I was in Helsinki in 1983 when Mary Decker took on the Soviet machine in the inaugural IAAF World Track & Field Championships over 1500 and 3000 meters. Due to the two Olympic boycotts that preceeded and the one in L.A. that followed it, Helsinki was the most rewarding track meet many observers had ever, or will ever see. The entire world of track was in attendance in that lovely Scandanavian capital, and nobody cared what insignia an athlete was wearing on his or her vest. The sport was just happy to once again have true competition at the highest level staged before a knowledgable, appreciative crowd.
Decker’s meet-defining double earned her both the Sullivan Award as the nation’s premier amateur athlete that year, and the Sports Illustrated designation as Sports Person of the Year. Imagine a track athlete even getting an SI cover these days?
13 World Championships later, we celebrate our second American gold medalist in the women’s 1500 meters, the delightful Jenny Barringer Simpson out of Colorado Springs, coached by a good friend and my some-time broadcast partner Juli Speights Benson. But truth be told, these were exactly the kind of 1500 meter races Morgan Uceny had feasted on throughout the Samsung Diamond League tour this summer, and at home at the USATF National Championships: slow, tactical affairs with incendiary final sprints. She must have been licking her chops.
The combination of Daegu, South Korea heat and championship rounds all but guaranteed a dawdling pace in today’s final. Even the favorites, such as they were, no longer intimidated the Cornell grad who won in Lausanne and Birmingham while racking up five top three finishes this summer against the best in the world. Morgan was even playful in the pre-race lineup, that’s how confident she was.
So as the women’s 1500 played out as if she scripted it herself – 400m in 68.78, 800m in 2:13.94 – visions of a glittering medal must have danced before her eyes. This is too easy, she must’ve been thinking. That thirty seconds later she found herself tumbling ingloriously to the mondo track in a heap, downed by a tripped-herself Hellen Obiri, the lone Kenyan in the field.
And there it was, proof again that the racing gods have a hand in such matters. This was Morgan Uceny’s race to win, but she just wasn’t meant to. All we can do is hope it spurs her to London 2012.
Not a bad consolation, though for the USA, for in Simpson we have a worthy champion who has left a string of friends and admirers along her path to glory. And next year the U.S. will have two, maybe more, medal favorites in London. Wonder who the racing gods will favor then?