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Wednesday, August 8, 2001
Is she really the finest athlete in the world?
By Jim Murray
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on January 6, 1987.
The world's greatest athlete?
Don't bet that the world's greatest athlete will be in the Super Bowl, the World Series, Centre Court at Wimbledon or the prize ring at Caesars Palace.
Don't bet the world's greatest athlete is a great hulk with a beard that positively needs shaving every day. The world's greatest athlete may very well look good in high heels and mesh stockings, lipstick and bracelets.
The world's greatest athlete may be just like the girl that married dear old dad.
Which is to say, a very good case could be made for Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The world's greatest athlete may very well be just a slip of a girl and not a hunk at all -- just 5-10 and 155 -- who can cook, has brown eyes and a nice smile and a figure that could make a chorus line.
What do you want of a great athlete? Speed? Strength? Capacity for hard work? Versatility? Determination?
This Jackie might be the greatest in all those departments since another Jackie -- Robinson -- also a great athlete.
You want speed in the world's greatest athlete? How about 12.8 seconds over the 100-meter hurdles? You want the ability to jump? How about 23 feet 9 inches?
You want strength? How about a 50-foot shotput, give or take an inch or so? How about a 22.8 time in the 200? How many people do you know who can throw a javelin 164 feet?
Jackie Joyner-Kersee is not the best in the world in any one of the heptathlon's seven events, but she's the best in the world at all seven.
Not since the storied Babe Didrikson has America had a woman who holds the world record in a multi-event competition.
Babe Didrikson might have been the greatest athlete of her sex who ever lived -- maybe of any sex.
So might Jackie J.
Unlike Didrikson, Jacqueline Joyner did not begin life as the village tomboy. The Babe, who grew up in Beaumont, Texas, could always do anything the boys could do -- better. Jackie Joyner probably went to the track because her brother Al, who later won a gold medal in the triple jump at the Los Angeles Olympics, went there.
She concentrated on the long jump. She became good enough to make the Olympic final, where she finished fifth, out-jumping Carl Lewis' sister, Carol, who was favored in the event, but finishing behind the Romanian jumpers for the medals.
The heptathlon is less a sporting event than a modern Inquisition. Torquemada would have loved it. The girls who enter it are subject to every form of torture short of the rack and fingernail-pulling.
It is a seven-stage ordeal in which you are expected to hurdle, jump, run, throw. In between, you gasp for air with lungs that feel as if they have been sandpapered. People come out of it about in the condition they crawl out of a plane wreck. Your heart is on fire, your feet hurt, your back aches and your teeth don't feel too good, either.
In Babe Didrikson's day, it was popularly supposed that women couldn't take more than three events of this grueling nature. That was before they realized women had more endurance than men. By 1964, the multi-sport competition had been expanded to five events, and Soviet women, who were built more or less along the lines of locomotives, excelled at it.
By 1980, the competition was stretched to seven events, still short of the men's 10 in a decathlon but still almost as big an assignment as climbing a snow mountain in bare feet and dental floss. You run the high hurdles and 200 meters, high jump and put the shot one day. You long-jump, throw the javelin and then wind up with a cardiac nightmare, the 800 meters, on the second.
That would be hard enough on a grown man bursting with good health, but Mrs. Kersee -- husband, Bob, is also her coach and the coach of a dozen other medal-winning Olympians at UCLA -- does it all despite a chronic case of asthma.
According to Coach Kersee, Jackie's is a form of the disease that is brought on by, of all things, exercise. Which is like -- what? -- a great chef being allergic to flour? A jockey who sneezes when exposed to horsehair.
With the defection of the Soviet Bloc at the 1984 Olympics, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was a mild favorite to win the heptathlon at the Coliseum.
A heptathlete, like a male decathlete, usually stands our in one event. Jackie's event is the long jump. When she barely clipped 20 feet in her long jump at the Los Angeles Games, she became downcast. She thought she had blown her chance at the gold. She hadn't, really.
"She was so inexperienced in international meets that she got emotional, lost her concentration," explains husband Kersee.
Even then, she finished only five points behind the winner, Australian Glynis Nunn. She beat the ultimate winner in the shotput, the 200 and the javelin throw and tied her in the high jump. The long jump was the crusher. If she could have jumped within a foot of her all-time best, she would have had a lock on the gold. Jackie had to settle for the silver medal.
At the Goodwill Games in Moscow last summer, Jackie arrived with a crash. She not only set the world record, she became the first woman -- and, so far, the only -- in history to post 7,000 points in a heptathlon.
She has now broken that record, too. At Houston, last fall, she exceeded her 7,148 Moscow points by a "dime," totaling 7,158. Competing in temperatures up to 126 degrees, she routed her competition by 1,024 points.
It has been calculated that if she could put together a heptathlon of her lifetime personal bests, she could top 7,500 points.
If that doesn't put her in the hunt for the putative world's greatest athlete with any cornerback, welterweight, backcourt man, pitcher or hitter who ever lived, you'll have to tell her admirers what does.
On her way to Seoul in '88, Jackie will be starring in a few meets this indoor season. One of them will be the Sunkist Invitational at the Sports Arena Friday night, Jan. 16 Jackie will be long-jumping that night, an event in which she again proposes to double in the 1988 Olympics.
A 7,000 score in the heptathlon is equivalent to a 10,000 score in the decathlon. In 1912, when Jim Thorpe posted his record decathlon, the King of Sweden, no less, saluted him with, "Sir, you are the world's greatest athlete."
Of course, Thorpe could also punt the football 70 yards, catch or throw one 55 yards and play baseball for the New York Giants, things Jackie J. Kersee hasn't yet proven she can do. On the other hand, don't bet she can't.
This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.