My Olympic Moment — The Start of the Women’s Marathon

I didn’t sleep well last night.   Maybe it was because I was getting up at 4 am, or because I was in a strange bed (I was at my friend Ken’s house to save travel time), or because I was going to help with the first women’s marathon in Olympic history.

We were up and driving by 4:30. The freeways at that time were not deserted (they never are), but traffic was light.  We made good time, except we couldn’t find our exit; we knew something was wrong when the sign said “Malibu”.  After a quick 180 and some frantic map-reading, we found our assembly point at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica — along with half the world.

It seemed like all 1000 (or so) race marshals for this assembly point had arrived at once. But fortunately the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee was prepared. We parked quickly and got in line for our uniforms. There were T-shirts — white with blue borders and shoulders and pink trim, and white baseball caps with a pink Moving Star logo. While Ken’s wife Ellen ducked into a changing tent for women, I looked around. Refreshment workers were also assembling here. A Trouble Desk didn’t seem very busy. We’d arrived at 5:20; it was now only 5:30 and the announcement came to move toward the buses to take us to the course. We quickly found the bus marked Mile One and reported to the mile chief. It was already half full of sleepy people.

The bus pulled away at 5:55.  While traveling, the mile chief passed out our course badges.  They were aqua-colored three-inch squares of paper that were marked with the date and the word “Staff” and came with U-shaped wires.  She tried to demonstrate in the dark — hook the wire around a belt loop, peel the sticky backing off the paper, and fold the paper around the wire.  “Just like a ski tag.”  She came from Northern California where everybody skied.  We had a terrible time just untangling the wires.

It only took five minutes for the bus to get to the starting point at Santa Monica College.  Daylight was just breaking.  Each marshal received a package of three dozen 6″ by 4″ ‘LA 84’ flags upon disembarking.  Then it was straight to the course.  Half went with the mile chief.  She marched us up to the gate of the stadium and told us to start spreading out.  We lined up on the road that led from the stadium to the street.  I looked behind me.  There was a narrow sidewalk, a flower bed, another sidewalk, and a building.  The sidewalks were closed off — at one end by the stadium fence and the other by a barricade.  I had nobody to watch!  Across from me, the spectator boundary was a series of portable fence sections that looked like bike racks.  Nothing to set up, no ropes to cut — this was an easy spot.

There was a constant stream of traffic going into and out of the stadium.  People in orange and maroon, men in shades of dark grey with “Swiss Timing” over their breast pockets, and men in ordinary work clothes.  Everyone had large picture badges dangling from chains around their necks.  Olympic Security, in khakis and berets, put two people at the gate to check badges.  We started handing out flags to policemen and workmen.  Race Director Len Wallach came by several times.  He was dressed in green and yellow with a red beret, and was usually talking on a portable radio.  Workers were taking down the wire gates that led into the stadium.

The first spectators showed up at 6:30.  A few took up positions opposite me behind the portable fence.  Most had tickets to watch the start.  They kept asking us how to get inside.  Fortunately, Security knew.

At 6:45 the Santa Monica Police made a security sweep with a large black dog.  They checked the flower bed behind me very carefully.  The dog showed more interest in an athletic bag one of the marshals had brought.

At 6:55, three wide-eyed young ladies wearing warm-ups with race numbers and “Italia” on their backs walked through the gate.  We smiled and gave them flags.  Next came Julie Brown of the United States, accompanied by another woman.  But there was a problem with Security.  Julie patiently showed her badge while everyone gathered around and spectators (and marshals) scrambled for their cameras.  “What’s the problem?  You let the Italians in!”  We were giving the two Security women such a hard time they chased us back to our stations.  But Julie didn’t complain.  She stopped to pose for a picture with a little girl, then entered alone.  (Apparently her friend didn’t have a badge.)  Then Rosa Mota of Portugal, the eventual bronze medalist, entered.  I couldn’t believe how thin they all looked.  One of the marshals asked, “I don’t think the athletes are supposed to come in this way.  Shouldn’t we be sending them someplace else?”

“C’mon, then we wouldn’t get to see them!”  The subject was dropped, but no more athletes came our way.

I heard a band playing inside the stadium.  Spectators were lined up along the fence opposite me.  Some ambulances pulled out of the parking lot around the corner from us.  A kid was moving among the spectators selling American flags for three dollars.  A young lady with a long ponytail and “Australia” on her warmups came zipping out.  She ignored everyone’s applause and ran down the street to get the attention of an older man, then zipped back into the stadium.  Len Wallach came out again, this time with a bullhorn.  “At 7:30, send all athletes back inside the stadium.”

The mile chief came toward me.  “I’m going to pull away from here.  We need more people out on the street.”  That made sense.

At 7:30 the police took down the barricades that blocked the stadium entrance.  A group of officials marched out, looking sharp in orange-yellow jackets and cream hats with pink hatbands.  I could see ABC-TV’s special electric camera vehicle parked further down the street.  Spectators were three deep now and the flags were almost gone.  A woman wanted to buy one from me; she couldn’t believe they were free.  Some Japanese came by, dressed in robes decorated with Japanese writing and waving their flags.

At 7: 50, the police sergeant announced it was time to close the crosswalk.  “Last chance to cross the street!”  There were four helicopters overhead and two cameras from local TV set up just to my left.  People were sitting on an ivy-covered wall across the street.  One man was sitting on top a traffic light.  Len Wallach came by with his bullhorn again.  This time he was riding on the back of a motor scooter.  “Marshals, take your positions.  You should be facing the crowd.”

I was more apprehensive than excited.  What could go wrong?  A kid run out into the street?  (All kids were with adults.)  What would the tall man with the foot-long lens on his camera do?   (He promised to stay put.)  There was a man in back with a day’s growth of beard and a shirt that was solid coffee stains; he looked like he’d slept in the gutter.  (No matter, he was gone five minutes later.)  I talked to some of the people in front of me.  The atmosphere was like a huge block party.  A few still tried to cross the street; they said they had tickets for the start.  Sorry, but they’d never make it in time now anyway.

At last it was 8:00.  I was hoping to hear the gun go off, but the helicopters made too much noise.  Where were the runners?  Suddenly a man came down the course waving his arms horizontally in front of him.  Here they come!

False alarm.  It was a group of officials and timers.  They grinned at the applause as they sprinted by us and boarded a bus down the street.

Then the word came down the line, “They’re on their way!”  We waited, breathless.  One runner appeared, then another, and another, then the main pack.  Everyone broke into cheers and applause.  I knelt (a promise to the guy with the big camera) and watched the crowd.  Everyone was staying put.

In a few seconds, they were gone.  Was that it?  No, incredibly, there was one straggler a minute behind everyone else.  She was running at my pace!  As she disappeared down the street, I looked at my watch.  The entire process had taken about two minutes.

Next:  Moving Toward the Finish

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