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Thrills and Spills
Tim Layden
August 12, 1996
Four fleet Canadians and a diva from France turned the focus of the week from histrionics to heroics
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August 12, 1996

Thrills And Spills

Four fleet Canadians and a diva from France turned the focus of the week from histrionics to heroics

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But four days before the race Hunt waffled, saying he would consider Lewis if a runner was injured. This prompted press speculation as to what deals might be struck between Lewis and his Santa Monica Track Club teammates, Burrell and Marsh, that would induce one of them to feign injury and step aside. On Wednesday came a news release that Burrell, who had been troubled all spring by a sore right hamstring, was suffering from acute tendinitis, throwing gasoline on that particular fire. Burrell met with three reporters that night in Olympic Stadium. Asked if he was faking his injury for Lewis's benefit, Burrell bored holes in a writer with honest, angry eyes. "Would you give up a Pulitzer Prize?" he asked.

"Would you give up a gold medal so Carl could win his 10th?" asked the reporter.

"No," snapped Burrell. "That's ridiculous."

Through all this madness, the U.S. relay team survived heats and semifinals on Friday with Tim Harden and Tim Montgomery replacing Marsh, who was recovering from the 200 meters, in which he finished a flat eighth in 20.48, and the injured Burrell. Mitchell, the team captain, spoke most eloquently on Friday morning, dampening his anger but letting his feelings out. "Carl wants to get out there and let us give him a gold medal," Mitchell said, and it was the presumption in that phrase that would motivate the Canadians. "All we heard all week was that Carl was going to win his 10th gold medal," said Bailey. Late Friday night Hunt said that if any of the top four U.S. sprinters was unable to run, there was "a good chance" Lewis would replace him. "Erv told me, 'If somebody goes down, we're going to use Carl,' " said Douglas.

The next day Burrell was declared out. At about 1:30 Saturday afternoon, Charlie Greene, the assistant coach, called Douglas and asked him to bring Lewis to the warmup track near Olympic Stadium later that afternoon, that he might be needed. At 3:30 team manager Al Baeta called Douglas with a different message: Lewis wasn't going to run, but the team would like him to visit the warmup track just the same, for support. That Lewis did, to the accompaniment of many notebooks, microphones and minicams. "Even when he was there, the coaches never said one word to him," said Douglas. Said Hunt, "If the team had said they wanted Carl, I probably would have given in. But I would have asked why." It is clear that Hunt and the team members felt that Lewis was neither fast enough nor committed enough to take a spot. Lewis left the warmup area in sweatpants and a golf shirt, his Olympic career finished.

The relay was never in doubt. Drummond ran barely ahead of Esmie through the opening leg, but even that was not a good sign. Gilbert scorched the second leg in 9.02, .34 faster than the 22-year-old Harden, who had never run a major international final. "Not having Burrell on that second leg hurt a lot more than not having Carl," said Hunt. Marsh gained nothing on Surin, and Bailey ran away from Mitchell, as he would have from any sprinter in the world over 100 meters, including Michael Johnson.

If Bailey and Johnson are power, Pérec is grace afoot. She is 5'11" with a stride that is more than eight feet long and a feline economy of movement. She toyed with the 400-meter field, running 48.25, the third-fastest time in history. In the 200 she overhauled Jamaica's Merlene Ottey about 40 meters from the finish and cruised away to win in 22.12, the first woman since Valerie Brisco-Hooks in 1984 to complete the 200-400 double. "I don't think I have used up my potential yet," she said. "I think I can do the 800 in four years." This after earlier announcing plans to attack the world record in the 400 meter hurdles later this summer.

Pérec is a national icon in France, both loved and criticized. Loved for the climb she took to stardom—from Guadeloupe, where she was raised by her grandmother after her parents divorced, to Paris, to train under coach Jacques Piasenta. Criticized for leaving France in 1994 to advance that training in Los Angeles, under former Olympic 400-meter runner John Smith. In that same year Pérec failed to make a scheduled appearance at an indoor meet in Paris. "The public was very angry," says journalist Françoise Inizan of L'Equipe. "People said, 'She is a diva. She should have been there for us; we came to see her.' "

But the move to Los Angeles clearly benefited her, offering welcome privacy—at Pérec's UCLA workouts, Smith's other athletes call her Mary-Jo, an Americanization if ever there was one. She brings style, even glamour, to the sport, but also heaps of the customary qualities. "She and Gwen [Torrence] have the same personality," says Smith. "Mary is a fighter. She will fight you, scratch you, tooth and nail."

Masterkova's double, meanwhile, was unexpected. She had taken three years off, giving birth to a daughter, Anastasia, in 1995, and giving in to injuries and self-described "laziness" before that; beyond that, each of her two events had solid favorites, Maria Mutola of Mozambique in the 800 and both Sonia O'Sullivan of Ireland and Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria in the 1,500. But Masterkova controlled the 800 from the front before outkicking Mutola and caught a break when neither O'Sullivan (ill) nor Boulmerka (who stumbled in the semis) made the 1,500 final. Without them, said Masterkova, "this was not quite the Olympic final." She sat behind Kelly Holmes of Great Britain, then out-kicked 20-year-old Romanian Gabriela Szabo at the end for the 1,500-meter gold.

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