At the end Carl Lewis was back where he always wanted to be. When Dennis Mitchell popped the stick into Lewis's hand with a one-meter lead in the 4 x 100-meter relay, Lewis took five fast steps, looked up the track and screamed out, "Yes!" and then "Yes!" again at the sheer blast of being right where he burns most brightly, right where we had worried he would never be again, anchoring the U.S. team in an Olympic sprint-relay final.
And this was no cameo. Lewis lifted into his great fluid top speed, extended the U.S.'s lead to seven meters over Nigeria and crossed the line in 37.40, taking a 10th of a second from the world record that three of these same four men, Leroy Burrell, Mitchell and Lewis—Mike Marsh was a newcomer—-had helped set in last year's world championships, in Tokyo. This is the sixth time in nine years that Lewis has anchored a U.S. 4 x 100-meter team to a world record. His closing, running-start 100 was timed in 8.8, which means that Lewis, at 31, may well have screamed down the Barcelona track faster than he, or anyone else, had ever run.
"Life is about timing," said Lewis, and he didn't mean the electric eye. Suffering from a sinus infection that spread to his thyroid, liver and kidneys, Lewis finished sixth in the 100 at the U.S. trials and so qualified for the relay only as an alternate. Even after 10 days of antibiotics reversed his decline and he beat Burrell and Mark Witherspoon in a 100 in Italy, he didn't ask U.S coach Mel Rosen to put him in his old slot in the relay because that could have bumped one of his teammates. "They can win without me," he said.
But in the 100 semifinals in Barcelona, Witherspoon went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon. So Lewis was called, and tie was ready. "We dedicated the race to Mark," he said. "Lord, I'm thankful right now. This was my best Olympics."
Oh, yeah, he had also won the long lump. Lewis called himself lucky—he reached 28'5½" on his first jump, then sweated out a last try by world-record holder Mike Powell that fell just 1¼" short of catching him. The two titans, never close but always respectful, shared a brief hug, during which Powell went a good way toward describing the whole Olympic track meet. "This is some hard——, man," he said. Lewis threw his head back and shouted agreement.
In Barcelona, it seemed, the more prohibitively you were favored, the more surely some obstacle—some untimely bug, vexing wind, parting tendon, over-zealous official or hot, spattering drug charges—would rise up and slap you down or make you miserable. The U.S.'s lock in the 200, Michael Johnson, was weakened by food poisoning and didn't make the final. Ukraine's Sergei Bubka pulled a Dan O'Brien and no-heighted in the pole vault. Algeria's Noureddine Morceli fell victim to a Kenyan tactical trap and finished seventh in the men's 1,500.
Remarkably, only three of the 39 1991 individual world champions won in Barcelona. All were women: Marie-José Pérec of France in the 400, Heike Henkel of Germany in the high jump and Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria in the 1,500.
All things good and terrible seemed equally possible, even within a single race. Ten meters ahead of the field in the 400-meter hurdles final, his face all liberation and light, Kevin Young stretched out toward the last barrier. That hurdle of aluminum tubing and enameled ash, three feet high, was all that stood between Young and history, fortune and a lifetime of being able to wake up in the middle of the night and thrash around yipping over how deliciously it had all worked out. He had run his race so perfectly that each barrier had appeared exactly where he wanted it. He never had to chop or even adjust his steps, just flow over and on, over and on. Now, in the stretch, the crowd was roaring not at some threat, but out of awe. Young knew he was going to win and was going to be near Edwin Moses's world record.
Then his heel struck the top of the last hurdle, hard, and drove the barrier down. Young thought of nothing but balance. Others, their hearts stopping, thought of how close he was, finally, to confirmation. In 1985, when the spidery, 6'4" Young, fresh out of Watts, was a UCLA freshman trying to break 51 seconds, he met assistant coach John Smith. "We saw a little spark in each other's eyes," Young says now. Spark was good, but Smith also saw a stride so long that at full speed Young needed to take only 12 steps between intermediate hurdles, something Moses had experimented with but had never done in races. Smith told Young he could be the world's greatest 400-meter hurdler.
For a while Young was on course, winning two NCAA 400-meter hurdles titles and placing fourth in Seoul. Moses's world record, set in 1983, was 47.02. Moses himself felt that if Young ever smoothed his race out, his record would be in jeopardy.