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Original Issue

Climax and Purgation

Four U.S. sprinters and a track tyrant turned the World Championships into literature

The World track and field Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, produced five world records and built through eight days of raw, revealing racing into a track meet whose sweep defied compass. There was shock, as when a green U.S. men's 4 x 100-meter relay team, meaning to show off a little, tied a great world record with a 37.40—in the semis. There was heart, as shown by an ailing Jackie Joyner-Kersee, driving herself through the 800, the final event of her two-day test, to win the heptathlon. There was mystery, in the form of three slight Chinese women winning the 1,500, the 3,000 and the 10,000 with such uncanny ease that the suspicious crowds stopped cheering and, instead, whistled in disbelief.

In the overwhelming blur of issue and performance, one sought an event to stand somehow for all the rest, an event with such character and complication, such climax and purgation, that it turned into literature. And so, one found the men's 4 X 400-meter relay.

The Characters:

•Primo Nebiolo, Italy, Gravel-Voiced Gargoyle. Nebiolo, the president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, is so much the image of the comic dictator, always defiant or unctuous, that athletes have trouble taking him seriously. But these World Championships, begun in 1983, were a Nebiolo creation, and their success gave him enough leverage to force his way onto the International Olympic Committee. They have turned out to be so compelling that they have reshaped the sport. There is now no down year following the Olympics. So Nebiolo, except for one persistent thorn, basked in the glory of all he surveyed.

•Butch Reynolds, U.S., Thorn. Once a sweet-tempered Ohio State quarter-miler who set the 400-meter world record of 43.29 in 1988, Reynolds was transformed into a zealot by the IAAF announcement in 1990 that he had failed a drug test. He took his case—the heart of which was that his urine samples were mishandled by the testing laboratory and that he passed another supersensitive test immediately after the one he was accused of flunking—to the sport's governing body in the U.S. It backed him, but the IAAF suspended him for two years anyway. He sued. He won. A U.S. court awarded Reynolds $27.3 million in damages. Nebiolo said the IAAF would "never, never" pay. Stuttgart was Reynolds's return to center stage, and he longed for everything to end. "Hell yes, I'll talk settlement," he said. "I want it all to be over as much as he does. But there's been no sign."

•Quincy Watts, U.S., Snakebit Curiosity. The Barcelona 400-meter champion in a majestic 43.50, Watts has been dogged all season by extra pounds, stolen passports, a bathtub fall and, in the first strides of the Stuttgart individual 400, a shoe sole that came unglued. He skated in a dumbfounded fourth. "He's gone through every post-Olympic distraction there is," said his coach, John Smith. "Now he needs the relay to salvage his season."

•Michael Johnson, U.S., Unplumbed Talent. The finest combination 200-400 runner ever, Johnson is an undemonstrative man who exudes matter-of-fact confidence. He was a favorite to win the Olympic 200 but was weakened by food poisoning and didn't make the final. Later at the Games he ran the slowest leg on the 4 x 400 team that set the world record of 2:55.74. "I know the others had to carry some of my load," said Johnson. "I do not like that to happen. Ever." He was intent on setting things right, and he showed it in winning the 400 in 43.65. "These are his Olympics," said U.S. leadoff runner Andrew Valmon.

The Climax:

•The race was run through the sound made by 52,000 bellowing Swabian autoworkers (Mercedes and Porsche both have factories in Stuttgart). Valmon refused to let the din affect his pace judgment and turned in a solid 44.47. Four nations were still close.

Watts, sprinting tall and lightly, ripped it open in 43.55. "It was actually fun," he said. He gave Reynolds a 20-meter lead.

Reynolds, "running with vengeance," in Valmon's words, blasted his first 200 so hard he seemed sure to burn out. But he drove on implacably to clock 43.3, the best relay leg of his life. When Johnson grabbed the baton and laid it along his right forearm, the team was almost a full second under record pace.

Johnson's stride is always upright and twinkle-toed, and he appeared to rocket through the backstretch at full bore. However, with 200 meters to go, he started running so fast that he seemed driven by electricity, not mortal biochemistry. He crossed the line with no gesture of triumph, for he was spent.

Well spent. He had become the first man to break 43 seconds in the 400 (42.97) and had brought the U.S. team to a world record of 2:54.29, an unholy 1.45 seconds better than the old mark. All four men had run perfectly.

After a jubilant victory lap Johnson tried to be cool, saying this record shouldn't be regarded as eternal. He'll probably be saying that in 20 years.

The Purgation:

•At the victory ceremony IAAF vice-president Lamine Diack hung the gold medals around the runners' necks, while Nebiolo stood aside. When he reached Reynolds, Diack seemed to freeze. Reynolds bounded from the stand, wanting that medal. Suddenly Nebiolo stepped forward, guided Reynolds back onto the platform and presented the medal. He then grabbed Reynolds like Michael Corleone telling Fredo he knows he was the traitor, and kissed him on both cheeks.

"You are very strong, very strong," Nebiolo said, holding the speechless Reynolds's hands. "I hope we can make some cooperation."

Reynolds, touched, later said, "It was vindication. It really means a lot." He was alternately thoughtful and giddy afterward, as were his three teammates.

"We stayed together, the four of us, having fun, until three in the morning," Watts said the following day. "It was like we didn't want to separate to go to bed and wake up being competitors again. We teased Butch about those kisses. All this time we thought it was hate, but it's been love/hate, man. 'You so strong, Butch.' "

There we are. Track turned literature. Will the Gargoyle and the Thorn work things out or wake up still competitors, surrounded by lawyers? It seems the last, perfect ambiguity. An ending that leaves room for a sequel.



Reynolds relieved Watts and, running with vengeance, gave the U.S. a monster lead.