The Olympic ledger is not a time line. It records only what happens during the space of two weeks every four years, and is no respecter of reigning world champions, record holders, or highly ranked performers. That point has been made consistently during the first eight days of the Seoul Games, but most clearly during the men's 400-meter hurdles Sunday.
The event has basically belonged to American Edwin Moses since 1976, when he captured the gold medal in Montreal. He won 107 straight races in one incredible stretch, and, at age 33, arrived here as the world record holder, '84 gold medalist, and ``man to beat.''
His legend usually proceeds him, but this time it could not help in catching two rivals, who left Moses and his mystique behind. Andre Phillips, who had long struggled to beat Moses, broke the electronic finish line first, and was shadowed by Senegal's El Hadj Dia Ba, an even more surprising silver medalist. Moses took third, and almost seemed relieved to hold on for the bronze.
``After 12 years of winning and dealing with relentless pressure, I was just glad to get on the awards stand,'' he said. ``I ran a good race, and that's what the Olympics are all about.''
There were other stars, too, who found that their best of the moment was not enough to fulfill expectations.
Mary Decker Slaney, for example, finished a disappointing 10th in the women's 3,000-meter run, where she sought to erase the bitter memories of her 1984 race-ending collision with Zola Budd. This time she simply had an off day and saw her dream of finally winning a gold medal postponed until her next race, the 1500 meters, scheduled to begin midweek.
Even Carl Lewis, the defending Olympic champion, found that running an American record was insufficient to beat Canada's Ben Johnson in the 100 meters. Johnson broke to an early lead, then pulled away in a display of power running that yielded up a new world record of 9.79 seconds despite some pre-finish-line celebrating. Big Ben managed to knock 4 hundredths of a second off his old mark, shattering Lewis's bid to repeat his '84 triumphs in the 100, 200, long jump, and 4 x 100 relay.
It wasn't just in track and field that Olympic magic altered anticipated outcomes.
Soviet gymnast Dmitri Bilozerchev, a pre-Olympic favorite in several events, grabbed only one gold, and that as a member of his country's powerful men's team.
Finnish rower Pertti Karppinen, seeking his fourth straight gold in the single sculls, was eliminated before reaching the finals.
In tennis, Chris Evert was upset by italy's Rafaella Reggi, while Helena Sukova and Henri Leconte, two highly ranked international players seeded fourth in their respective Olympic tournaments, went down to virtually unknown South Koreans, obviously inspired by the home court advantage.
Even America's Matt Biondi, though practically a one-man medal-winning armada with five golds, a silver, and a bronze, was outswum in one of his big events, the 100-meter butterfly. The surprise victor was Anthony Nesty, Suriname's first gold medal winner and the only black to claim an Olympic swimming title. Nesty has attended college in the United States.
Though there were other delightful examples of how Olympic lightning strikes, the established stars of sport didn't suddenly all disappear.
On the contrary, many proved basically impervious to Olympic pressure.
Biondi, put on the spot by media talk about being another Mark Spitz, turned in a tremendous week-long performance in his own right and actually came closer than might have been realistically expected to Spitz's seven-gold-medal show in 1972. East Germany's Kristin Otto collected six golds, and 17-year-old American Janet Evans, a Tinkerbell in water, picked off three golds and may have inspired millions of little girls to consider a future in the sport.
Sisters-in-law Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith Joyner lived up to their magazine-cover status, and could achieve even greater glory by week's end.
Jackie was unofficially crowned the world's greatest female athlete when she won the seven-event heptathlon with the highest score ever recorded. A day later, fashionable Florence shed the hood from her USA uniform and ran to a 100-meter victory that was as convincing as Johnson's had been. Even with teammate Evelyn Ashford, the defending champion, giving chase, ``Flo-Jo'' was so completely in control she smiled through much of the race and very nearly equaled her world record.
Women were front and center elsewhere, too. Rosa Mota won only the second women's Olympic marathon and became the first female from Portugal to capture a gold medal in track and field.
Christa Rothenburger-Luding of East Germany very nearly established her own niche in Olympic history. A gold-medal-winning speed skater in Calgary, she was attempting to land a gold here as well in the first-ever women's cycling sprint event. No woman has won gold in the summer and Winter Games in the same year, which hasn't changed after Soviet Erika Saloumiae outdueled her East German rival on the steeply banked velodrome.
Women's gymnastics, of course, is now a regular highlight of every Olympics (see accompanying story). What few expected was the attention given to a jockey-size weight lifter, Turkey's Naim Suleymanoglu, who is called Pocket Hercules. This mighty mite not only blew away the world records in his 132-pound class, he also seized the moment to tell the story of his defection from Bulgaria, where he felt discriminated against because of his Turkish heritage.
Despite racking up quite a few medals, this has not been a good Olympics for Bulgaria. Before details of Suleymanoglu's defection were shared, Sofia had lost in its bid to become the host city of the 1994 Winter Games. Worse yet, two members of Bulgaria's successful weight-lifting team tested positive for drugs, at which point the squad dropped out in disgust and shame.
A couple of swimmers brought disgrace to themselves, and by extension to the US team, when they were involved in a prankish theft in downtown Seoul.
The host country was embarrassed by a bizarre boxing incident in which an angry South Korean coach attacked the referee, causing mass chaos. The president of the country's National Olympic Committee has since resigned, distraught over the bad impression this may leave of a generally well-organized, happy Olympics.
The South Koreans have been delighted, meanwhile, by the excellent performances of native sons and daughters. But as expected, the Soviet Union and East Germany, eager to show how much their absence in '84 may have affected the Los Angeles Games, have been the biggest medal gobblers.