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The Man's voice rises with pride, and suddenly it is 1968 again
and Jim Hines, a barrel-chested sprint gunslinger, is crossing
the finish line first in the 100 meters at Mexico City. His time
is 9.95 seconds, faster than any man had run the distance. He is
the Olympic champion and something more. "Fastest man in the
world," he barks now. "That's the ultimate, the most joyous
feeling in my life. There's no money, no love, no marriage, no
kids that can match that feeling."

The title is his for four years, and then it is passed to Valery
Borzov of the Soviet Union and four years later from Borzov to
Hasley Crawford of Trinidad. The rules are written nowhere, yet
they are understood like the secret initiation rites to some
exclusive fraternity: "Everybody knows the World's Fastest Human
is the man who wins the Olympic 100 meters," says U.S. sprinter
Jon Drummond, who covets that title himself. The succession
continues every four years, and now the title resides with a
glowering Briton who won in Barcelona and holds it in the pit of
his soul. "The others want something I've got," says Linford
Christie, now 36 years old. They want the crown. The title.

But even as we reach the eve of the men's 100-meter final, the
centerpiece event of nearly every Olympic track and field
competition, the title has been curiously and prematurely
passed. Even as 126 men compete today at Olympic Stadium in the
preliminary heats and quarterfinals of the 100 meters, the title
they seek has been quietly usurped. What everybody knows is that
U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson is the world's fastest human.

Johnson set a world record in the 200 meters at the U.S. Olympic
Trials (19.66 seconds), and over the next six days he will
attempt to become the first man to win the 200 and 400 at the
same Games. If successful, he could submerge the high-strung
sprinters of the 100 meters in his wake. For that reason they
are respectful--"If I had that type of ability, I'd do the same
thing," says Christie--but they are also protective of the
territory that has been passed down to them since the modern
Olympics began. "I don't think Michael has overshadowed us at
all," says Christie. "The world's fastest man is open to
interpretation isn't it? But the 100 meters is the blue-ribbon
event of any track meet." Drummond, typically, goes one step
further: "If Michael wants the title, tell him to step down to
the 100, because I'd love to beat up on him."

Nice talk. Good quote. But the fact is, much as Johnson has
pushed aside Carl Lewis as the most visible athlete in U.S.
track and field, he also has become the most compelling sprinter
in the world, in effect the fastest man on earth. Eight men will
populate tomorrow night's final, and if form holds true, they
will be the fastest grid of Olympians in history. Leroy
Burrell's world record in the 100, 9.85, has stood for two
years, but this year Namibia's Frankie Fredericks has run 9.86
(into a slight headwind) and 9.87. Ato Boldon of Trinidad and
Tobago and U.S. trials winner Dennis Mitchell have both run
9.92, world champion Donovan Bailey of Canada has gone 9.93 and
oft-overlooked Mike Marsh of the U.S. has gone 9.95. With this
bunch running on the superfast Olympic Stadium track, Lewis's
Olympic record of 9.92, set at the 1988 Seoul Games, seems in
deep trouble. "I think it's going to take a world record, or
better, in the final," says Mitchell.

But they race not just each other and the tiny fractions on the
clock; they race their own flaws, trying to become great. Bailey
is a superb athlete who is often overcome by his inconsistency.
"Forget about Bailey," says one U.S. sprinter. Christie is a
world and an Olympic champion who labored too long in Lewis's
shadow and now fights age. Fredericks shuns the burning
attention that is suddenly following him, calling into question
his inner strength. Boldon is young, Mitchell is consistent but
forever coming up short in the biggest of races.

None of them is promised the title that Hines so cherished seven
Olympics ago, the same title that Harrison Dillard, the
100-meter gold medalist in 1948, has never forgotten. "Fastest
man in the world," says Dillard. "Now, that's something that
grabs people." Tomorrow's winner has a chance to run very fast.
The track. The quality field. The moment. And he must be
phenomenal, because an outsider has joined the club, and it will
take more than victory to expel him.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Mitchell (above) & Co. are threatened by 200 king Johnson. [Dennis Mitchell running]