FAIRFAX, Va. -- Three ring circus:
The race was shaping up just right. There would be an all or nothing sprint to the tape involving the world's best indoor miler, the top American women and various other standouts from Germany, England and the Soviet Union.
The standing-room-only crowd of 5,200 at George Mason University tensed, leaned forward in anticipation and a roar began to build. Only 300 yards remained and it seemed a perfect setting to cap a fine meet.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, "For want of a spike, the runner was lost; for want of the runner, the competition was lost; for want of competition, the race was lost."
"It happened on the back corner [of the 200-meter track]," said Pattisue Plumer, the spikee, of the mishap. "I was second or third, on the outside and where I wanted to be. A runner [no names please] inside me was boxed in. She just shoved me out."
It wasn't the spike hole on the leg Plumer hated so much, it was the eighth-place finish. "There's a lot of bumping and pushing running indoors, that's part of the ballgame. But in a big race like this with such a strong field and in tight quarters, it's too bad there wasn't someone there shouting warnings."
There had been a couple of logjams early in the Kentucky Derby-sized field of 10 and, after being spiked, Plumer caught an elbow as she struggled to regain form. "I got an elbow," she said, "but I won't know until tomorrow [when the soreness shows up] where I got hit."
Record-holder Doina Melinte grabbed the lead with about 400 meters to go and was waiting for the big push from Plumer, who last fall ran the fastest mile (4:16.7) ever by an American woman while winning the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York. She was not disappointed when she glanced back in the stretch and saw only Romanian teammate Margareta Keszeg.
"Heck, I doubt I would have won anyway, Doina's so good and such a great tactician," said Plumer. "And I don't want to be mad at anyone. I'm frustrated, though, because I was having a really good race, something I haven't had in a while."
* It was just four years ago and Tony Barton, fairly new to this country from South America, was pretty apathetic toward track at Milford Mill High School because of his event.
"I was running hurdles," he recalls, "and I really didn't like it. Too much training. They held tryouts for the high jump one Saturday at 7 a.m. and I liked it. I felt comfortable right off."
As a senior, Barton jumped 5 feet, 8 inches in his first meet at the Fifth Regiment Armory and, a few months later, he was the state champion outdoors with a leap of over 6-8. From sneakers and clumsiness to the rafters in virtually no time.
That's why it came as no surprise when Tony pushed the United States' No. 1 Hollis Conway and the Cuban who has scaled 8 feet, Javier Sotomayor, to 7-7, in the Mobil 1 meet.
Conway won on fewer misses, same as happened in New York Friday night at the Millrose Games. Barton finished third both times.
"Satisfied," is the way Barton described his weekend. "Because of being home [he's a junior at George Mason] and my parents watching, I was kind of scared. I got no sleep last night and I'm working on some new things and don't have them down yet."
When Barton cleared 7-5 yesterday, he began thinking upset: "By the way the other guys were looking, I thought if I got over at 7-7 [a personal best] first, it might hold up."
He made it, but the timing was errant and he sat down on the bar. "Got to get to work toning my butt down; it always seems to knock the bar off," he quipped.
With an improvement of 2 feet since he began jumping just four years ago, if the progression holds, Tony Barton figures to be right up there when the Olympics roll around in a couple of years. And all because the hurdles seemed like too much work back at Milford Mill.
* You watch Michael Johnson run 400 meters around four tight turns in 46.23 seconds and you wonder why there was no sonic boom.
Maybe soon, because as the No. 1-rated 200- and 400-meter sprinter in the world explained, "I haven't really worked on my speed yet."
Johnson, who just finished up degree work at Baylor University, said he hit the books hard starting in September. He is thinking long term all the way.
"I don't want to be a guy who comes in and smashes everyone, then is gone, quickly," he said. In fact, it would be OK with him if he ran just one race at the World Championships (outdoor) late in the summer.
He's like a kid in a candy shop, however: everything looks so inviting. Johnson says he's sure he can get the 200 record of 19.72 seconds without a trace of bravado in his voice.
"In the 400, I can improve a lot because right now I don't have
any experience. I go out and do the 200 in 21 [seconds] and change and it doesn't take that much out of me. I just get behind 400 runners for 200 and then take it myself."
The strategy proved faulty on this occasion, though. He was the early speed and despite the fact world record-holder Thomas Schonlebe was in the race, Johnson was the late speed, too.
"I was fading, and I wasn't sure what was behind me," he said. The answer to that one in just about all Johnson's races is simple -- everyone.