Tension-packed Olympic track and field trials produce strong US team

If the Olympic track and field competition can come close to duplicating the excitement, drama, and pathos found at the US Trials, it will be one jimdandy of a meet.

The prospects appear good, too, since the same athletes who made the team here will draw even greater inspiration from huge and highly partisan Coliseum crowds when they return Aug. 3.

Some noteworthy international competitors from the Eastern Bloc will be AWOL, of course, but American fans may be too immersed in cheering Carl Lewis, Mary Decker, Edwin Moses, et al to pay much heed.

As expected, the three aforementioned stars encountered little difficulty in landing Olympic berths, although Decker was upset in Sunday's electrifying women's 1500 final by Ruth Wysocki, the meet's Cinderella.

The objective in the trials, however, is to make the team with a top-three finish, which Decker did via her second place in this event plus a runaway victory earlier in the 3000. Meanwhile, Lewis set up his bid for four gold medals by winning both sprints and the long jump, which along with a place on the 4x100 relay team will give him a chance to win the same four events Jesse Owens did at Berlin in 1936. And Moses, the world's dominant 400 meter hurdler for a decade, earned his spot as expected with an amazing 102nd consecutive victory in that event.

There is uncommon pressure built into this one-shot selection process. An untimely slip or injury and it's sayanora, regardless of who you are.

Adding to the drama this time was the fact that, because of the 1980 boycott, this will be the first US Olympic track and field team in action since 1976, as well as the first to compete on American soil since 1932.

The tension was so thick that not even the proverbial knife could cut it, said Gary Roberson, a non-qualifier in the 200 meters. ''You need a chainsaw,'' he observed.

The tiniest fractions of seconds sometimes separated those who made the team from the also-rans. One of the most emotional moments came in the men's 1,500, where Sydney Maree, banned from international competition for so long because he was born in South Africa, finally made it to the Olympics when his last-gasp lunge got him the third and last spot by 5/100ths of a second.

But it went the other way for seven-time national 800 champion James Robinson , who had the same time as third-place finisher John Marshall but failed to make the team. And US record holder Stephanie Hightower lost a similar photographic decision in the women's 100 meter hurdles.

All of the favorites, in fact, had to be especially wary of lesser known talents lying in wait.

''In a meet like this, people dig down to find that extra energy to do well, people you wouldn't normally expect,'' said Steve Scott, who, like Decker, was upset in the 1500 when Jim Spivey outkicked him.

Spivey's emergence, while surprising, was not nearly as shocking as the the reemergence of Wysocki, who had beaten Decker in 1978 to become the national half-mile champion, but had subsequently retired from competition until her husband, Tom (who tried unsuccessfully to make the men's 10,000 meter team here) talked her into embarking on a second track career.

Originally aiming for just the 1,500, Ruth decided earlier in the trials to attempt the 800 as well - then made the team via a second place finish behind Kim Gallagher. It was Gallagher who was supposed to provide Decker with her main competition in the 1500, but she faded to ninth while Wysocki ran the race of her life to win in 4:00.18 - nearly 13 seconds better than her previous best time. Meanwhile Decker said the loss convinced her to pick one race for the Olympics, but not to try both, noting that ''winning one gold medal would be much more valuable to me than winning two silvers.''

Two other female stars had multiple medal ambitions curtailed by injury. Evelyn Ashford, the world record holder in the 100 meters, won that event but was unable to compete in the 200. Chandra Cheeseborough broke the American record in the 400 (49.28), but also pulled out of the 200.

Even so, the American women probably have their strongest Olympic team in history, one which surely will improve on a weak'76 showing and would have done so even with the East Germans and Russians around.

Excitement was generated in the infield too, when pole vaulter Mike Tully set a new American mark of 19-0 3/4 before narrowly missing a new world world record on his first attempt at 19-3 3/4. And Dwight Stones, a bronze medalist at the ' 76 Games, raised the US high jump record to 7-8 to win that event.

For pure pathos, though, you couldn't do better than the decathlon finale. Fred Dixon, the first-day leader, faltered miserably on Day 2, got in his car to drive home, then had second thoughts. He made a U-turn and arrived just in time to compete in the last event, the 1500 meters even though he had no chance to make the team.

Inspired by a Dixon pep talk on finishing, Orville Peterson, who came in 32nd , was the trials' ultimate hero, struggling with an injury to complete the 1500. ''If they don't throw me out of the stadium, I'll finish,'' he said. He did too , in 9:44.80. - and to a standing ovation in recognition of his courage and perserverance.

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