Hot sun fries the big stadium at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. The track meet drowses through the sweet tedium of late afternoon. An athlete plods across the infield with a long bag of vaulting poles on his shoulder. Two tall, leggy blond women run side by side with springing, matched strides. A crew with a truck begins to set up hurdles.
Then a glint of light catches the eye: a javelin, thrown by one of the women in the heptathlon competition. It arcs down into the sod: 120 ft. and change. The distance is not impressive. "Wait for Jackie," someone says. Jackie Joyner, silver medalist at the Los Angeles Olympics last summer, has won the first five heptathlon events here at the U.S. Olympic Committee's National Sports Festival meet. She appears at the beginning of the javelin run-in, holds her spear head-high, level with the ground, and flows into the unmistakable prancing, straight-backed run that must have been the same when soldiers threw those weapons in the Trojan War. The javelin thuds down at 144 ft. 11 in. There is a roar. Casual fans are delighted, but the knowledgeable are disappointed because they know that she can score several yards better.
Joyner does reach 147 ft. 9 in. on her next try, and no opponent today will come close. But she needs another 10 ft. in the javelin to beat Jane Frederick's American heptathlon record of 6,803 points. She hoists her last throw too high. It noses up, catches air and falls short. There is no time to brood; she has an 800-meter run to get through. Less than an hour later, tiring, she squeezes out a win in this last competition--a gaudy seven victories out of seven events. And though her point total of 6,718 leaves her 85 short of Frederick's mark, the victory can be read as a foreshadow of the Seoul Olympics in the summer of '88.
So the U.S. Olympic Committee devoutly hopes. Olympic campaigns, like the presidential kind, now are nearly perpetual, and since 1978 the U.S.O.C. has held a National Sports Festival for U.S. athletes in every non-Olympic year. The advantages are that the fellow who puts the pigeons in crates and releases them at the opening ceremonies gets to stay in practice, and that the athletes and the rest of us remain attentive. There were absentees at Baton Rouge among the top U.S. competitors, and crowds were lighter than festival boosters had expected. But among those who came to this circus of 30-odd summer sports and three winter skating events, the mood seemed light and untroubled. For athletes the meet was important but not career-breaking. For spectators both the nationalistic baying and the oppressive security of the Olympics were absent. A visitor could park and buy a ticket at the door to almost any competition site and as often as not chat with an athlete waiting to play in the next match.