Tuesday, September 14
Szabo is in the money
 
By Jeff Hollobaugh
Special to ESPN.com

 Gabriela Szabo is but a wisp of a woman when you see her on the street. There's not much to her: straight blonde hair, thin, gangly arms and legs, glasses.

Gabriela Szabo
Gabriela Szabo is track's first female millionaire over one season.
If you didn't know her and were asked to guess her occupation, you might say "librarian." But then you'd reconsider, because she doesn't look strong enough to lift more than a couple books at a time.

Watch the 23-year-old Romanian on the track and you will gain an entirely different impression of her. She may only be 5-foot-2¼, 106 pounds, but she packs outstanding power into that frame. Her finishing sprint is unbelievable, and at her best distances (3,000 meters, 5,000 meters), she cannot currently be beaten.

Zohra Ouaziz has probably figured that out by now. The Moroccan is a friend of Szabo's, but in their last 14 encounters, Szabo has beaten her 14 times, each time with a furious kick. That would test most friendships. If this were a bake-off somewhere in the Midwest, you can bet that Ouaziz would have already penned a frustrated letter to Dear Abby.

Yet the Moroccan and her Romanian nemesis still warmly embrace after each battle. Amazing. And now Szabo is a millionaire, the first woman in the sport's history to top that figure in prize money during one season. Since Ouaziz was second in most of those races, she's probably thinking, "There but for the grace of God ..."

At the Grand Prix Final in Munich, Szabo did it again. This time, the stakes were even higher -- the overall Grand Prix title. Maria Mutola had already won the 800, and if Szabo won her event, the two would be tied in points and would have to go to the tiebreaker.

The difference for Szabo would be $100,000. She would earn a maximum $250,000 if her performance in the 3,000 counted for more points on the IAAF scoring tables than Mutola's time of 1:59.10 in the 800. That meant Szabo would have to better 8:45.30; on current form, you would think she could do that in her sleep.

A slow early pace, however, stripped away all the guarantees. Szabo's competitors didn't seem to have much interest in making the pace fast for her. Why should they? A fast race would bring the millionaire more money. A slow race would too, just not as much. And either way she'd kick their butts.

So Szabo had to wait, and wait she did. She launched her ferocious kick at the last minute, and at the finish she was only 14 one-hundredths of a second ahead of Ouaziz. Her 8:43.52 put her into the money by a mere two seconds.

Now attention turns to Africa
The Grand Prix circuit may be concluded for the year, but that doesn't mean the action is finished. The All-Africa Games opens Tuesday in Johannesburg, and the competition could be very good indeed.

The region's thin air will help produce fast times for the sprinters, and Frank Fredericks has confirmed that he will compete in the 100 and 4-x-100 relay. The Namibian (and former BYU) star pulled out of the Worlds with a sciatic nerve problem. That's why he's shying away from the 200, because he says that racing on the curve irritates the nerve the most.

Haile Gebrselassie (Achilles injury) and Paul Tergat ("unavailable") will also be missing, yet the distance races are still expected to be excellent. World champ Gete Wami will headline the 10,000, Maria Mutola will run the 800, and the men's 800 will feature Hezekial Sepeng and Japheth Kimutai.

Ranking the century
Many readers have asked if I am going to produce any sort of ranking for the century. The most obvious ranking, of course, would be a listing of the 100 greatest track athletes of the 1900s. Obvious -- and difficult as well. That's because it would be a comparison of apples and oranges.

It is well nigh impossible to compare a distance runner and a shot putter in 1999. How on earth can one fairly evaluate the relative worth of this year's God of the Mile, Hicham El Guerrouj, with, say, Ralph Rose, the shot put champion of the 1904 and 1908 Olympics?

Instead, I will be ranking competitions. Still perhaps an impossible task, but at least the standards for comparison are fairer: excitement and significance.

What makes a great competition?
Fair question. Look at the last word there: competition. That's what I'm looking at. This is not a collection of great performances, per se, but a collection of great battles, both the exciting and the historically significant.

Roger Bannister's historic sub-4:00 mile won't make the grade; it was little more than a glorified time trial. His epic race against rival John Landy at the Empire Games later that summer, however, is a classic that will be included.

You'll find precious few rabbited races on the list. You will also probably find a North American bias here, though the main focus is on international competition. What you won't find is affirmative action. World-class track for women didn't come close to matching men's track until the 1960s, so the fairer sex has only had four decades of the century to work with. (Fanny Blankers-Koen, the star of the 1948 Games, is the notable exception. Babe Didrikson in 1932? Overrated.)

In ascending order, I'll present at least 10 competitions in each column until the end of the century. And I'll be glad to hear your comments and quibbles.

The Countdown
No. 100 -- Olympic Men's 5,000, Stockholm 1912: France's Jean Bouin won his heat in 15:05.0 (the world record at the time was 15:01.2). He pounded through the final at breakneck pace, burning off all of his competitors except Finland's Hannes Kolehmainen, who had won the 10,000 two days earlier. Journalists clocked the two in 8:46 at 3,000m, better than the world record. On the last lap, Kolehmainen pulled even and the two hammered away at each other. They passed three miles in 14:07.2, a full 10 seconds better than the world record.

With 20 meters left, Kolehmainen finally edged ahead. He crossed the line in 14:36.6, a world record by 24.6 seconds. Bouin, a tenth behind, captured the silver. Bronze medallist George Hutson of Britain ran one of the fastest times in history (15:07.6), but finished an astounding half-lap back. Kolehmainen returned to the Olympics after World War I to win the 1920 marathon gold. Bouin wasn't so fortunate. He was killed in the fighting, at age 25.

No. 99 -- Olympic Women's 80-meter Hurdles, London 1948: On paper, the "Flying Dutchwoman," Fanny Blankers-Koen, figured to be the strong favorite. She had run a world record for the 100 (11.5) that season and had also notched the best in the 80 hurdles (11.0). Many, however, considered the 30-year-old mother of two to be too old to win the gold. In fact, her prime motivation was a quote she read of the British team manager saying exactly that.

In the final she faced Maureen Gardner, a 19-year-old with great promise. Gardner got a great start, and Blankers-Koen a horrible one. It wasn't until after hurdle four that she drew even to Gardner. Then, outrunning her step pattern, she slammed hurdle five. She later recalled, "It was a grim struggle, in which my hurdling style went to pieces. I staggered like a drunkard."

Amazingly, Blankers-Koen hit the finish just inches ahead of Gardner, as both were timed in 11.2, an Olympic record.

No. 98 -- Olympic Men's Shot, Seoul 1988: East German Ulf Timmermann, the world record holder at 75 feet, 8 inches, entered the competition as the strong favorite, as Swiss rival Werner Gunthor had been weakened by flu. In the first three rounds, Timmermann threw three Olympic records, topped by a 72-8.5. Gunthor could only manage a 71-2.5, and American phenomenon Randy Barnes, "in a daze," had a best of only 67-11.75.

In round five, Gunthor scared Timmermann with a 72-1.75. The East German responded with another Olympic record, 73-1.75. Then Barnes "decided to get reckless" with his final throw. He spun at full speed, and hurled the shot out to 73-5.5 to take the lead. After two others finished off, Timmermann stepped into the ring for the final throw of the day. He popped a monster 73-8.75, an Olympic record that still stands today. "Now I have gray hair," he said.

No. 97 -- Olympic Men's Steeplechase, Helsinki 1952: Do the math ... the world record, set by the Soviet Union's Vladimir Kazantsev that year, was 8:48.6. FBI agent Horace Ashenfelter, who reportedly trained by leaping over park benches, had a best of only 9:06.4. Serious underdog territory. Still, Ashenfelter shocked by winning his heat with an American record 8:51.0. Then in the final, only the sixth steeple of his career, the Penn State alum outsprinted Kazantsev to steal the gold in a world record 8:45.4.

No. 96 -- Olympic Trials Men's 400-meter Hurdles, Stanford 1932: Running in the fifth 400 hurdles race of his life, LSU's Glenn Hardin barely made it to the final, qualifying out of lane one in his semi thanks to a desperate final sprint. Favored Eugene Beatty, the fastest hurdler in the world up to that point, led most of the final, with Hardin well back. On the last hurdle, however, Beatty fell. Hardin charged, moving from third place into the lead to claim victory in 53.5. Or so he thought. AAU officials disqualified him for running out of his lane, so he was denied the national title. But he was still declared the winner of the Trials ... go figure.

At the Los Angeles Olympics the next month, Hardin won silver with his world record 51.9. That's right. The winner, Ireland's Bob Tisdall (51.7), ran even faster but was denied record credit because he had knocked over a hurdle.

No. 95 -- Olympic Men's 400, Rome 1960: American Otis Davis, a former basketball player in only his third year of running, set an Olympic record of 45.5 in his semifinal. Germany's Carl Kaufmann clocked 45.7 in his.

In the final, South Africa's Mal Spence went out hard, while Davis and Kaufmann ran even at halfway in 21.8. On the final turn, Davis moved decisively, and he hit the straight with a clear lead. Passing 300 meters in 32.6, Davis had 0.7 seconds on Kaufmann. That lead evaporated quickly as Kaufmann mounted a brave finish.

Could Davis hold on? Clearly tiring, the American reached for the finish as Kaufmann reeled him in. At the line, Davis leaned, Kaufmann dived. The gold went to Davis, as both were hailed as the first men to break 45 seconds for one lap (44.9 for each, though the automatic times were 45.07 and 45.08).

No. 94 -- Weltklasse Women's 100, Zurich 1984: Evelyn Ashford versus Marlies Gohr, one of the great rivalries in the history of the sprints. East Germany's Gohr had won their last two matchups before the Olympics. But she was denied the chance to race Ashford in Los Angeles because of the Soviet-led boycott of the Games.

Ashford won the gold in 10.97, while Gohr won the Eastern Bloc "Friendship Games" in 10.95. They met to settle the score at the world's premier invitational, Zurich's Weltklasse. Gohr took command at the start, getting a full meter on her rival by the 20-meter mark. Ashford ran confidently, and at 60 meters pulled even. Gohr stiffened, while observers noted how relaxed Ashford ran. A final burst by the East German fell short. "I could sense that Gohr was even with me," said Ashford. "I knew I just had to relax and pull away." She did, clocking a world record 10.76 to Gohr's 10.84.

No. 93 -- Olympic Men's 5,000, Barcelona 1992: By the 1990s, Africans ruled the distance running world. At the previous summer's World Champs, they won 11 of 12 medals from 1,500 to 10,000 meters. German Dieter Baumann, a silver medalist in the 1988 Games, had honed his finishing kick to challenge them. Observers figured the Kenyans would use team tactics, with one of them forcing the pace to take the sting away from the kickers. Dominic Kirui drew that straw but wasn't up to the task, fading after two kilometers.

On the last lap, Baumann found himself badly boxed in. When his four African rivals started their sprints, he had nowhere to go. On the last turn, he realized he had to gamble. He hit the brakes to escape the box from the rear, and then ran wide to start passing the others. He moved into the lead with only 12 meters left, and won the gold by a stride in 13:12.52. His last 200? A dazzling 24.9 that included his escape act.

No. 92 -- Commonwealth Games Men's 1500, Auckland 1974: Tanzanian Filbert Bayi surprised no one when he blistered the early pace, with only Mike Boit trying to keep up. Through 400 in 54.9, and 800 in 1:52.2, Bayi charged. Much farther back ran Kenyan Ben Jipcho, who had won the Commonwealth gold twice. Olympic bronze medalist Rod Dixon also gave chase, and farther back ran his New Zealand teammate, John Walker.

At three laps (2:50.8), Boit had faded, and Jipcho mounted a doomed effort. Walker and Dixon soon passed him, and on the final turn, everyone waited for Bayi to crumble from the suicidal pace. It never happened. As Walker drew close on the homestretch, Bayi glanced at him and sprinted away. He crossed the line victorious in 3:32.2 as both he and Walker (3:32.5) broke Jim Ryun's world record of 3:33.1. So thrilled was Bayi that he launched into an all-out sprint on his victory lap.

Walker would go on to win the 1976 Olympic gold medal, one of many hoped-for clashes between the two that never materialized. Bayi was denied the chance to run in Montreal because of the African boycott of the Games.

No. 91 -- World Championships Women's 400 Hurdles, Stuttgart 1993: American Sandra Farmer-Patrick wanted to improve upon her silver medal at the previous year's Olympics. She worked herself into the best shape of her life, and ran this race as if her life depended upon it.

She charged into the lead at the first hurdle, and by hurdle four had a clear lead over her rival, Olympic champion Sally Gunnell. That margin slowly shrank, and as Gunnell blasted the second turn, she edged into the lead. Farmer-Patrick responded by sprinting back into the lead after hurdle No. 8. Gunnell, however, never let up, coming from a clear deficit at the last hurdle. She chewed away at the lead and passed the American several strides from the finish.

Gunnell (52.74) and Farmer-Patrick (52.79) both went under the world record of 52.94. Said the Briton, "I couldn't be sure that I had won, so I didn't start celebrating in case I made a fool of myself."

Jeff Hollobaugh, former managing editor of Track and Field News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached by e-mail at michtrack@aol.com.