Rosen, like many U.S. coaches before him, naturally wanted to select the strongest team available at the time of the Olympic relay. The 400-meter men naturally wanted to get the team set as early as possible, and by head-to-head racing, not by a coach's nod.
"It's funny," said Rosen. "They know the policy, but still they fight it. Andrew Valmon knew from day one that he almost surely wasn't going to run in the finals of the relay. The idea that they were fighting for Valmon's rights—I don't buy it."
Johnson had known that his participation would be opposed. "Ever since I got out of school," he said, "the Santa Monica people have shown this animosity toward me. They so prize their dominance in the sprints that when someone threatens it, they try to have him join them." Johnson says Santa Monica invited him to join after he graduated from Baylor. (The club denies this.) When he said he preferred to train alone, the current state of mutual abrasion began.
Both camps are hard and competitive, so there were sparks at relay meetings. Carl Lewis recalls one: "Michael turned to Danny and said, "You mean to tell me I'm not the best 400 man in the world?'
" 'That's irrelevant," said Danny.
" 'I didn't think you could fix your mouth to say that." said Michael. His attitude came across so strongly that feelings ran deep.""
Nevertheless, assistant coach Bill Moultrie of Howard University, a man of immense civility, managed to keep the chemistry positive. The situation destabilized no one, especially not young Quincy Watts, the NCAA 400-meter champion. Watts was coached by UCLA's John Smith, whose instructions were, "Come in like a breath of fresh air and say, I am the elixir.... I am the answer to your every question.' "
Watts was all of that when he won the Olympic 400 from Steve Lewis in a near-world-record 43.50. But the relay team was taking hits. Everett's chronic Achilles tendinitis flared up and kept him out of the 400 final. And Johnson, weakened by food poisoning, didn't make the final of the 200. "After that." says Carl Lewis, Johnson's "attitude was much more mellow. Life teaches us all that anything can happen."
Suddenly life was making Rosen's decisions for him. Watts and Steve Lewis were sound, and Valmon could take over for Everett, his patron. But did Johnson retain any of his 400-meter form? Rosen tested him with a leg in the semifinals. Johnson ran an encouraging 44.7.
So they went out at last to race. The Olympic crowd, seemingly near an edge, was emitting strange ululant, high-pitched cries. It knew little of the U.S. team's differences. It knew only that there was one race left, and the crowd wanted this day to end with the breaking of track's oldest world record, the 2:56.16 set in the Olympic 4 X 400 in 1968 by Vince Matthews, Ron Freeman. Larry James and Lee Evans and tied in 1988 by a U.S. team anchored by world-record holder Butch Reynolds.