WHEN American track king Carl Lewis broke the human speed barrier in the 100-meter dash last Sunday, his lightning pace was boosted by having to run against the world's fastest sprinters."This is the best race of all time, with the best runners," said Lewis, breathlessly, after winning at the championships held in Tokyo. "It was just a matter of doing our best." Just as amazing as Lewis's winning time of 9.86 seconds - shaving 0.04 off the old record held by countryman Leroy Burrell - was that the other runners, also driven by an unusually intense competition, all set personal bests as well as national records. Such a mass record-breaking may itself have set a record. What stuck out was that this championship was able to bring together the world's best athletes in most of the track and field events, whereas the Olympics have become prone to boycotts and other political influences that leave gaps in the competitive fields and doubts about world ranking. The strong Cuban team, for instance, skipped the Olympics in 1984 and 1988. But it was here. In fact, this giant meet drew the largest number of nations (168) for any sports event ever, according to Primo Nebiolo, president of the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), the governing body for track and field. More than 1,700 athletes showed up for the championships, running through Sept 1. The IAAF, which includes 184 nations as members, reigns over national federations that in turn reign over most of the running, jumping, and throwing sports. Worried more than a decade ago that athletes were becoming political pawns in the modern Olympics, the IAAF decided to sponsor a world championship as an additional opportunity. The first one was held in Rome in 1983, then Helsinki in 1987, and now Tokyo in 1991. The athletes, while eager to earn an Olympic gold at next summer's Olympics in Barcelona, regard the championships as helping them to know truly who is the best in the world - by making sure that the world's best (whenever uninjured) show up. The championships have became so popular with athletes that the IAAF decided in August to hold them every two years, rather than four, thus beating out the quadrennial Olympics in a sort of contest between contests. The next one will be in Stuttgart, Germany in 1993, with the Swedish city of Gothenburg as the candidate for 1995. Still, the championships have not escaped the aura of the Olympics, and even try to copy it. The Tokyo meet opened with a grand ceremony, watched by the Japanese Emperor, with a torch-carrying runner lighting a giant flame atop the stadium. The meet came with its own cute mascot, abstract symbol, and medals of gold, silver, and bronze. Victors stood on white boxes to receive their medals and listen to their national anthems. To host the contest, Japan refurbished the stadium built for the 1964 Olympics, adding the latest in high-tech video, electronic timers, robots, plus a newly developed chipless urethane track surface (nicknamed the "magic carpet") designed to give runners a springy send-off on each step that may help break speed records. But the IAAF's goal of keeping "amateur" athletics somehow immune from worldly influences is far from easy. This meet was dogged by concerns over politics, drugs, commercial sponsorships, and state-managed athletics. In the unified German team, for instance, there were lingering differences between athletes from former West Germany and those trained under the rigorous sports program of former East Germany. China, with its system of state-supported sports schools designed to make the country an athletic superpower by the next decade, saw female shotputter Huang Zhihong win the gold medal in the women's shot put. The IAAF, eager to include all nations, invited the newly racially unified South African track body to compete in Tokyo. South Africa had been banned from the IAAF in 1976. BUT the South African sports federation declined, saying the country had not eliminated all racial policies. "Political considerations seemed to be more important than the interests of South African athletes," stated the South African President, F. W. de Klerk, in a letter to the IAAF. Admitting South Africa to the championship was to be "a symbol for us - a symbol of unity, a symbol of friendship, a signal that the isolation was finished," said Nebiolo. "Unfortunately, we could not succeed." Still, South Africa, which has not been in the Olympics since 1960, is still expected to be able to in the 1992 Olympics. In another incident, the Soviet team of 186 almost did not make it to the championship, which opened during the upheaval in the wake of the Soviet coup attempt. Pole-vault world record holder Sergei Bubka left Moscow when the coup was in progress, fearful of leaving his family behind, a move which might upset his ability to concentrate. "The situation was very hard for me," he said. "I don't know how well I would have jumped with my family staying in Russia and the situation very serious." This competition also showed that the issue of drug use in enhancing an athlete's ability has not ended. Just before the championship, the IAAF decided to increase from two to four years the suspension of any athlete caught "doping" their bodies with drugs. The action was necessary, said Mr. Nebiolo, because 32 athletes had been suspended in the first six months of 1991 alone. Controls were tightened following the two-year suspension of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who tested positive for drugs after winning the 100-meter dash at 9.79 seconds in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. "We believe that now our athletes understand that we are serious," Nebiolo said. "We regret that not all the other federations are [addressing] the problems in the same manner." Some athletes wonder if old records may never be broken because they were set by athletes doped with drugs. Lewis, and the previous 100-meter record-holder Leroy Burrell, however, tried to highlight the drug-free nature of the Championships, while criticizing the IAAF for not slapping life bans drug-using athletes. "I do believe there's definitely a difference," Lewis said. Burrell, who lost his title as the world's fastest man to Lewis in Tokyo, said, "Many people thought it was not possible to run this fast without drugs. It is." Both Lewis and Burrell, however, showed no hesitation promoting their sportswear sponsors before the championships. Criticism was raised that at least one sponsorship was influencing an athlete's performance. Pole-vaulter Bubka, backed by Nike, is paid a bonus every time he sets a new world record. As a result, he has chosen at almost every contest to jump to a new height only by a small increment, then calls its quits, collects another bonus, and waits for the next meet. "As a Soviet citizen, Bubka certainly knows the ways of capitalism," said one Nike official.
IAAF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS TO DATE
1983 Rome 1987 Helsinki 1991 Tokyo (IAAF decides to hold championships every two years.)
FUTURE EVENTS 1993 Stuttgart, Germany 1995 Gothenburg, Sweden (candidate city)