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Original Issue

Mannerly murder in Minsk

Russian fans greeted the Americans with roses, but that did not stop the U.S. team from having a prickly time as both the men and women lost

As evidence of improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union—or perhaps to bolster their campaign to stage the 1980 Olympics in Moscow—the Russians lavished uncommon cordiality on the visiting U.S. track team last week in Minsk. But, while the U.S.S.R. was killing the Americans with kindness, there was a different sort of slaughter occurring at the stadium during the 11th Russian-American meet. There the U.S. was getting it in the neck.

Repeating their home victory of 1970, the Russian men won 121-112, handing the U.S. men their third loss in the series, even though the teams split first-place medals 11-11. For the American women, it was decidedly worse. On the opening day the Russian women finished one-two in every individual event and then added the 400-meter relay to their haul. The U.S. situation improved the next afternoon when Patty Johnson ran away from the hurdles field, Martha Watson long-jumped 21'7¼", and tiny Mary Decker, the darling of two continents at age 14, outkicked Olympic silver medalist Niele Sabaite to win the 800 meters. Still, the Russians took the women's competition for the 10th time 95-51. The combined score read U.S.S.R. 216, U.S.A. 163. It was the first time either team had exceeded 200 points.

The lopsided score should have cheered the two-day total of 85,000 fans at Dynamo Stadium. Instead, they remained as sullen as the huge portrait of Lenin, who cast hex signs at the pole vault pit beneath him, where the U.S. was supposed to take first and second but finished three-four, and where little Jeff Bennett vaulted only 15'1¼" to lose the decathlon. For zealous boorishness, Minsk rivaled any crowd Philadelphia can assemble. The European whistle, equivalent to our boo, was directed at a humiliated Valery Borzov, the double gold medal sprinter at Munich, and at javelin thrower Janis Lusis, a five-time winner in the Russian-American series.

Borzov, 20 pounds overweight, had to scratch from both sprints and proved no match for Steve Williams on the anchor leg of the 400-meter relay. Lusis affronted the crowd by losing to Cary Feldmann, his worshipful friend from Seattle, who won with a throw of 289'5". "That was really a bush thing they did. He didn't have that bad a day," said Feldmann. Even in Russia, sports fans have short memories.

Minsk was the third stop on the U.S. team's competitive tour of Europe, and the American athletes who tiredly trekked into the capital of Byelorussia fully expected the worst to come off the track, not on it. Those who had been to Russia before offered a dour, unanimous forecast: a dumpy hotel, lousy food and yukky plumbing. What they experienced was a reception worthy of a Texas chamber of commerce and the easiest, most relaxed stay in Russia ever enjoyed by a U.S. team. Minsk was no worse than Cleveland, and probably better. "Man, I can't believe this is Russia," said steeplechaser Barry Brown. "They're really being nice to us."

It began with a crowd of 3,000 at the airport who greeted the visitors with roses all around. Then the Americans were bused to the Hotel Jubileinaya, a new high-rise hostelry that left the Hotel Minsk—the drab sort of place everyone was expecting—for the home team. In other years the Russians used the best hotel for their own headquarters.

Dynamo Stadium was only five minutes away, and since the organizers had provided bus or taxi service almost round-the-clock, neither training nor transportation was a problem. Indeed, the only hectic moments came at the wildly euphoric party that followed the meet and included loud rock music, dancing and some new highs in international camaraderie. Unfortunately, the party also found several Americans decidedly overmatched by an abundance of Byelorussian vodka, a dark amber liquor apparently concocted from rocket fuel, battery acid and wart remover.

The Russians' good cheer was not enough to revive an American team that had brought enough problems with it to preclude victory even in a U.S. city. Chief among them was the Russian meet's late date on the schedule, which meant that the Americans arrived weary from living three weeks on the road. The troubles were compounded by an AAU rule allowing certain athletes to jump the tour to participate in other European meets, lured by the possibility of under-the-table payments. The result was a team of inconsistent makeup, no unity and dubious morale.

Ironically, the one American athlete the Russians most wanted to see was one whose absence had no effect on the team score. He was Dwight Stones, who broke the high-jump world record with a 7'6½" leap at Munich, the first stop on the tour. Against the Russians, Reynaldo Brown and Tom Woods gave the U.S. a one-two finish in the event, but the Americans sorely missed distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who had returned home with a recurrent back problem. The Russian men swept all the races longer than 1,500 meters.

If some Americans seemed decidedly uninterested in competing against Russians, quite the reverse was true of Williams and fellow sprinter Herb Washington, both of whom have lusted for a chance to meet Borzov outdoors. Borzov, however, was scratched from the 100 meters before the Americans reached Minsk, and the race lost its international flavor. Williams beat Washington by two meters in 10.1, equaling the meet record despite easing up in the last half-dozen strides. Following the relay, the Soviet coaches decided to save Borzov further embarrassment and scratched him from the 200 meters as well.

It was a considerate move after what happened in the relay. Williams had taken the baton two full meters behind Borzov in their only confrontation. "It had to be that much," Williams said. "I could see their exchange before I got the stick myself." The 6'2", 179-pound New Yorker then proceeded to outspeed "The World's Fastest Human" with astonishing ease. After 50 meters, when he had drawn even, Williams looked over his left shoulder at Borzov's eyes. "I didn't say anything to him," Williams said, "but I could see him react to the look." Williams then left Borzov to the whistlers as he won by three meters.

"To lose is not a very good thing," Borzov said the next day. "But it is an argument to be better for the future."

"He is not running in the 200 today because yesterday he had a trauma," the interpreter said. "He does not know what it is."

The trauma was Williams, who said, "Frankly, I was disappointed. I expected much better from him. I've had a harder time catching American sprinters. If I'd known how he was, I wouldn't have eased up at the end of the 100. I was saving myself for Valery in the relay." In the 200, he won in 20.7, easily beating teammate Mark Lutz.

Because of her age, Mary Decker may have astonished the Russians more than Williams. But her victory was logical, according to Brooks Johnson, the women's coach. "Mary has a good chance to win," he said before she raced. "She's gotten the most sleep and had the most consistent workouts of anyone on the team. Because of her age, she doesn't have a lot of the interests that the older women do." She had a different curfew from the rest of the girls and an ample guardian in the person of 240-pound shotputter Al Feuerbach, who kept her attention with a card game called concentration.

The 5-foot, 86-pound girl from Garden Grove, Calif. also ran a heady tactical race against Sabaite, hanging in fourth place till the last 100 meters, when she began her kick off the turn. She moved quickly into the lead and then held off Sabaite in the stretch, accelerating at the end for a 2:02.9 clocking that was a new personal best.

"I knew I had something left to sprint with," she said. "I didn't know what she had left." In a rare instant when the Minsk crowd cheered an American victory—or failed to jeer a Russian loser—Mary received loud applause. "These people are great," she cheered back.

Mary's race also pointed out one value of the Russian meet that had been largely forgotten. Johnson mentioned it early in the week when he said, "We've had a great deal of conversation about points and scoring. I don't want to minimize that aspect, but there has been a proud tradition of competition between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and because of it the real benefits cannot be measured by the final scores. It has proved that the athlete can do what the politician cannot. The spirit, tradition and opportunity for development have all been much more important than the scores." Even a few absent American athletes and some unforgiving Russian fans could not detract from that.




LENIN LOOMS LARGE in the background as the starter raises his pistol to open a sprint.