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Off and Running Ato Boldon's sizzling 9.86 seconds in the 100 meters served notice that he has taken dead aim at the world record and the man who holds it, Donovan Bailey


Enough with humility and gracious, congratulatory fluff. More
than an hour after he had watched his training partner, Ato
Boldon of Trinidad, win the 100 meters in a blistering 9.86
seconds at the Mount San Antonio College Relays on Sunday; after
he'd helped explain how Boldon had equaled the third-fastest
time in history (and Carl Lewis's fastest), had missed Donovan
Bailey's world record by just .02 of a second and had run faster
than any other sprinter so early in any season, Maurice Greene
turned deliciously selfish.

"Hey, John, I've got to run a 100, and soon," he squealed at
John Smith, the Los Angeles-based sprint coach who trains both
Boldon and Greene and who has chosen to keep them in separate
races until early summer.

"Oh, man, come on down, I'm right here," shouted Boldon from a
nearby bench.

Greene paced the worn grass of the Mt. SAC warmup area, manic
with energy. He is the world and U.S. champion at 100
meters--and owner of a 9.86 of his own--and on Sunday he won the
200 meters in a scorching 20.03 seconds. Yet it was only the
fragrance of Boldon's 100 that excited him. "We are going to go
at it," said Greene, eyeballing Boldon with a malevolence that
is both serious and familiar, repeated dozens of times a day in
their train-and-trash sessions at UCLA. "And when we go at it,
that record is going way, way down."

It's Boldon's and Greene's common cause to annihilate the world
record of 9.84, set by Bailey at the 1996 Olympics, a passion
that is derived in part from their dislike of Bailey. Last
summer at the world championships in Athens, Bailey tried for
two days to unnerve Boldon and the internationally unproven
Greene, before Greene endured to beat him in the final, sticking
out his tongue at Bailey as they crossed the finish line. In
postrace interviews, the erudite Bailey belittled Greene's
nervous, unpolished manner of speaking. More recently, after
Greene defeated Bailey in Australia in February, Bailey
suggested to the Sydney Daily Telegraph Mirror, that Greene has
used performance-enhancing drugs. (Never mind that such talk is
a given for any rising star in the track world.) "Donovan is an
intelligent guy," said Boldon. "What he's trying to do is get a
rise out of Maurice. Well, he's going to get it; not only am I
going to break his record, Maurice is going to break it, too."

Beyond Bailey, there's the 100-meter record. "Soft, very soft,"
said Boldon. As dramatic evolutionary changes have unfolded in
every sport--300-pound football linemen who run the 40 in 4.9,
baseball players who threaten to hit 70 home runs in a season,
basketball players who break not just backboards but basket
supports--track, too, has been on fast-forward. Nearly every
men's record has been crushed in the last decade, many in the
last two years. But the 100-meter mark has barely moved,
decreasing just .11 of a second since Jim Hines's 9.95 at the
1968 Mexico City Games. The biggest drop during that period was
at the world championships of 1991, when Lewis lowered the
record from 9.90 to 9.86. (Ben Johnson ran 9.83 and 9.79, but
both marks were expunged after he admitted to using steroids.)
"We're going to get this thing under 9.80," Boldon promised.
"The question is, How much under?"

When the 24-year-old Boldon speaks like this, particularly in
April, track cognoscenti cringe. He has two Olympic bronze
medals and a world championship (last year in the 200), yet his
words and deeds promise much more. A year ago Boldon opened his
100-meter season by running 9.89 at the Modesto Relays but only
once ran faster thereafter--a why now? 9.87 in a quarterfinal
heat at the worlds. He finished fifth behind Greene in the
Athens final. Similarly, he peaked in the 200 with a 19.77 in
early July in Stuttgart, then staggered home to his first world
title with a wind-aided 20.04 against a field without Michael
Johnson. Boldon is the slugger who hits 35 home runs by the
All-Star break and finishes with 42. "I know exactly what other
sprinters will wake up saying when they see what I've run here,"
he said. "'Boldon's at it again. We'll get him in July.'"

His midseason struggles are painful to watch not just because
Boldon is so talented but also because he's a wellspring of
intelligence, humor and infectious enthusiasm. After winning
Sunday's 100 with a gusty-but-allowable 1.8 meters-per-second
wind at his back, Boldon carried the flag of Trinidad around the
modest stadium that sits among green hillsides in Walnut,
Calif., an hour east of Los Angeles. On the infield he conducted
a press conference and then did several interviews on his cell
phone. "He's the type of person whom people gravitate to," says
Jonathan Ogden, a former UCLA track teammate of Boldon's and now
a Pro Bowl offensive tackle with the Baltimore Ravens. "He loves
to talk. We used to say, It's a good thing we all like Ato so
much, because if we didn't, we'd want to kill him for talking so
much. But I miss him. There are no people like him in football."

Boldon--the first of two sons of a Jamaican mother, Hope, and a
Trinidadian father, Guy--comes naturally to his role. He was
named Ato Jabari, from the words in Yoruba, a West African
language, meaning "brilliant leader." Says Guy, "If you name
your son Jesse or Frank, you can expect him to behave like a
Jesse or Frank. I wanted my children to look upward." To
underscore his desire, Guy asked a favor from the developer who
built the family's home outside Port-of-Spain, and thus the
knoll on which they lived was named Jabari Hill.

Ato lived in Trinidad until he was 14; after his parents
divorced, he and his brother, Okera, moved to New York City with
Hope. There Ato was introduced to track by Jamaica (Queens) High
coach Joe Trupiano, who witnessed Ato's arresting speed being
squandered in a soccer game. Before Ato's senior year in high
school, Hope took a job as a human resources consultant in
Atlanta and moved Ato to California, where he lived for a year
with an uncle, Leroi Boldon, a veterinarian who gave Ato the
keys to his gold Mercedes 380 SL. "Playboy lifestyle without the
income," says Ato. "In retrospect, not a good thing."

This was especially true in light of Boldon's precocity, in not
just athletics but also art, music and academics. As a
12-year-old in Trinidad, Ato says he ranked sixth in the country
on a standardized test given to 50,000 children, yet his grades
were mediocre. As a high school senior, he says, he scored 1280
on the SAT (including a strong 670 on the verbal portion), yet
nearly failed to graduate and had to attend junior college for
two years before enrolling at UCLA. The parallel to his track
career is obvious: Fast starts followed by a flat curve at best,
a flameout at worst.

"I get bored very easily, I know that," Boldon said as he sat at
a picnic table near the track. "Some years I open fast, and all
of a sudden my mind is racing ahead and I'm thinking of what it
will feel like when I break the world record--or I just suddenly
switch events. This year the word is patience." He keeps in mind
a line of Scripture that has become his theme. "Hebrews 12,"
said Boldon. "'Let us run with patience the race that is set
before us.'"

Patience to be sure, but as Greene would remind him: company,

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER WHOOSH! Boldon, always fast early in the season, knows what his rivals will think after his time at Mt. SAC: We'll get him in July. [Ato Boldon sprinting]