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Original Issue

Sweet Redemption

Three maligned athletes were vindicated during the world indoor championships

Outside, as the Blizzard mounted, the clouds above Toronto were thunderously dark, but the driven snow was inexplicably bright, as if the world were lit from within. Inside, safe and warm in the SkyDome, three of the athletes at the IAAF world indoor track and field championships performed in another strange, altered light: In the case of these masterly champions, it was almost as if we were seeing them for the first time.

One was Dan O'Brien, who set a world record of 6,476 points in the seldomstaged indoor heptathlon and then spoke the theme of his event—and of the meet. "The only way to overcome is to hang in," he said. "Even I'm starting to believe that."

O'Brien, of course, persevered after his devastating (and expensive) failure to make the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in the decathlon. One month after the Barcelona Games he broke Daley Thompson's eight-year-old world record, with 8,891 points. O'Brien now holds world records in both multievents, the decathlon and the heptathlon. More remarkably, he shines with the resolve of a fully tempered competitor. Even before he was finished in Toronto, O'Brien was plotting an attempt on the decathlon's 9,000-point barrier at USA Track & Field's outdoor nationals in June in Eugene, Ore. "Now, that is a goal," he said. One worthy of the strength that has matured within him.

The test for 800-meter runner Maria de Lurdes Mutola of Mozambique was to exploit her own bursting strength and to transcend some of her competitors' cattiness about it. Five years ago, after she ran 2:04.36 in a preliminary round at the Seoul Olympics, Mutola, then 15 years old, was awarded a grant by the Olympic Solidarity Committee to study overseas. When Mozambique officials found a middle-school guidance counselor in Springfield, Ore., who spoke Portuguese, Mutola's native tongue, they shipped the petrified youngster there. She has lived in Springfield with coaches Margo and Jeff Fund ever since, and over the last four years she has studied English at Springfield High and Lane Community College. She has also proved herself a prodigy, with a world junior girls' outdoor record of 1:57.63 at the 1991 world championships, and found herself the most popular athlete in her destitute African nation.

Lately she has also found herself defamed. Mutola's womanhood and racing tactics have been questioned by some of her rivals from the U.S., especially by Joetta Clark. In discussing the frequency with which Mutola and Clark seem to bump into each other during races and Mutola's strapping muscularity, Clark said recently, "I've been around the sport a long time, and there are things that should be there that she's missing," refusing all the while even to speak the name of "that individual."

Clark's disciplinarian father, Joe, the upstanding, bat-wielding high school principal whose virtues were extolled in the movie Lean on Me, says that he has advised his daughter not to be intimidated by Mutola. In fact, were the Clarks to sit down with Mutola, they would find her a pleasantly chatty 20-year-old college coed; and if they were to examine tapes of races in which Mutola and opponents have collided, they would see that she has been far more sinned against than she has sinned. The Clarks might conclude that Mutola is simply one of God's great talents.

Mutola certainly seemed to be just that in Toronto. She ran the first turn of the 800 final with eagerness, emerging in front, out of traffic, and passed 400 meters in 58.85. Then she got serious. "I could feel I had more power," she said afterward, "so I used it."

She bolted free of Russia's Svetlana Masterkova and Clark, and for the final 200 meters the crowd was on its feet. "I was thinking of the world record," Mutola said, "but I'm not ready. Not quite." Even so, she finished in 1:57.55, the third-fastest women's indoor 800 ever, 1.15 seconds off the world mark of Christine Wachtel of what was then East Germany. Her out-flung arms and joyous grin seemed to be an embrace of a new life.

When Clark, who finished third in a personal-best 1:59.86, was asked to pose with Mutola on the victory stand, she did, and she smiled, although her reluctance was visible. The gesture was enough for Mutola, however, who was still savoring the first playing of the Mozambican national anthem in world-championship track history. Mutola's expression made it clear that this particular win had helped heal her wounds.

Butch Reynolds, too, is triumphing over his critics. In December a federal judge awarded him $27.3 million, mostly in punitive damages, from the IAAF after ruling that track's international governing body had acted falsely and with malice in reporting that Reynolds had flunked a drug test in 1990 and in suspending him for two years. Reynolds has yet to collect, but he plans to attach sponsorship money that U.S. companies owe the federation. In fact, Reynolds is willing to settle the case for less than he was awarded, but IAAF president Primo Nebiolo seems yet unable to grasp the seriousness of the situation and has made no peace offering.

Toronto was Reynolds's first international race since his reinstatement on Jan. 1, and he came looking, in his word, for "vindication." He is a far more serious man than he was in the summer of 1990. "Let's be honest," he said last week. "I just didn't appreciate what sacrifices people have made to win human rights. The hardest part is educating other athletes about the issues, about how valuable the rights are that they take for granted."

Thus, Reynolds was gratified to be voted captain of the American team in Toronto, a far cry from his days of ostracism last summer at the hands of some of these same athletes. But even with its promise of a satisfying conclusion, the long ordeal had bound Reynolds to his cause so tightly that it had become an obsession. He knew that and planned a way out. He would run.

Reynolds drew lane 5 for the 400 final, which meant that his starting blocks were high on the first turn, only 10 feet from the seats in the IAAF's VIP (actually called VVIP by the IAAF) section. He saw no Nebiolo. So he turned to his work.

At the gun he sprinted well, but Nigeria's Sunday Bada held him wide as they cut for the pole and hit the 200 in 21.3. It wasn't until the last turn that Reynolds, calling upon immense late-race strength, passed Bada. He won in 45.26, a meet record and the fifth-fastest time ever run indoors. Indeed, the extra distance he covered by running the last two turns in the second lane makes his time the equal of the indoor record (45.02), held by Danny Everett of the U.S.

Reynolds's gold medal was his first from a world championship. It would have been perfect if Nebiolo, who attended the meet, had gritted his teeth and presented Reynolds with his medal, but he didn't.

"I would have thanked him for allowing me my right as an athlete to run," said Reynolds. "But the important thing is that as I crossed that line, the saga came to a close. I'm tired, but I can rest now. I feel like I can live a normal life now. I can be a CEO now, or a teacher. Before that finish line I couldn't do that."

Reynolds felt precisely what he hoped he would feel. Finally, he felt free.



In victory, Mutola embraced the crowd, which embraced her.



Since failing to make the '92 Olympic team, O'Brien (right) has cleared all obstacles.