Skip to main content
Original Issue

Time Waited...

...for a new American and an aging Brit at the World Track and Field Championships

Not until the final mile of the men's marathon last Saturday at the World Track and Field Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, did charging Mark Plaatjes of Boulder, Colo., finally know he would win. Plaatjes, 32, grew up in banned South Africa and had immigrated to the U.S. in 1988. This was his first chance to run in a major international championship. Now, with the stadium in sight and the leader, Lucketz Swartbooi of Namibia, crumbling before him, Plaatjes was about to turn opportunity to gold, and it gave him shivering fits.

But then as he caught Swartbooi there were other emotions. "I felt terrible when the time came to pass Lucketz," said Plaatjes, "because he had run so hard and had been so brave." At the moment of his life's greatest triumph, Plaatjes thought of his opponent, with whom he shared a heritage—that of being on the wrong end of southern African history.

Plaatjes is the son of a black father and a Portuguese mother and so was classified as "colored" under the rigid divisions of South Africa's apartheid system. Thus he was a second-class citizen, voteless, restricted in where he might live or travel. But he was a prodigious talent. At only 17 he won the first of three South African marathon titles. "Running gave me everything," he said last week. "I got an education only because I could run."

He got a good one, at Georgia on a track scholarship in '82 and '83. He later finished school in South Africa and became a physical therapist. He was paid half what his white classmates were. By 1988 he was married, with a three-year-old daughter, Genè. "My fundamental reason for leaving [South Africa] was that I didn't want her growing up feeling inferior to anyone," he said.

Plaatjes settled in Boulder and began working in a private therapy practice. For five years he was stateless, able to run in invitationals but not in the Olympics or the worlds. He performed competently, winning the 1991 L.A. Marathon, but never approached his personal best of 2:08:58, set in 1985. "I needed a clearer focus," he said. On July 24 he finally got one: U.S. citizenship. He arrived in Stuttgart in the shape of his life, a man galvanized.

For much of the race, run on a hot, muggy evening, a pack of more than 20 bided its time while excitable Tanzanians and Cubans elbowed for the lead. Then, at about 18 miles, Swartbooi forced the pace, and the pack disintegrated.

In April, Swartbooi had placed third at Boston in 2:09:57. His Namibia, of course, is a freshly independent nation bounded to the south and southeast by South Africa. Swartbooi, the name his family was given long ago in the Afrikaans language imposed on his people, means "black boy." He carried himself with no wasted motion. By contrast, Plaatjes's left hand flew to his throat at every step, as if he were scratching a case of poison oak.

When Swartbooi moved, Plaatjes let him and several others go. Upon this decision his race hung. "I never felt really bad," he said, "but I was uncomfortable going faster. I held the pace."

One by one the others tired and came back to the new American. Swartbooi, too, began tottering. Plaatjes caught his man with barely half a mile to run. Remorseful or not, he passed him. "I thought, He's only 26," said Plaatjes. "He'll have other chances."

Plaatjes finished in 2:13:57, 14 seconds ahead of Swartbooi, to become the first American male to win an Olympic or world marathon since Frank Shorter took the gold in Munich in 1972.

"I'm an American now, and this race was for America," said Plaatjes. "But I have always felt pangs of conscience over whether I should have stayed [in South Africa] and helped things change. I hope people there feel this is the victory of a native son and might be inspired."

If the marathon purged some suffering, then the men's 100-meter dash on Sunday proved that we are all hit by time's winged arrow, though you wouldn't know it by the performance of Great Britain's Linford Christie, 33, the Barcelona Olympic champion. Christie faced not only 32-year-old Carl Lewis—who in this race in 1991 had set the world record of 9.86—but also a feisty new challenger in U.S. champion Andre Cason.

At 5'7" and 154 pounds, and with a scooting stride, the 24-year-old Cason is, in the words of his sprint relay teammate Jon Drummond, "a cannonball duck." Cason tore up the prelims, running a 9.96 in his quarterfinal and a 9.94 in his semi. Christie, who won his semi in 9.97, watched it all with concern.

"Andre's times got me a bit nervous," said Christie later. "But I have been in major championships before. Andre has not. I figured to call on that experience to be able to dig a bit deeper."

At the gun the U.S.'s Dennis Mitchell, the Barcelona bronze medalist, was away first but in the process almost hurled himself out of his lane and into Cason's to his left. They probably would have collided, but Cason, out of character, had the slowest reaction to the gun of the eight finalists. After five steps he was well behind Mitchell. Christie, who starts remarkably well for a tall (6'2") man, had the lead at 40 meters.

Cason was hardly beaten. He churned into top gear and took the lead with 40 meters to go. But then Christie caught him and began to inch away.

Now all eyes turned to Lewis, the master of the late-race rush, but he was in seventh place. Lewis did close well but made it only to fourth. "I haven't been concentrating," he would say. "I should have gone home [to Houston], finished my house and taken a vacation. But this doesn't mean it's all over yet."

Christie won in 9.87, the second-fastest 100 ever run, and a scant four inches from Lewis's world record. Cason was second, in a personal best of 9.92, and was jubilant at having acquitted himself well. Mitchell, who had had to take a month off with a sore tendon, was third, in 9.99.

Drummond, who knows Christie well, feels success has matured Christie. "He always had a certain, call it imperial, air," says Drummond. "But remember, for years he got beat by Ben Johnson, Carl and Leroy Burrell. He had to be cocky to last through all that. Then he won in Barcelona and what does he hear? That he didn't deserve it because Carl had been sick at the U.S. trials and wasn't in the race. Now that's all put to rest."

Christie, pressed for perspective, was at his most mellow. In speaking of how he cares more about medals than records—"because you get to keep medals"—he seemed to wish to make the moment tangible, but he hardly craved immortality. "No, Carl is the best of all time," he said, "though I might be up there somewhere near him. It's nice to have this occasion. No one can say the best guys weren't here. I am on my way out. There will be youngsters like Andre coming in next year. It means a lot to me to do this now, at the end of an era."



Both Plaatjes (top) and Christie (No. 444) seized the day and then ceded the future.