Last Saturday morning Steve Williams, the world's No. 1 sprinter, lay in a narrow bed in a narrow room at the University of Pennsylvania. Outside his window a loudspeaker was announcing the results of the first races on the final day of the 82nd Penn Relays, but although Williams was scheduled to run three times later that day—two relay legs and his specialty, the 100-meter dash—his mind was wandering ahead to July and the Olympics. Asked what he hoped would happen in Montreal, he replied, "What I would like to achieve is human excellence."
The idea stirred him and he sat up. "If I really cleaned up my technique, I could do something in running like Bob Beamon did in jumping," he said.
"My coach for the last year, Brooks Johnson [of the Florida Track Club] is into physics and biomechanics, and he saw six major mistakes I was making. For instance, my feet were landing in front of my center of gravity. It was like a braking action. I would momentarily stop after each stride." Williams carefully detailed each of the other five mistakes, leaving the impression that forward motion had been somewhat beyond his ken before the arrival of Johnson. "I was running at 30% efficiency, but I've corrected most of the mistakes now."
"The 100 meter is a big bubble these days," says Johnson. "It's pregnant with 9.9s [the world record] and ready to burst."
Naturally, Johnson thinks that Williams, who has run more 9.9s (four) than anyone else, will be the man to burst that bubble. Last Friday, while watching relay races from the stands at Franklin Field, he described how that could happen. "If Steve's already in control of the race here," he said, pointing to a spot on the track about 30 yards beyond the starting line, "he could break the record. People say he has a bad start, but that's been overplayed. It's just a matter of when Steve decides to catch people."
For a moment in Saturday's race Williams looked as if he might fashion a masterpiece. At the 30-yard mark he held a slight lead. But there he stayed for 30 more yards, before burning away from the field to beat one of the world's best sprinters, Steve Riddick, by two yards. The unofficial scoreboard registered 9.8, but the loudspeaker quickly disappointed the crowd with the announcement that the race was wind-aided. Then, minutes later, the announcement came that the official time was 10 flat.
Earlier in the meet much of the attention had focused on Marty Liquori, who ran a fine 13:33.6 to win the 5,000 Thursday night. Following his race he was asked why he had shaved off his beard and mustache, and although his reply was made in a jesting tone, it offered insight into how seriously Liquori is taking the 1976 Olympics. He said he didn't want to make the same mistake Frank Shorter had made. Shorter had run in the '72 Olympics with a mustache and now that it is gone no one recognizes him. "The way you look up there," Liquori said, and one had to assume that "there" meant on the victory stand, "is the way people remember you for the rest of your life."
Clearly the 26-year-old Liquori is going for gold. The problem is he can't decide what it is he wants to be remembered for. At the Penn Relays he still refused to commit himself to either the 1,500 or the 5,000.
Listen to him as of last Thursday: "I have to assume that everybody runs the best race of his life in Montreal and then assess where I have the best chance. I don't have the kick I used to have but I'm stronger. In a slow 1,500 with a kick at the end I'm at a disadvantage to Filbert Bayi or John Walker. My potential at this stage and age is greater in the 5,000. I'm more confident of a bronze medal in the 1,500, but in the 5,000 I could finish anywhere from sixth to first."
As the meet drew to a close, Brooks Johnson was once again seated among the spectators, this time looking back at the 100 meters. He had just sent his prize pupil onto the track where a moment later Williams would run a superb 44.7 split in a 1,600-meter relay. "Steve may be too concerned with technique," he said. "The best thing I can do now is back off. There's a time when you have to let genes and chromosomes take over. And Montreal is getting that close."
Steve Williams is aiming to burst a bubble.