Throwing a long late-afternoon shadow on broiling asphalt, John
Capel bounded away from the Sacramento stadium where two hours
earlier he had earned his first Olympic berth, flying to a
stunning win in the 200 meters on Sunday. Capel's coach, Mike
Holloway, scooted along in front of him. The runner's father,
John Sr., walked behind, proudly wearing the medal that had been
draped around his son's neck. In rapid patter Capel re-created
his race, including the moment when the U.S. Olympic Track and
Field Trials crossed from athletic showcase into absurd
spectacle. "I'm out of the turn, straightened for home," said
Capel, pumping his arms as if still sprinting. "Then I look up
at the big screen, and I couldn't believe what I saw. There's
Michael Johnson lying on the track behind me, and there's
Maurice Greene hobbling along, out of the race." Capel shook his
head, as if clearing cobwebs after taking a left hook.
The 200 was to have been the crowning moment of the eight-day
trials. The first weekend had been terrific. The second had
started off even better on a cool, breezy Friday night when
36-year-old Regina Jacobs, who only five days earlier had won
the 1,500 meters, broke her own U.S. 5,000-meter record by a
ridiculous seven seconds. Jacobs thereby established herself as
the best U.S. women's middle distance runner in nearly two
decades--since Mary Slaney in her prime--and a serious medal
threat in whichever event she runs in Sydney. Jacobs, who'd been
planning to compete only in the shorter race in the Games, awoke
on Saturday morning in her hotel room, turned to her
husband-coach, Tom Craig, and asked, "Now, what exactly is the
Olympic schedule for doubling in the five and the 15?"
On Sunday world pole vault champion Stacy Dragila broke her own
world record by clearing 15' 2 1/4", further cementing her
status as the favorite to win the first women's Olympic vault.
(She won the exhibition vault at the '96 trials, but she went
home to Pocatello, Idaho, and resumed her job as a hostess at
Frontier Pies because the event had yet to be added to the
Games.) Gail Devers, who has two Olympic golds in the 100
meters, broke her own U.S. record in the 100-meter hurdles with
a time of 12.33 seconds, the fastest in the world in eight
years. Joetta Clark-Diggs, 37, made her fourth Olympic team by
throwing herself across the line in the 800, a finish that might
have been mundane except that she was preceded by her sister,
Hazel Clark, a willowy 22-year-old former NCAA champion from
Florida, and their sister-in-law, Jearl Miles-Clark, the
U.S.-record holder at the distance. All three women are coached
by J.J. Clark, who is Joetta and Hazel's brother and Jearl's
husband. (There will be a quiz later.) Finally, Marion Jones,
who makes the remarkable seem routine, cruised to victory in the
200, putting herself in position to chase five golds Down Under.
Yet all of this seemed like mere prelude to the meet's final
event, the men's 200. For more than a year Greene had baited
Johnson, and lately Johnson had given as good as he'd gotten.
After Greene won the 100 and Johnson the 400 on the first weekend
in Sacramento, a climate of hostility hung over the Sunday race,
adding both excitement--"I will always tune in to watch two guys
who dislike each other," Johnson said last week--and an element of
danger. Greene's coach, John Smith, had said long before the race
that he feared that neither man would make it to Sydney healthy
if he invested too much in the Sacramento 200.
The intensity was ratcheted up after Johnson, who will be 33 in
September, ran an easy 19.89 in his Saturday preliminary heat but
had to fight off a cramp in his right quadriceps muscle. Johnson,
the 200 and 400 gold medalist in Atlanta and the world-record
holder in both events, spent Saturday night with his stomach in
knots, worried that he might have to pull out and that his
defection would trigger a cascade of negative press, as had his
injury in a 150-meter match race against Donovan Bailey in '97
and his injury withdrawal from the 200 at the '99 U.S. nationals
in Eugene, Ore. That latter scratch, from a race Greene went on
to win, had prompted Greene's agent, Emanuel Hudson, to launch
the entire Maurice-Michael spitting contest.
"I'm thinking, If I pull out of this race, what are people going
to write about me?" Johnson said on Sunday, long after the 200.
"It's sad that track is in such bad shape that it needs
one-on-one battles to get people's attention, when the sport--and
especially the sprints--doesn't lend itself to those kinds of
match races." As a result Johnson had told his wife, Kerry, late
on Saturday night that he would not run the 200 in Sydney even if
he qualified at the distance.
Johnson survived his semifinal on Sunday, which was won by Capel
in 20.03, with Johnson second and Greene third. Less than two
hours later, however, as he climbed into his blocks for the
final, he knew he was cooked. In the short view, he was paying
for trying to run three 200s in 30 hours in brutal heat. In the
longer view, Johnson's body can no longer take the extreme torque
he applies at that distance. "I practiced a short start, and both
hips cramped," he said. "I knew getting into the blocks for the
race that I shouldn't do this, but I felt like I had to, because
of what would be said if I didn't."
Johnson may have earned respect by trying, but he lasted only 50
meters before his left hamstring cramped, dropping him to the
track. Surrealistically, Greene pulled up less than 50 meters
later, grabbing his left hammy and hopping to a stop. "New script
for the Western," said Johnson's coach, Clyde Hart. "Both
gunslingers get shot."
If Johnson was saddened and distraught, Greene was just mad. "He
was p----- off that he didn't get to finish the race," said
Smith. Younger and less inclined to analysis than is Johnson,
Greene had enlivened his days of preparation for the 200 by
leading his training partners in water-balloon and
giant-squirt-gun fights in their hotel hallways. On Sunday night
he went ahead with a subdued 26th birthday party at a Sacramento
cafe. He should recover from his injury and run the 100 in
Sydney. Johnson should recover and run the 400.
The 21-year-old Capel, meanwhile, is just beginning his Olympic
career. He left Florida in April, abandoning his football
scholarship after two modest seasons without consulting coach
Steve Spurrier. "I tried to talk him out of leaving, tried to get
him to stay in school," said Holloway, the assistant men's track
coach for the Gators. "For some people, at certain times, school
is not the right place. John will go back eventually."
Capel ran a precocious 19.87 in the 200 as a freshman in '99 and
peaked for the trials this year. "I knew John Capel was going to
be hell for me here," said Johnson. After his glance at the big
screen on Sunday, Capel held off 34-year-old Floyd Heard and hit
the line in a personal best of 19.85. Far behind, Johnson writhed
on his back and Greene took wincing baby steps. In place of a
roar at the end of the year's most anticipated race, there was
only a shocked silence.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY Last legsInjured left hamstrings halted Johnson (far left) and then Greene (351) as Kenneth Brokenburr ran on to finish fifth.