With each race, Frankie Fredericks gained a sliver of fame and lost a little piece of himself. Twice in nine early-summer days he nearly broke the world record for 100 meters, and two days after that, for an encore, he became the first man to beat Michael Johnson at 200 meters in almost two years. For this, he has been cast as The Man in the Olympic 100 meters this Saturday night, because the 100 is a show and someone must play the lead. "He's the person I'll be watching for," says Dennis Mitchell, who won the 100 at the U.S. Olympic Trials. But Fredericks would prefer that nobody watch him at all.
He won't allow himself to be measured by others' expectations, only by his own, and he applies his code of personal conduct to everything that goes on around him. When he realized that the soccer team at his secondary school was pathetic, didn't Frankie, a brilliant center-forward, switch to track because he couldn't stomach losing? When others living under South African rule and apartheid in Fredericks's native Namibia hated white people, didn't Frankie refuse to do the same because his mother had taught him to treat everyone as an individual? Didn't he find a way to accept the father who moved away when Frankie was just an infant? Always, he made his own judgments, set his own values.
But now, after one of the most arresting 11-day runs by any sprinter in history, he finds himself swept along swiftly in the current of popular wisdom. The hot streak began on June 25 in Helsinki, when the 28-year-old Fredericks ran the 100 meters in 9.87 seconds, crushing world champion Donovan Bailey of Canada so decisively that Bailey "just packed it in after about 70 meters," said Fredericks's coach, Willard Hirschi. The time was .08 faster than Fredericks had ever run and just off Leroy Burrell's two-year-old world record of 9.85. On July 3 in Lausanne—against a stacked field that included not only Bailey but also 1992 Olympic champion Linford Christie, 22-year-old prodigy Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago, and the U.S. trio of Mitchell, Jon Drummond and Burrell—Fredericks was clocked in 9.86 seconds, equaling the second-fastest 100 ever (Carl Lewis, 1991, Tokyo). Several meters from the finish, running into a slight headwind, Fredericks threw his arms into the air in celebration. "The little boy in me came out," he says. That inner kid cost him dearly. "He had the world record, easy, if he ran the whole race," says Hirschi. Two days after Lausanne, Fredericks beat Johnson in the 200 meters in Oslo, running a personal best of 19.82 seconds, well off Johnson's fresh world record of 19.66 but impressively fast on Bislett Stadium's tight, egg-shaped oval, on which no one had previously broken 20 seconds.
"My god, he's running well," says Christie, who trains often with Fredericks. "He's run some fast times, so he's confident. He's just in that mode right now. I've been there, and it's a pretty intense place."
The timing is handy, too, because the Olympic 100 final appears to be as hard to figure out as the plot of Mission: Impossible. Christie, the glowering defending champ, now 36 years old, didn't formally commit to running in Atlanta until July 1; Bailey has been wildly inconsistent; Lewis and Burrell didn't make the U.S. team; and Drummond, 27, and Boldon are relatively inexperienced. Most consistent has been Mitchell, until he laid a 10.15 egg, finishing last in the Lausanne race (a performance that he attributes to hard training and the wearying U.S. trials). For all that, the final will almost surely be one of the fastest in Olympic history; five of the likely finalists have been under 10 seconds this season. Fredericks has been the fastest, yet he insists, "I am not The Man."
Even though he has been in every Olympic and world championship final in the 100 and 200 meters since 1991, and even though he won two Olympic silver medals in 1992, Fredericks refuses to accept the role that has been assigned to him in Atlanta. He clearly relished his role in Barcelona, where, he says, "I had no pressure. Nobody expected me to do that well."
Those days are gone. During a training session last week in Tallahassee, Fla., Fredericks and Christie rose violently from their starting blocks and tore down the rubber straightaway in adjacent lanes, with Fredericks drawing away immediately. He was a full stride in front at 10 meters and, not long after, clear by daylight. Sixty meters from the start, they shut down simultaneously, Christie looking at Fredericks's back. "That was quick," howled Christie. As the two sprinters shuffled back to the starting line, bathed in sweat from the 95° heat and suffocating humidity, Christie extended his right hand and slapped Fredericks's left, a temporary act of surrender.
Fredericks is smaller than Christie, just 5'10" and 171 pounds, but more chiseled than in past years from what he calls "more aggressive" weightlifting. A nest of veins makes his legs look like a road map of Pennsylvania. "This year I finally believe what my coach has always told me," he says. "I believe that I can run with these guys in the 100. That I can beat all of them. There was a little doubt before. Now there is none."
Fredericks was the only child born to Riekie Fredericks and Andries Kangootui, who split up when Frankie was an infant. Riekie raised Frankie in a four-room house in Katutura, a black township outside Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia, a nation of 1.6 million on the Southwest coast of Africa that until 1990 was a territory under South African control. "Katutura was a ghetto, a difficult place to live," says Daniel Tjongarero, a family friend who is now director general of the Namibia Broadcasting Corporation. When they moved in, there was no indoor plumbing, only an outhouse at the back of the property. But Riekie, while working as a seamstress for a white family in Windhoek and also taking on two part-time jobs, arranged to have a small addition built in back of the house, with an indoor toilet. It was one of many gifts, small and large, that the mother gave to the son.
Frankie's father, a farmer, would visit occasionally, but there was a palpable chill in the home when he arrived. "I don't know why my mother and father split up, but I know it wasn't pleasant," says Frankie. "But he is my father. We talk. But for my mother, I would do anything."