For Fred Lebow, the days leading up to last Saturday's New York Track and Field Games were fraught with anxiety. One would have thought that the impresario of the New York City Marathon would find it a cinch to organize a single-stadium event. But Lebow was fast learning that a track meet has its own problems. Athletes were backing out at the last minute, and ticket sales were slow. Four days before the meet, he learned that the sand in the long jump pit was not of the proper consistency and that replacing it with the right stuff would add $2,100 to the $250,000 the meet was already expected to lose.
"Everyone is hoping for the meet's success," Lebow said. "But a lot of people in the know are predicting failure."
With good reason. Since track became an openly professional sport in the '70s, there had not been an outdoor meet in the U.S. as ambitious as this one. Lebow spent $750,000, an astronomical sum by the sport's standards, and consequently was able to attract a host of Olympic champions and world-record holders—Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 110-meter hurdler Roger Kingdom and high jumpers Patrik Sjoberg of Sweden and Javier Sotomayor from Cuba. The meet would go a long way toward answering the question of how much Americans care about track and field. "I'm very concerned," Lebow admitted on Tuesday. "We are taking a tremendous gamble. This meet has got to work."
It did work, beyond Lebow's highest hopes. Though the afternoon was suffocatingly hot and humid and the meet began under overcast skies, 12,112 people flocked to Columbia University's Lawrence A. Wien Stadium on the northern tip of Manhattan. The crowd was rewarded with a meet that was consistently good, at times superb. Lewis gave the first outstanding performance when he won the long jump—in the regulation sand—with a leap of 28'¼".
But it was Sandra Farmer-Patrick, the Jamaican-born hurdler who grew up in Brooklyn, who made the day something special. Farmer-Patrick is undefeated this summer in the 400-meter hurdles, and she set a U.S. record of 53.75 at the TAC championships last month. Though 15 of her relatives had made the trek from Brooklyn, Farmer-Patrick found most of her inspiration one lane to her left, where Joyner-Kersee was running. "I wanted to run well at home," she later said, "but more than that I wanted to beat Jackie."
Farmer-Patrick's start is the strongest part of her race, and she used it to build a lead that Joyner-Kersee was able to erode but not erase. Their struggle was not a pretty one. On the fifth, sixth and seventh hurdles, Farmer-Patrick ran up on the hurdles so hard that she had to make awkward, costly adjustments in her stride. Despite her choppy run, she hit the tape in a U.S.-record 53.37, .38 better than her own previous mark and 10 yards ahead of Schowanda Williams, who had caught Joyner-Kersee 50 meters from the finish. Farmer-Patrick had trouble believing she had run so fast. "I'm almost afraid to say how fast I can go now," she said. Certainly she has every right to set her sights on the world record of 52.94, held by Marina Stepanova of the U.S.S.R.
The men's high jump came down to two men, Sjoberg, the world outdoor champion, and Sotomayor, the world-record holder both indoors and out at 7'11½". With the bar set at 7'9¼", the jumping apron was ringed three and four deep by a hushed and wishful crowd. It was a study in contrasts. Sjoberg was all slippery finesse, sliding over the bar on his third attempt like a strand of blond linguini. The 21-year-old Cuban was power incarnate, accelerating violently just before takeoff. But Sotomayor did not come close. On his last try, he let out a yell before he reached the bar, then jumped straight up into it. Sjoberg had won.
When the meet was over, Lebow was relieved and making plans for next year. "I was overwhelmed more by the crowd than anything else," he said. The athletes, too, were making plans. Said Farmer-Patrick, "This will be my little meet now." Not so little, if Lebow has his way.
Farmer-Patrick broke her 400 hurdles record with her Brooklyn relatives watching.