With the End in Sight : Andersen’s Staggering Finish in 1984 Women’s Marathon a Haunting Image

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Los Angeles, 1984.

Lingering images:

--Gymnast Mary Lou Retton’s explosive joy, and that world-class smile.

--Oddball swimmer Rick Carey’s implosive joy. He wins a gold medal and then mopes because he failed to break a world record.

--U.S. wrestler Jeff Blatnick, a cancer patient, wins a Greco-Roman gold medal, breaks down during a TV interview and says: “I’m one happy dude.”


--U.S. women’s basketball player Pam McGee receives her gold medal, then gives it to her twin, Paula, who had been cut from the team. It’s an emotional scene that touches a nation.

--Mary Decker, a favorite in the women’s 3,000 meters, falls flat on her face, bursts into tears, and is carried from the track by her mountain of a fiance, British discus thrower Richard Slaney.

--U.S. boxer Evander Holyfield, on his way not only to a gold medal but also the tournament’s “most outstanding boxer” award, is suddenly thrown out of the Olympics by a Yugoslav referee. He disqualifies him for hitting on the break, as U.S. coach Pat Nappi goes into a towering rage on the ring apron.

But the image that burns the hottest in memory is the one you didn’t want to see, the one that made you want to look away, the one that made you hurt to look.

It was the one you almost want to forget.

It was the last 400 yards of the women’s marathon, by runner No. 323, the 37th-place finisher, competing for Switzerland.

That is, Gabriela Andersen eventually finished 37th. But for several agonizing minutes, millions of viewers were wondering not whether she would finish the race, but whether she would survive it.

When she came out of the Coliseum tunnel, the race’s second-place finisher, Greta Waitz, was wrapping up her TV interview.

In what looked like some sort of death dance, Andersen--she was identified as Andersen-Schiess during the Olympics, but prefers Andersen--came lurching out of the dark tunnel, into the sunlight, before the world.

In Zurich, a 73-year-old woman, Andersen’s mother, watched--and cried.

Andersen appeared, leaning to the left, as if some force was pulling her off the track and onto the infield. Track stewards began following her, uncertain what to do. When she saw them approach, she staggered away, fearing they would touch her, and thereby disqualify her.

The ABC television announcer, Al Michaels, looked at her lurching about and said: “That is the quintessential marathon picture, right there.”

But millions feared that they might be watching a woman dying.

The struggle continued. Andersen’s final lap seemed to take forever. For most of it, she walked--a stiff-legged gait, veering across lanes, her head and shoulders bent forward.

As she approached the finish, her pace quickened and her right arm began swinging wildly. She crossed the finish line, and collapsed into the arms of three stewards. Almost immediately, a medical debate ensued.

A Canadian team doctor, Doug Clement, said: “If it had been a Canadian athlete, I wouldn’t have let it happen. There were tears in my eyes. I was saying, ‘My God, what a mess this is.’ It was the dilemma of all time. Do you stop her or do you let her go and have blood on your hands?”

Dr. Tony Daly of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee criticized reporters for “misconceptions” in Andersen’s condition.

“There was a lot of misconception in the media that she was in shock, that she was paralyzed . . . if we had stopped her, then everyone would be here today saying, ‘She’d run 26 miles . . . why not let her go another 400 meters?’ ”

In the aftermath, it was agreed by the medical community that Andersen had suffered from heat prostration, or mild dehydration, and not the more serious heatstroke.

Heatstroke is characterized by body temperatures as high as 110 degrees, which can damage not only the brain but other organs. According to experts, heatstroke is second only to head and spinal injuries as the No. 1 cause of deaths in athletes.

But in the end, the struggle stopped where Andersen wanted it to stop, at the finish line. In a triumph of her will, she finished the race. And in doing so, provided for some new meaning to human courage.

For others, it was an Olympic flashback.

In 1908, in London, Italian Dorando Pietri was trailing the marathon leader by four minutes at the 20-mile mark. Then he made a move.

He passed the leader half a mile from the stadium. But as he entered the stadium, he began to stagger. He suddenly turned and ran the wrong way, and officials rushed to him, pointing him in the right direction.

A few yards later, he collapsed. Officials helped him to his feet. Again and again he fell, each time assisted to his feet. He was all but carried to the finish line.

Meanwhile, American runner John Hayes entered the stadium, and crossed the finish line before Pietri was carried across. So when Italy’s flag went up the victory pole, the Americans set up an awful howl. Their protest was allowed, and Hayes was declared the winner.

And 76 years later, Gabriela Andersen came in 37th--and a winner.

Gabriela Andersen was running for Switzerland in the Los Angeles Olympics, but she also had U.S. citizenship. She lives in Ketchum, Ida., with her husband, Dick, who is active in the ski industry there.

Ever since her Olympic marathon, Andersen has said repeatedly in interviews that too much was made of her last-lap difficulty.

“Those things happen often in marathons, and not much is normally made of it,” she said in a recent phone interview. “Anyone familiar with the sport will tell you that. It was really blown up too much.

“It was my misfortune to have trouble in the Olympics. And it bothers me somewhat that people will always remember that race, because I’ve had some good races in my running career.”

On the day of her Olympic race--the first women’s marathon in Olympic history--U.S. runner Julie Brown, who passed Andersen near the end, said: “Other women had problems in the race, too. . . . People should focus on that. (Andersen) didn’t want to quit. She took it to the limit.”

Andersen has some credentials as a long distance runner, but she will probably always be remembered as “that woman who almost keeled over at the L.A. Olympics.”

She has been named a masters runner of the year by the Road Runners of America Club. Her personal marathon best, 2 hours 33 minutes 25 seconds, run in 1983, ranked her 97th on the all-time woman’s list at the end of 1987.

On the day of her near-collapse in Los Angeles, she ran 2:48:42.

She was a skier and then a ski instructor before she ever ran in a foot race, and then not until she was 26.

At 43, she’s still running marathons. Recently, she finished third in a masters marathon at Sapporo, Japan.

A stubborn injury prevented her from training for the Seoul Olympics.

“I very much wanted to compete in Seoul, but I’ve had an Achilles tendon problem that’s been going on for about a year,” she said.

“It’s OK now, but it bothered me for almost a year. It just wouldn’t heal. I couldn’t train hard on it. When I did, it would get worse. So I haven’t done any serious running for nearly two years now.”

Because of fears of another Andersen case in the future, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) adopted what is now known as the “Schiess Rule” for future Olympic marathons.

Rule 143, under the heading of “Assistance to Athletes,” states: “For the purposes of this rule, the following shall not be considered unfair aid or assistance: 1. A hands-on medical exam during the progress of an event by medical personnel designated by the organizing committee.”