It's not as if, even through our tears, we didn't see Michael
Johnson coming. He marched through the preliminary rounds of the
400 meters with such unchallenged surety that by Monday night's
final, he had become not only history's most expected Olympic
champion, but also a rock on which a grateful Atlanta might
steady these swaying Olympic Games.
Johnson sprinted the first 300 meters of the final with crisp
control, hit the stretch at least two meters clear of the field,
then dropped his arms and made an extraordinary run at one of
track's most intransigent world records. The 400-meter standard
has been broken exactly once in the last 28 years, by Butch
Reynolds with his 43.29 in 1988.
Fighting off any temptation to preserve himself for the 200
meters he is scheduled to run on Thursday--the other end of the
historic double he is attempting--Johnson closed his eyes with
the strain in the last 40 meters. The visage he calls his "big
ole ugly face" became a portrait of a man bearing up under great
weight. He hit the line and cast a glance toward the clock. It
read 43.49. He had nipped the Olympic record set by the U.S.'s
Quincy Watts in 1992 by .01 of a second but was still a stride
short of perfection.
He slowed with an expression of relief. He never cracked a
smile. He had made this victory appear not a formality, because
he ran with passionate but ordained power. And if Johnson's
golden shoes, beribboned medal and the IAAF officials who
presented it to him then suddenly seemed to turn into miter,
scepter and archbishops, that only showed how much we needed his
exalted, reliable self just now.
"The individual gold medal was more important than the world
record, and I got that," said Johnson, for whom this was his
first, because a case of food poisoning weakened him and kept
him from winning the 200 in Barcelona four years ago. "I've
always said, after I won things like world championships [in
1993 and '95] that they didn't make up for '92," said Johnson,
taking a deep breath. "Well, winning this gold medal makes up
for Barcelona. I am happy with my performance."
Then he withdrew--after a stop at the long jump pit to offer his
hand to a fallen U.S. teammate, Mike Powell, who lay in agony
after pulling his left groin muscle. Powell's injury left the
gold medal and a page of history to 35-year-old Carl Lewis, who
became the only man other than American discus thrower Al Oerter
to win four individual golds in an Olympic event (page 54).
Johnson's page in history remained to be written, and he left
the stadium Monday night to prepare for it. Certainly there
could be no more welcome tone in a Games suddenly plunged by
violence into questioning its own meaning. In the wake of the
terror in Centennial Park, Johnson and his fellow athletes had
drawn together not to redeem anything--they didn't do anything
wrong except attract so much of the world's attention--but to
remind us, with all the force of their being, why we have come
to Atlanta. And it's not to party.
Erik Brady and Ben Brown, in an article in Monday's USA Today
about Atlanta's citizens trying "to take back the streets" from
fear also wrote "without the populist spark of the park, the
Olympics might become little more than a track meet with
Lord, that that might be true, because it's exactly what
Olympians yearn for. The inner Olympia, the ideal competitive
venue--for any athlete from Johnson to the least of his
overmatched competitors--has no Budweiser or Coke pavilions, no
commercial interruptions in the middle of races. There is only a
lane, a court, a beam, an oarlock. And perhaps a knowing throng,
as intent on your efforts as you are.
Consider the eight tense men who stood behind their blocks last
Saturday night and stared down their assigned lanes for the
100-meter final, heedless that the Olympic flag was hanging at
half-staff. In this, the moment when years of preparation and
posturing would either carry them to gold or to despair, a
bombing in the Olympic city was perhaps the easiest distraction
to subdue. Harder to put out of mind was the stunning depth of
the field for this race.
Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago, a UCLA senior last spring who
had won his semifinal in 9.93 seconds, wore rose-colored shades
and muttered. Dennis Mitchell of the U.S., the 1992 bronze
medalist, twitched and glared, the silver ring in his right
eyebrow making him look as though he had had a cut sewed up at
Tiffany's. Namibia's Frankie Fredericks, the silver medalist in
both the 100 and the 200 in Barcelona, who had won the other
semi in 9.94, stretched with a studied casualness befitting the
race favorite. Donovan Bailey, the 1995 world champion whom
Fredericks had beaten all year, seemed almost resigned beside him.
Defending Olympic champion Linford Christie of Britain stood
motionless, a block of Lycra-clad obsidian. He had won in
Barcelona by proving himself immune to the pressure of this
moment. If there was a given, it was that even if Christie did
not win, he would never flinch.
Christie flinched. He false-started, and the sprinters were
called back and reassembled. On the second try the field
appeared to be away well when the starter heard a tone in his
earphones telling him that someone had pressed back on the
blocks too early; he fired the recall signal. Boldon was
distressed to learn he had reacted in an illegally quick .082 of
a second. "Nobody can tell me I didn't go after that gun
sounded," said Boldon, but nobody was telling him that. The
official view is that humans can't react in less than .1 of a
second, so his move wasn't reaction but anticipation.
Again the sprinters went to their marks. The crowd--80,000
strong--which in past Olympics has fallen into a rapt hush
before the 100, was fed up by now with all these false starts.
The derisive whistling stopped, but the roar of noise did not.
The gun fired again, and again the starter heard the fateful
tone and brought them back. He gestured at Christie, who had
blasted off .086 after the gun. That was two. The most
self-possessed man in sprinting, who had never in his 36 years
been thrown out on false starts, was disqualified from the
This Christie could not endure. He refused to step back into the
tunnel as asked. Referee John Chaplin was summoned. Christie
gave him no argument and left, but by then nearly four minutes
had elapsed, minutes that worked on Boldon's mercurial nerves.
On the fourth try they were away cleanly. Mitchell shot to the
front, but was caught at 30 meters by Boldon, who was in turn
caught at 60 by the flashing quick strides of Fredericks,
running with the expression of a man rearing back from smelling
exceedingly acrid cheese. The race seemed over, a fitting end to
Fredericks's magnificent season, perfectly setting up a duel in
the 200 with Johnson.
But at that instant Bailey made his move. As he hit 60 meters he
attained a speed that made his ordinary start meaningless. The
timers measured his velocity at that point at 27.1 mph, as the
powerful stride that brings not just his knees but his entire
legs high, drove him past Fredericks at 70 meters and to the
finish in a world-record 9.84.
At last. For the first time since Harry Jerome tied the world
mark at 10.0 in 1960, the record belonged to a Canadian
sprinter. Well, that's leaving out the whole unpleasantness of
drug-forfeited Olympic races and world records known as the Ben
Johnson affair, which Bailey would love to do. So we will, too.
Dwell instead on Bailey's open-mouthed silent scream as he
crossed the finish line, a perfect mix of joy and shock, for he
had expected no record. "Every time I run thinking of time, I
screw up," he said afterward. So, in affirmation of one of
sport's eternal verities, he ran thinking only of running and
Yet how was it that the false starts and the scene before the
race hadn't unsettled Bailey? "Sometimes the track gods are with
you," said Dan Pfaff, Bailey's coach. "Good starters become
unnerved when there are a lot of false starts. He's not a
starter, so it didn't upset him as much."
No, Bailey is a finisher, a mellow soul as sprinters go. Not for
him the frenzy of Boldon, who after finishing third in 9.90
behind Fredericks's 9.89, cried, "I would be the Olympic
champion now if the starter hadn't changed our focus." After
some pointed advice from U.S. sprinter Jon Drummond, Boldon
composed himself. "I let myself be distracted by the starter,"
he said dutifully. "That was my fault."
Not for Bailey the poleaxed self-pity that moved Christie to
half-jog a mock victory lap while Bailey celebrated with flag
and fans. When Boldon said he thought Christie's stunt was
disrespectful, Christie took such exception that Fredericks had
to separate them, and here was Boldon in tears again: "If it was
me, if I'd made two false starts, I'd be out of there. Everybody
was affected by what Christie did at the start."
Everybody but Bailey, who revealed that he had been so absorbed
in his own race keys--tight hip, stay relaxed--he didn't even
realize Christie had been tossed. "I wondered what the delay
was," he said.
Beyond being a sprinter who doesn't get nervous, Bailey is
refreshing in other ways, having a surplus of occupations--he's
also a marketing and investment consultant--and nationalities.
"I'm a Jamaican-born Canadian sprinter," he said for the 1,200th
time, "and no, no way will I run as long as Christie has. I
don't have to. I have a million marketable skills. And by the
way, I think it's pathetic that you have these lunatics running
around [bombing] at the one place where 197 countries can gather
Bailey, in person and in performance, provided an Olympian
riposte to the predawn fear and ignited a remarkable day in
which Gail Devers became history's second woman to repeat as
sprint champion (after Wyomia Tyus in 1964 and '68), even while
Devers's significant other, Kenny Harrison, did about all a man
can do to distract her.
Devers was acknowledging the crowd before her 100
semifinal--with a quick wave, her disapproving schoolmarm game
face firmly on--when the applause leaped into a great roar.
Harrison, the 31-year-old 1991 world champion in the triple
jump, with whom Devers lives, had exploded into the sand at
59'1/4", breaking Willie Banks's U.S. record (58'11 1/2") and
Mike Conley's Olympic record of 57'10 1/4". "I told him not to
mess up my concentration," said Devers with loving asperity,
"but of course he did."
She started terribly in that semi, but roared through the field
to win in 11 flat. The final would be tougher, as it contained
Jamaica's Merlene Ottey (four bronzes from four Olympics) and
U.S. teammate Gwen Torrence (the 1995 world champion), two of
the four women Devers had outleaned in a blanket finish four
years ago atop Montjuic in Barcelona. So Devers had no time to
fret for Harrison when British world-record holder Jonathan
Edwards leaped 58'8" and suddenly made the triple jump a tight
Harrison caught her off guard again. As the women's 100
finalists were setting their blocks, he bounded to the third
longest jump in history, 59'4 1/4". When the noise of the
multitude had died away, the women's 100-meter race unfurled
without a trace of a false start. The short, dynamic Devers
bolted to a quick lead. Then here came Ottey and Torrence. Near
the line Devers twisted her left shoulder forward and ducked her
head. Ottey kept her head higher and her chest forward.
As at Barcelona, no one knew who had won. For long minutes they
waited, watching slow-motion replays on the scoreboard of races
that were too close to call. Then the finish was shown on the
screen, and Devers was declared the winner, though both she and
Ottey were timed at 10.94. Torrence was third in 10.96.
The news hit Devers about the same time her coach, Bob Kersee,
did. He flew out of the knot of photographers nearby and swung
Devers so wildly that it seemed he was once again back in Los
Angeles in 1984, falling down in violent delirium with Valerie
Brisco-Hooks, whom he was coaching at the time, after her sweep
of the 200 and 400 meters.
The Jamaican federation appealed the decision on Ottey's behalf,
saying heads shouldn't count and that her torso preceded
Devers's across the line, and for a minute it seemed that the
cattiness of the male sprinters was going to slop over to the
women. In Barcelona a frustrated Torrence had cut loose with
unsubstantiated accusations that her competitors may not have
been drug-free--accusations that caused a rift between Torrence
and the Devers-Kersee camp. But on this night (Was it maturity?
Was it the nearness of more important concerns?) peace prevailed.
The protest was disallowed. Devers and Torrence took a touching
victory lap together, and later, together, they delivered a
forceful lecture to all who would hear. "We're competitors, not
rivals," said Devers. "When it's over, it's over," said
Torrence, who surely had to be saddened not to do better in her
hometown. But she kept her head up. "I am ecstatic," she
insisted, "to get a medal."
Ecstasy like that, always hard to force, would be impossible in
the shot, because either world-record-holder Randy Barnes or
world-champion John Godina was going to be royally depressed
about finishing second. Both were capable of 73-footers, but as
round after round went by, they kept pressing and coming up five
feet short. With one round left Godina had a slim lead with a
put of 68'2 1/2" and knew what was going to happen. On his last
throw Barnes hit 70'11 1/4", and Godina, though he recognized
that being part of a U.S. one-two finish was good, was bummed.
"It may sound like I don't appreciate the Olympics," he said,
berating himself. "But it's not that. I do. I just tried too
Jackie Joyner-Kersee would, respectfully, gag. The two-time
Olympic champion and world-record holder in the heptathlon came
in nursing a tender hamstring that, over the ninth barrier of
the opening 100-meter hurdles, started to feel like someone was
digging into her left leg with a boning knife. She finished in
agony and had to withdraw, leaving the gold to Ghada Shouaa of
Syria, who would have been tough even if her American rival had
been sound. Joyner-Kersee can only pray for a miracle before
Friday's long jump.
A miracle of sorts came Monday night when Svetlana Masterkova of
Russia, running a tactically superb race, upset both Ana Quirot
of Cuba and Maria Mutola of Mozambique, who were reduced to the
silver and bronze, in the women's 800.
The men's 110-meter hurdles did not produce an upset, but it did
offer another example of a truly Olympian effort. Allen Johnson
of the U.S. won the gold medal despite hitting the last six
hurdles and clobbering the last one so hard that he clearly
would have come away with the world record had he stayed clear.
As it was, his 12.95 was an Olympic mark and missed the world
record by .04 of a second. Just trailing Johnson was teammate
Mark Crear, who captured the silver medal in 13.09.
And lest Michael Johnson's quest to double be the only one
celebrated at these Games, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia took
the track in the last event of Monday night and raced to an
Olympic record of 27:07.34 in winning the men's 10,000 meters.
His second gold medal run, in the 5,000 meters, would come on
Saturday in the last individual race before Sunday's men's
There can be no question that those performances--as well as
that of Marie-Jose Perec of France, who reprised her 400-meter
gold medal performance from Barcelona--were masterful. But if
anyone in the Games can truly be said to have summoned his best
at precisely the right time, it was sweet Charles Austin of San
Marcos, Texas. He and Poland's Artur Partyka waged a high jump
duel the equal of any in history, with Austin leading by
clearing all the early heights on his first tries to earn the
booming allegiance of the crowd.
But with the bar at 7'9 1/4", Partyka cleared and Austin missed
twice. That meant that even if Austin cleared on his third
attempt, he would be second if neither man went higher. So he
passed his last try and let the bar go to 7'10", where he would
be allowed a single try while Partyka got three.
Partyka missed his first, making the bar look impossibly high.
Austin readied himself and ran with his slow, bounding approach
that is all power. He popped into the air, lay long over the
bar, lifted his heels and cleared.
The roar that ensued seemed almost like trumpets, announcing the
return of something that has been gone for years. This was the
sound that swirled around Wilma Rudolph or Bob Hayes or Bruce
Jenner, and it almost escorted Austin--after Partyka had gone
out--over a world-record 8'3/4" on his third try at that height.
"I never felt anything like it before," said Austin, dazed. "I'm
sure I never will again."
When the cheering died away at last, you looked up and suddenly
it was night, with a full moon, and here was Donovan Bailey
drinking it all in. It was the day after his world record, and
he was being expansive, for him. "Yeah, we celebrated," he said.
"Somebody had Cuban cigars. I had a puff. I still have this
nasty taste in my mouth."
It will fade. But the achievement, the achievement, will linger
on like an old sweet song, and surely keep Georgia on the mind.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Ato Boldon held the lead midway through the 100, but Donovan Bailey (1192) and Frankie Fredericks (second from left) were just hitting their stride... [Donovan Bailey, Frankie Fredericks, Ato Boldon and others in race]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER ...and by 70 meters, Bailey had blazed to the lead, with Fredericks and Boldon a heartbeat behind. [Ato Boldon, Frankie Fredericks, Donovan Bailey and others in race]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Devers and Kersee were a picture of joy after a photo proved that she had won the 100 gold medal in a second straight Olympics. [Gail Devers and Bob Kersee embracing]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND [See caption above--Gwen Torrence, Merlene Ottey, Gail Devers and others crossing finish line in race]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Johnson draped himself in red white and blue after coming close to a world record in the 400. [Michael Johnson holding American flag]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES A sore hamstring brought a quick end to Joyner-Kersee's hopes of defending her heptathlon gold. [Jackie Joyner-Kersee in race]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR.Shot-putter Barnes and triple jumper Harrison, Devers's very significant other, added their names to America's victory roll. [Randy Barnes putting shot; Kenny Harrison]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Hopes and cheers helped Austin soar to an electrifying win--andalmost to a world-record height.[Charles Austin high jumping]