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THE ATHLETES THE DAZZLING DOZEN : They Were the Best of the Best, the Ones You Will Remember When the '84 Games Are Mostly a Blur

July 28, 1985|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

Admit it. They dazzled you.

When the wrestler, Jeff Blatnick, broke down and cried, you cried. When Joan Benoit ran into the Coliseum and had a standing ovation from 92,000 all to herself, you were running right beside her. When Sebastian Coe sprinted to the tape in that great 1,500-meter final, you were there with him, looking over your shoulder at Steve Cram.

When Michael Gross cut through water with maybe the most beautiful stroke in the history of swimming, you were in the same lane, pulling away from the world. When Greg Louganis stood on the victory platform and they called him perfection, you wondered what it wouldbe like to be called perfect. And when Daley Thompson routed the field in the decathlon and they called him the world's greatest athlete, you rolled that over your tongue, too.

They were twelve. The Dazzling Dozen. Besides Benoit, Blatnick, Coe, Gross, Louganis, and Thompson, there were Mark Breland, Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Mary Lou Retton and Ecaterina Szabo.

In an Olympic Games of 24 sports for 7,800 athletes from 140 countries, theirs were the performances and the stories that eclipsed all others, the achievements that will be remembered the longest.

A year later, many are dazzling their accountants. Thompson had a screen test for a TV series. Breland went into pro boxing with the fattest contract in the history of the sport. Moses was commanding as much as $30,000 per appearance in European meets. In Fairmont, W. Va., there's a red Corvette that has "MARY LOU" plates and zips up and down Mary Lou Retton Blvd. We all know who the driver is.

And then there was Lewis. He was something special, but something different, too. Something was missing, it seemed. Were his gifts so great, so superior to his competition, that they submerged the human element of warmth?

Bob Mathias, former decathlon gold medalist, seemed to speak for many, when he said Lewis seemed "cold and calculating" on his way to duplicating Jesse Owens in winning four track and field gold medals.

But when Lewis finished, he'd done what he set out to do--win four golds. In the Olympics' modern era, Lewis and Owens stood alone.

Here's a look back, a year later, at The Dazzling Dozen:

JOAN BENOIT

Her name now is Mrs. Scott Samuelson, and while she greatly treasures the memory of her final moments on the Yellow Brick Road, in the Coliseum, she'd just as soon be out in her Maine woods, picking blackberries, working on her 100-year-old fixer-upper home, making blackberry jam in her fixer-upper kitchen, knitting sweaters and running on the dirt roads of a nearby island reachable only by boat.

In another time, Americans would by now probably have forgotten about Joan Benoit. But when orthopedists began perfecting arthroscopic surgery techniques on athletes in the mid-1970s, it would mean a gold medal for a 5-3, 105-pound woman from Maine in 1984.

She was a solid favorite for the women's Olympic marathon team trials at Olympia, Wash., last May. But in April, while on a 17-mile training run, her knee suddenly "shut down." She had to walk home that day.

The injury failed to respond to therapy and on April 25, exactly 17 days before the trials, she underwent arthroscopic repair of her right knee, involving cutting through the tight band of tissue behind the lining of the joint. Seventeen days later, she not only made the team but won the trials, although in a relatively slow 2:31.4. She ran stride for stride with Lisa Larsen for 12 miles, then broke away and was never challenged thereafter. Her knee never faltered.

At the Olympic Games, it was the same result, only faster.

"It was kind of like following the yellow brick road," she said afterward, seeming to be genuinely surprised at the breadth of her victory. "I don't know how to say this without sounding cocky, but it was a very easy run for me today. I was surprised I wasn't challenged at all. Nobody came with me."

Most surprising about Benoit's win--in 2:24.52, the third-fastest women's time ever--was the fact she left one of the event's great performers, Grete Waitz, nearly 600 yards behind. Waitz, from Norway, had never lost a marathon she'd finished.

Benoit, of course, had credentials, too. Americans had first seen her winning two Boston Marathons, wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. Her 1983 Boston win, the 2:22.43, was the fastest marathon ever by a woman.

But in Los Angeles, at the 13-mile mark on the Santa Monica-to-the-Coliseum course, Benoit surged to a 300-yard lead and built upon it throughout the remainder of the race. From that point on, the first Olympic women's marathon was a run for the silver.

Waitz, who said afterward she suffered from back pain in the race, smiled ruefully and said she knew all was lost at the 13-mile point. "We have an expression in Norway," she said. "It's 'I knew the train had already left.' "

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