NEW YORK -- Suppose they gave a track meet and didn't bring a wind gauge. Imagine asking elite performers to compete in the shadow of a bridge that funnels commuters to Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. Now, picture settling national championships in a crumbling, 55-year-old stadium where the balloons outnumber the spectators.
What was supposed to be a triumphant return of the national track championships to New York after a 25-year absence turned into an opening-day bomb yesterday. In a near-deserted Downing Stadium on Randalls Island, the best U.S. decathletes and heptathletes were subjected to substandard conditions in the USA/Mobil Championships.
"This ain't prime time," said Bobby Kersee, husband and coach of heptathlete star Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Moments before the meet began, Bobby Kersee shouted at officials who were trying to put the first touches, let alone the finishing touches, to the track.
As the meet began, workers were filling potholes on a long-jump runway and setting up athlete tents. The constant whine of a buzz saw and traffic backing up along the Triboro Bridge provided both noise and air pollution.
"I'm embarrassed on behalf of everyone here," said meet co-chairman Tracy Sundlun. "We've had Murphy's Law follow us. Murphy has been camped out."
Then there was the matter of the missing wind gauges. One title sponsor apparently thought the other would provide the instruments. A volunteer who was sent to Columbia University to retrieve a wind gauge returned two hours later after encountering traffic jams and driving the wrong way up a one-way ramp. He avoided a ticket by telling a police officer, "I have to get this for Jackie Joyner-Kersee."
But the worker was too late to help Joyner-Kersee or the other competitors.
"I just want to get through this," said Joyner-Kersee, who piled up 4,191 points through the first four events.
The lack of a wind gauge at the start of the meet negated the possibility of recognized U.S. and world records in the decathlon and the heptathlon.
Dan O'Brien ran 10.23 seconds in the 100 meters, a potential world record in the decathlon. But without a wind gauge, it was simply a personal best.
"I thought, 'Gosh darn, there goes a world record,' " O'Brien said.
Later, he watched as the volunteers tried to keep up with the decathletes.
"It was like they were going as we were going," he said. "We ran the 100, and they said, 'Oh, gee, let's fix the long-jump runway.' Then, 'Let's line the shot-put area.' "
Despite the problems, the competitors managed to run, throw and jump their way past the first day.
"We're decathletes," defending U.S. champion Dave Johnson said. "We put up with this stuff."
After five events of the decathlon, O'Brien led with 4,747 points, the best in history, surpassing Daley Thompson's total of 4,677. But like the rest of the marks, it can't be submitted as a record.
Johnson was the runner-up with 4,269 points.