ROME — A recurring question here has been, "What's wrong with the American track and field team?"
But the United States didn't have to make any excuses Thursday night at the World Championships. Rain accompanied by thunder and lightning harassed those in the decathlon at Olympic Stadium, after the United States, which had won only three medals in the first three days of competition, got four, including two gold, on the fifth day, running the total to 11 for the meet.
However, the East Germans, led by Silke Gladisch, continued as the most impressive team in the world.
East Germany collected three gold medals and one bronze and now has a total of 16 medals, the women accounting for 13.
Gladisch became the meet's first double winner. She had won the 100 meters earlier and then ran so fluidly and powerfully around the curve in the 200 that the race was over at the head of the stretch.
Her time of 21.74 seconds was only three-hundredths of a second slower than the world record shared by Marita Koch and Heike Drechsler, both of East Germany.
And would you believe that a Kurt Rambis look-alike, an East German named Thomas Schoenlebe, won the 400 meters, beating favored Butch Reynolds and Nigeria's Innocent Egbunike?
Still, it was an evening of gratification for two defending champions, hurdler Greg Foster and sprinter Calvin Smith.
Foster, who has failed to finish three races this year, didn't graze a hurdle in winning the 110-meter race in 13.21 seconds, successfully defending the title he had won in the inaugural World Championships in 1983 at Helsinki, Finland.
Smith was a straggler in the 200 with 50 meters left. Then, while sixth, he shifted into gear and got to the finish line just ahead of France's Gilles Queneherve and Britain's John Regis.
Smith and Queneherve were each timed in 20.16 seconds, but a review of the photo showed that Smith was a narrow winner. Queneherve and Regis, who finished third in 20.18, each set national records.
Smith, for reasons unknown, refused to come to the interview room, a routine usually followed by medalists.
He had lost his world 100-meter record Sunday to Canada's Ben Johnson, who lowered it by one-tenth of a second, 9.93 to 9.83.
Perhaps, Smith was still feeling slighted later because he was initially ignored after his race. Photographers rushed to Regis, mistakenly thinking that he was the winner in the tight finish.
Then, when the replay of the finish was shown on the scoreboard, the photographers did an about-face and closed in on Smith. He didn't accommodate them for long, though, ducking into a tunnel.
Schoenlebe's winning time of 44.33 was a European record. It was the first time an East German athlete had won the 400 meters in Olympic Games, World Cup, World Championship or European Championship competition.
"I can't imagine that I would be a world champion. It's fantastic," Schoenlebe said through an interpreter.
He won with a blazing surge down the final stretch, prompting Egbunike to say that he came out of nowhere.
Egbunike was second in 44.56, and Reynolds, who has been suffering from diarrhea here, didn't have his usually strong finish and was third in 44.80.
Reynolds came into the competition with the best time in the world, 44.10, which he established last May.
It has been a long year for the Ohio State star. He figures that he has run in 71 races, including relays, in a season that started with the indoor circuit last December. Schoenlebe said he has had only 10 to 15 races this year, including relays. And he seldom runs outside his country.
Reynolds said he will try to be more selective when he races in 1988, an Olympic year.
"I'm looking forward to 1988," he said. "Instead of bringing home the bronze, I intend to bring home the gold. As for the race, it went according to plan. I got off pretty good, but I didn't come on like I usually do."
Reynolds has lost only two 400-meter races this year, not counting heats, and when asked who should be ranked No. 1 in the 400 this year, he said: "I think I've proven I've been consistent, and one meet or one race doesn't determine a whole season. But whatever happens (in the rankings), I'll have to deal with it. But I'm looking forward to '88."
So are the East Germans. They held their national meet a week before the World Championships began, and it's obvious that they are in peak condition.
The United States figures, at the outside, to win only eight more medals in the final three days, which would leave the Americans five short of their total at Helsinki in 1983.
Meanwhile, the East Germans are as strong as ever. Marlies Gohr is coming back from an injury, and Drechsler passed up the 200 to concentrate on her long jump showdown with Jackie Joyner-Kersee, but the East Germans have the sprints under control with Gladisch.
Asked why the East German women are dominating their portion of the meet and surpassing the Americans, Gladisch said through an interpreter: "Perhaps, we train better."