Lee Evans's 400-meter record of 43.86, set in 1968, stood for 20 years. When Butch Reynolds broke it, in Zurich in '88, it was with the most astounding running performance of the decade. Reynolds has had trouble getting support from fellow athletes in fighting the IAAF, the world track federation, over a seemingly flawed IAAF drug test, in part because his record that night seems so superhuman. "Why do I think Butch took something?" goes the line. "43.29." This may be the most pernicious effect of athletes' drug use on the popular mind. The better a record, the more it is ascribed to steroids. Losing all capacity for genuine awe, we lump the miraculous in with the tainted.
It now seems miraculous that two powerful but brittle athletes combined for so long to control the 110-meter hurdles. Yet Kingdom and Foster leapfrog wonderfully across the chart, Kingdom grabbing the Olympic golds, Foster the intervening world titles. Had Nehemiah not surrendered his best years and his Achilles tendons to his NFL aspirations, the chart would be different.
Four of the 400-meter-hurdles entries are embossed with Moses's name, and that doesn't count his 1976 Olympic gold. The image that returns is from the Helsinki worlds in '83. His shoelace came untied down the backstretch, but he won despite its lashing the hurdles and his legs. "You could have stepped on it and tripped yourself," said a frantic journalist. Moses, the mathematician, was embarrassed for him. "My stride is nine feet," he said. "To trip, I'd have to have a shoelace 10 feet long."
The period of U.S. sprinting dominance has been marked by the absence of the Great Foreign Opponent. When Armin Hary of West Germany won the 1960 Olympic 100 with a fast start and when Borzov won both the 100 and the 200 in Munich in '72, they caused a sensation. The cock-of-the-walk psychology of U.S. sprinters and coaches allowed for little distinction between being humbled and being humiliated. The '76 Olympics were the high-water mark for the international forces, as Hasely Crawford of Trinidad won the 100, Don Quarrie of Jamaica the 200, Alberto Juantorena of Cuba the 400 (and 800) and Guy Drut of France the 110-meter hurdles. Why there were no Americans who could run with them then is just as mystifying as why things are different now.
But of course we do know what it feels like when the U.S.'s best are left in the dust. Ben Johnson was every bit the Great Foreign Opponent in Rome in 1987 and, until he was busted for using anabolic steroids, in Seoul in '88. His admission under oath of protracted use forced the IAAF to strike his performances from the record books. But the images of his races—the mad-bull starts and the angry, dismissive finishes—don't evaporate from the mind as easily. One reason that it comes as a surprise to sec Lewis's name cruising unobstructed through the 100-meter entries is that we've seen him twice trying to control his emotions after Johnson bolted to world records in front of him.
We are currently favored with the presence of one Great Foreign Opponent, Samuel Matete of Zambia, the 1991 world 400-hurdles champion, who is the source of intriguingly mixed feelings for U.S. Olympic coach Mel Rosen. Matete honed his craft at Auburn, under Rosen, and exemplifies one of the reasons many observers fear for U.S. dominance once the current generation is gone.
Is America's dash future bankrupt? asked Track & Field News on its May 1992 cover. The magazine looked to the NCAA to find the men who would replace Lewis and company and found instead foreign collegians brought in because the pipelines of U.S. talent are drying up. Inner-city sports have been ravaged by slashed budgets and volunteer burnout. Some black male athletes have been denied opportunities to compete in college because of Proposition 48, and cutbacks on track scholarships have forced sprinters to go to football to find full rides.
Of course there are a lot more compelling reasons to rebuild inner-city youth programs than just to let Americans keep mopping up on charts like this one. In fact, keeping in mind that the great sprinters come from a needle-sized talent pool in a haystack of fastest-kids-in-the-class, the decline in broad opportunity might not result in a famine on the chart at all.
The famine will come only when one or two prodigies a year stop making their way to the colonies in Los Angeles, Houston and across the South, where the best coaches hold forth. The famine will come only when a Quincy Watts, the 22-year-old who qualified third behind Danny Everett in the 400 at the U.S. trials, can no longer connect with such Los Angeles area coaches as Jim Bush of USC or John Smith of UCLA, or when a Mike Powell can't work with a Randy Huntington of Fresno, Calif., when a Leroy Burrell doesn't present himself to a Tellez.
For the present, though, those precious connections are still being made. The young U.S. speed merchants who will be stripping off their sweats in Barcelona prove it. Burrell (9.88) and Dennis Mitchell (9.91) are history's second-and third-fastest in the 100, and Michael Johnson just needs a still, warm day to destroy the 200 record. Everett's 43.81 in the trials 400 made him the second-fastest ever. He, Watts and 1988 Olympic champion Steve Lewis will almost surely—given good health—sweep the event, as will Carl Lewis, Powell and Jumping Joe Greene in the long jump. In the 110 hurdles, Jack Pierce and Tony Dees are worthy replacements for Foster and Kingdom. Kevin Young—a legitimate heir to Moses—will give Matete all he can handle, and more, in the 400 hurdles. Thus the new generation presents a solid front of favorites in every speed event. So the guess here is that the American greats will keep coming.