If 1984 kick-started my obsession with the sport of Track & Field, 1985 was my introduction to the Eastern Bloc. All roads led to Canberra that year for the 4th World Cup in athletics and despite the absence of Lewis, Slaney, Cram, Cruz and Aouita, it was a remarkable meet.
Canberra ’85 was the first time I got a sense of a Carl-Ben rivalry. After Ben bulldozed the 100m in 10.00 to become the 6th fastest man of all-time he calmly pronounced: “I would still have won even if Carl Lewis had been there.” Kirk Baptiste won the 200m in 20.38 but was unfortunately disqualified for running out of his lane round the curve. At least it allowed Darren Clark, who had already run a 400m, to get bumped up to 3rd place. The 4x400m was another spectacular race, with the American Ray Armstead getting pushed onto the infield. When he finally got the baton to Mike Franks, the U.S.A was in 4th place. Franks, who had won the individual 400m, ran like a true champion round the oval and just pipped Innocent Egbunike at the line. To add to the drama the Nigerian managed to lose his baton a few metres from the finish and his team was disqualified!
All of this excitement though was nothing compared to the super-athletes I was laying my eyes on for the first time, the Soviets and the East Germans. There was Timmerman against Smirnov in the shot, Schult vs Kolnootchenko in the discus, Rodehau battling with Tamm in the hammer and the brilliant Uwe Hohn with his 96.96 javelin throw. Despite their brilliance however, the competitors that really caught my attention, this time 30 years ago, were the East German women. I fell in love with Drechsler, Busch and Oschkenat and became totally mesmerized by Felke, Hellman, Gohr and the unbelievable Marita Koch.
Koch had run the highlight of the first day, a 21.90 200m from lane 1 into a 0.7 headwind. Then she followed that with a 47.9 leg in the 4x400m win over the Soviets. THE performance of the champs though as well as the season, a year that witnessed records galore, came on the last day, in the women’s 400m. I’ll never forget the first WR I ever saw, the way Marita tore through the first 150m, her power and endurance as she maintained her rhythm through to 300m and then her ability to endure pain in the finishing straight, smashing Kratochvilova’s time by nearly 0.4, even though she tightened up near the end.
Moments later, the East Germans were at it again, this time without Koch, but just as magnificent, with a 41.37 4x100m relay. That relay team was perfect and the whole team was superb. I followed them closely with excitement and joy without fail after ’85 until they were disbanded in 1990. Split ’90 was their final champs and for me athletics since then has never been the same. It was a glorious 6 years.