All eyes are now on Los Angeles in 1984. ''It will be home territory and it will give us that advantage,'' says Calvin Smith. All competitors seem to have felt that Helsinki could not have been a better dress rehearsal.