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In the right hands, track and field can be a blessedly
uncomplicated sport. Sergei Bubka's hands. Wilson Kipketer's
hands. Allen Johnson's hands. Marion Jones's hands or any of the
hands with which she shared a baton on the U.S. women's
4x100-meter relay team at the World Championships in Athens.
They embrace the ancient basics and sprinkle them with gold. Run
fast, jump high, throw far. Stand tall and sing along with the
national anthem.

As Athens fell into its customary smoky darkness on Sunday
evening, bringing the championships to a close, the 33-year-old
Bubka of Ukraine, history's most dominant pole vaulter, cleared
19'8 3/4" to win a stirring competition over Maksim Tarasov of
Russia and Dean Starkey of the U.S. Bubka has now won his event
at all six World Championships, starting with the first one, in

Bubka's transcendent triumph came one day after Jones's
blistering second leg broke open the women's sprint relay; two
days after the incomparable Kipketer, a native of Kenya running
for Denmark, toyed with the 800-meter field and won in 1:43.38,
and three days after the U.S.'s Johnson followed his '95 World
Championship and '96 Olympic victories in the 110-meter hurdles
by winning yet another gold. These athletes are the best in the
world. They win simply and simply win.

The men's sprinters from the U.S. are also the best, and their
talent pool is the deepest. They should be all over the 4x100
like fat on a shot-putter, but instead they have turned the
sport's seminal relay into torture. Wes Craven should do the
documentary. Early Saturday evening, as the sweltering Olympic
Stadium was just beginning to fill for the penultimate session
of the Worlds, the U.S. lined up in lane 2 for its preliminary
heat in the 4x100-meter relay. There were 27 teams spread over
four heats, and 16 of them would advance to the semifinals; the
U.S. should have been able to qualify with Jerry, George, Kramer
and Newman.

Brian Lewis, a 22-year-old junior at Norfolk State College who
finished fifth in the 100 meters at the U.S. championships in
June, ran the opening leg for the Americans and tore through a
fast curve before preparing to pass the baton to Norfolk State
teammate Tim Montgomery, who had won the bronze medal in the 100
meters six days earlier. Montgomery began running hard before
Lewis reached him, which is normal in the four-by-one, but
neared the end of the 20-meter passing zone with his left arm
extended backward, yet without the baton, which is not normal.
Only when Montgomery literally stopped just past the end of the
zone--too late--did Lewis finally make the pass, at which point
Montgomery looked desperately at the position of his feet and
then jumped into the air in anger. Roughly 11 seconds into the
first heat, the U.S. was out. There would be no avenging the
gold medal losses to Canada at the '95 Worlds and '96 Olympics
and no reprise, on the anchor leg in the final, of the previous
Sunday's Maurice Greene-Donovan Bailey 100-meter duel (won by
Greene). Even the uninitiated Greek fans gasped in astonishment.

Had they been paying attention for the last decade, they would
simply have nodded. Last Saturday's relay fiasco marked the
fourth time in the last seven major competitions (World
Championships or Olympics) over 10 years that the U.S. has
sabotaged its own chances to win the men's 4x100 relay. At the
1988 Seoul Olympics and the 1995 Worlds in Goteborg, Sweden,
baton mistakes similar to Saturday's bounced the U.S. from the
competition before the final. Last year in Atlanta the U.S. team
was so mired in the controversy over whether Carl Lewis should
run (he ultimately did not) that it never jelled and was crushed
by Canada and Bailey in the final. Dennis Mitchell, the veteran
U.S. sprinter who was supposed to run the third leg and hand off
to Greene but never got to touch the stick, hurried off the
track last Saturday and shook his head. "Three times, man,"
Mitchell said, referring to relay disappointments he has
suffered in '95, '96 and, now, '97. "Three times."

Initially, it appeared that the problem resulted from
Montgomery's having left too early. Yet Brian Lewis was quick to
blame himself. "Tim left fine," Lewis said. "I could see he was
going fast, because Tim's running real well right now, and I
yelled, 'Stick!' But that just tells Tim I'm going to make the
pass. I should have yelled, 'Slow down!'" This is all true. But
there's much more to it than that, and the roots of Saturday's
mistake lie in the archaic--and seemingly unchangeable--U.S.

U.S. men's coach Dean Hayes, track coach at Middle Tennessee
State, came to Athens with six potential runners for the 4x100
relay, which is not unusual because injuries can thin the pool,
and some members need to rest in early rounds after running
individual events. Five of the athletes--Greene, Montgomery, Jon
Drummond (winner of the 200 meters at the U.S. championships),
Vince Henderson (a 24-year-old former Arkansas sprinter) and
Brian Lewis--were chosen from the finalists at the U.S.
nationals (again, customary). Seeking experience, Hayes added
Mitchell for a two-day relay camp in San Diego in mid-July and
decided that his top four, in order, would be Drummond,
Montgomery, Mitchell and Greene. Hayes denies that he had made
up his mind about a first alternate, but Henderson says that
Hayes and Mitchell told him at the camp, "You earned the
[alternate's] spot."

Hayes wished to keep the same four legs through all three rounds
in Athens, but that was patently unrealistic. Drummond ran the
final in the 200 meters (he finished seventh) last Friday night,
less than 24 hours before the first round of the 4x100. "I said
all along I wasn't going to run the first round," says Drummond.
Yet Hayes, typical of the good college soldier that USA Track &
Field summons to coach its national teams, persisted. He held
out hope that Drummond would change his mind, until 20 minutes
before the relay members were brought to the stadium for their
heat. Meanwhile he didn't tell Henderson (who thought he was the
alternate) or Lewis (who didn't know if he was the alternate)
who would replace Drummond. "I asked him three times, starting
the night before," says Henderson. "He kept saying Drummond
might run, when everybody knew he wouldn't."

Hayes says he picked Lewis because Henderson is more versatile;
the coach wanted to save Henderson in case a member of the relay
was injured in either of the first two rounds. "You've got to
worry about advancing first," says Henderson. It is an obvious
yet crucial point.

In pursuit of the U.S.'s first 4x100 title since the '93 World
Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, Hayes thus sent to the
stadium to run leadoff a kid who hadn't expected to run, had run
exactly one leadoff leg in his life (in the 1994 U.S. Olympic
Festival) and was terrified at the prospect of running this one.
"If they called me the day before, I could have gotten mentally
ready," Lewis says. "As it was, I walked over to that track
thinking about so many things. You make a mistake on a relay
like this, it can mess up your whole career." Says Chryste
Gaines, who ran leadoff for the U.S. women's 4x100 team:
"Leadoff is a pressure cooker. You've got a Eurosport camera an
inch from your face during the introductions, the whole stadium
watching you, and you're the only one going out of the blocks.
It's tough."

It isn't fair to flog Lewis. Given his nerves, it's no wonder he
botched his signals. Even though he and Montgomery train
together in Norfolk, they seldom practice handoffs. Neither is
it really fair to excoriate Hayes. He is a volunteer whose best
intention--to keep the relay order intact--was admirable but
simply too idealistic. Blame most of all the U.S. system, which
produces superior sprinters who live in different parts of the
country, have different coaches and rarely have an opportunity
to work together on the subtle intricacies of baton passing.

However, it also happens that the U.S. women function in
precisely the same system and have won six of the last eight
major titles. From last year's Olympic championship team, only
Gwen Torrence was replaced, by the precocious 100-meter champion
Jones. This year's team threatened the 12-year-old East German
world record of 41.37 seconds in its semifinal (41.52) and the
final (41.47, the second-fastest time in history). "This team
will break the world record," said Jones after the final. "It's
too good not to." With Jones running the long backstretch leg,
two-time Olympic 100-meter champ Gail Devers on the anchor and
veterans Gaines and Inger Miller (third leg), she's right. All
four ran both rounds of the relay. All four watched the men
crash and burn before the women's Saturday-night final. Says
Gaines, "We knew what it comes down to is, Get the stick around."

Tell it to Greene. In the moments following the U.S. men's
miscue, he stood in the changing area beneath the stadium,
watching on a TV monitor as Canada breezed through its first
round, en route to the gold medal. Just as Bailey crossed the
line, Greene wheeled away from the image, snatched his backpack
and hustled quietly off into the night, no race to run.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY By the time Lewis (right) handed off to him, an anguished Montgomery had strayed too far. [Tim Montgomery, Brian Lewis, and others in race]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Here's how it's done, guys: Leadoff Gaines (right) smoothly passed the stick to an accelerating Jones. [Marion Jones and Chryste Gaines in race]