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Mary vs. the Soviets

This is an excerpt from Runners on Running by Richard Elliott.

On cue, Zaitseva did rush past Mary Decker approximately 170 meters from the finish line, did jump her for a quick lead of five meters coming into the homestretch and did sprint ferociously toward the end, her legs driving powerfully, her face contorted in determination, her one good chance for a world championship set out in front of her, and no obstruction in view. The hand that held the dagger had stuck it in the back of her neighbor, to paraphrase an even more outrageous act of plunder. If you asked Mary Decker, she would say Zaitseva's five-meter lead and her clear view of the finish line was ill-got gain, the profit from cutting her off on the last turn. “I don't think it's personal. It's just the way they're trained. . . . She was running with me and leaning on me and I had to back off.” When Zaitseva cut in on her, the chop in Decker's stride, necessitated by the nearness of Zaitseva's move to the pole position, was barely detectable, but running at speed is a precision sport. Even a minor adjustment can cause a major decline in speed, cadence, and momentum. It would have been possible, of course, for Decker to fend Zaitseva off a bit, just touch her slightly to warn her of the encroachment at the critical stage, but she dared not, “It was a mistake, letting her cut me off. But I didn't want to have to make a sudden move. I stay more relaxed if I move into my sprint gradually. So I had to let her get a little lead, and then she surprised me by cutting in.” Making the decision of the moment—the decision not to touch Zaitseva and not to protect herself from the interruption in her race—was Decker's fear of disqualification and her fear that she might overreact, “If I was more aggressive,” she said, “we'd be punching (each other) through the turn.” So, in that moment, the moment when Decker fell victim to her inexperience and her apprehension, the race was decided. Decker had, in fact, run her race for fun, refrained from fisticuffs and physical battle, and now it was completed. Silver was good, and Zaitseva was a forceful and dynamic victor even if she was Soviet! That is what the eyes and the mind said as Zaitseva fled for home—except, that is, for the one detail that began slowly and then with gathering momentum to reveal itself. Decker was sprinting.

In the rough stride that took Zaitseva past Decker, a role reversal occurred instantaneously. Decker the pursued became Decker the pursuer. Decker the defender became Decker the attacker.

More Excerpts From Runners on Running