Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago, a UCLA senior last spring who had won his semifinal in 9.93 seconds, wore rose-colored shades and muttered. Dennis Mitchell of the U.S., the 1992 bronze medalist, twitched and glared, the silver ring in his right eyebrow making him look as though he had had a cut sewed up at Tiffany's. Namibia's Frankie Fredericks, the silver medalist in both the 100 and the 200 in Barcelona, who had won the other semi in 9.94, stretched with a studied casualness befitting the race favorite. Donovan Bailey, the 1995 world champion whom Fredericks had beaten all year, seemed almost resigned beside him.
Defending Olympic champion Linford Christie of Britain stood motionless, a block of Lycra-clad obsidian. He had won in Barcelona by proving himself immune to the pressure of this moment. If there was a given, it was that even if Christie did not win, he would never flinch.
Christie flinched. He false-started, and the sprinters were called back and reassembled. On the second try the field appeared to be away well when the starter heard a tone in his earphones telling him that someone had pressed back on the blocks too early; he fired the recall signal. Boldon was distressed to learn he had reacted in an illegally quick .082 of a second. "Nobody can tell me I didn't go after that gun sounded," said Boldon, but nobody was telling him that. The official view is that humans can't react in less than .1 of a second, so his move wasn't reaction but anticipation.
Again the sprinters went to their marks. The crowd—80,000 strong—which in past Olympics has fallen into a rapt hush before the 100, was fed up by now with all these false starts. The derisive whistling stopped, but the roar of noise did not.
The gun fired again, and again the starter heard the fateful tone and brought them back. He gestured at Christie, who had blasted off .086 after the gun. That was two. The most self-possessed man in sprinting, who had never in his 36 years been thrown out on false starts, was disqualified from the Olympic final.
This Christie could not endure. He refused to step back into the tunnel as asked. Referee John Chaplin was summoned Christie gave him no argument and left, but by then nearly four minutes had elapsed minutes that worked on Boldon's mercurial nerves.
On the fourth try they were away cleanly. Mitchell shot to the front, but was caught at 30 meters by Boldon, who was in turn caught at 60 by the flashing quick strides of Fredericks, running with the expression of a man rearing back from smelling exceedingly acrid cheese. The race seemed over, a fitting end to Fredericks's magnificent season, perfectly setting up a duel in the 200 with Johnson.
But at that instant Bailey made his move As he hit 60 meters he attained a speed that made his ordinary start meaningless The timers measured his velocity at that point at 27.1 mph, as the powerful stride that brings not just his knees but his entire leg; high, drove him past Fredericks at 70 meter; and to the finish in a world-record 9.84.
At last. For the first time since Harry Jerome tied the world mark at 10.0 in 1960, the record belonged to a Canadian sprinter. Well, that's leaving out the whole unpleasantness of drug-forfeited Olympic races and world records known as the Ben Johnson affair, which Bailey would love to do. So we will, too.
Dwell instead on Bailey's open-mouthed silent scream as he crossed the finish line a perfect mix of joy and shock, for he had expected no record. "Every time I run thinking of time, I screw up," he said afterward. So, in affirmation of one of sport' eternal verities, he ran thinking only of running and was rewarded.