Exactly forty years ago today as I write this, April 19, 1982, I stood at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on a warm New England afternoon to watch the winner break the tape. I had no way of knowing at the time that I would be watching the denouement of one of the world’s most famous races. In fact, as far as I know, it’s the only footrace in history with a name. That race came to be known by the chivalric appellation of “The Duel in the Sun.”
It was an exciting time, an innocent time. The world looked brand new to my youthful perception. The two men who sprinted across the finish line right before my eyes, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley two seconds apart, were mighty heroes if not gods.
It was also my introduction to the human fallibility of heroes. At that moment both men, first and second at the Boston Marathon, had no way of knowing that they were at the final pinnacles of their respective careers, careers that would end in disgrace.
Salazar’s career as a runner was almost over at the age of only 23. He had one more great race left, New York that same year. He later became a notorious coach and cheater, banned from the Olympic Games. Beardsley, as the result of an injury picked up that very day in that very race, would become addicted to painkillers and would later be arrested for forging a prescription. It was his final great race.
It was a horrific climb down from a mighty height for both men, but one that came to characterise the era I was only then entering, the beginning of the Reagan era. I have since become used to disappointment and stopped thinking of other men and women as anything but mortal, fallible, imperfect, frail and ultimately disappointing.
As I said, the world became a series of disappointments. As with the two men who crossed the finish line that distant afternoon, from where I stood at the same finish line the world was at its pinnacle. What followed has been a history full of disgraces, in politics and just about everywhere else. Reagan was followed by Bush, Bush by Trump, 9/11, global warming, the pandemic, Ukraine, what’s next? How much worse can things get? How much more depraved can people become before they’re done?
I’m convinced that no one back in the world of 1982 would believe what some of us would become forty years on. None would believe that a man like Donald Trump, who was even then well-known back in 1982, could lead a party as depraved as the Republicans — full of hate and greed and cowardice and evil — to the very summit of power and beyond.
It didn’t happen all at once of course. Like everything it happened in slow increments at the thin edge of an inexorable wedge. No one but the most depraved in 1982 could have made the leap from Reaganism to Trumpism in a single bound. But who back then would have thought that the Republican Party would go from the party of super patriots to the party that hates democracy, the party that is determined to destroy democracy at all costs?
Well, I may be forty years older but in one sense I am no wiser. Despite four decades of disappointment and disaster I will not give in. I will not go gentle into that good night. I will not permit evil to triumph as long as I have a breath inside me to resist it. Neither, do I suspect, will you. We have our own Duel in the Sun to fight. So let’s get on with it. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.