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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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With each pass of glistening metal batons, the roar in the well of Olympic Stadium became more impassioned. A 4x100-meter relay is chaos, a one-lap flurry of sticks and spikes, often indecipherable until the final exchange leaves only anchormen and straightaway to sort out the riddle. Most of this audience had come to see a coronation last Saturday night, if not of Carl Lewis as the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, then of four other U.S. sprinters as, by god, good enough to win a gold medal without him. So the crowd wished the baton around the track in full throat, blissfully unaware of the unfolding doom.

Leaving the final turn, Canada's Bruny Surin smacked the black stick into the palm of teammate Donovan Bailey, and then it was clear that the Canadians had at least a one-meter lead on the U.S. and its anchor, Dennis Mitchell. "Even if you're ahead of me, you'd better be saying your prayers," Bailey would say after the race. In five short, crushing strides, Bailey, who had set a world record of 9.84 seconds in winning the 100 meters seven days earlier, tore loose from Mitchell. The noise became a gasp, which dissolved into a gentle buzz, anticipation killed by disappointment.

But then slowly, ever so slowly, the applause built again. Bailey, Surin, Glenroy Gilbert and Robert Esmie, four transplanted Caribbeans wearing the singlet of Canada, found one another and danced in a small circle, wrapped in their nation's red-and-white flag. They jogged in celebration, circling the track, drinking in their triumph in long, slow gulps. Gradually the crowd began to take small sips as well. Two of the U.S. sprinters, Mitchell and Jon Drummond, made silver medal laps of their own.

The relays that unfold on the final full day of Olympic track and field are often the crowning events of the meet, curtain calls for superstars already validated by individual events. Jesse Owens's fourth gold medal in 1936 was in the relay, as was the last of Lewis's four in 1984. But Saturday's 4x100 had been sullied by five days of unseemly debate over the possibility that Lewis might run for his record 10th gold medal in the event, which he did not. Bailey and his teammates, defending world champions, wiped away that stain and offered a lesson: Celebrity and controversy can distort the Olympic Games, but performance defines them.

They weren't alone in preaching the message. Michael Johnson torched 200 meters in a world-record 19.32 seconds to complete his promised 200-400 double, and among the women there were a pair of doubles and a single courageous leap. The sublime Marie-José Pérec of France nailed down the same 200-400 combination as Johnson, minutes before him. And 28-year-old Svetlana Masterkova of Russia returned from a three-year layoff to win the women's 800 and 1,500 meters. Like Pérec, she was the second woman in history to achieve her particular double; unlike Pérec, she loosed her emotions in gleeful displays at the finish of both races. Jackie Joyner-Kersee became,' at 34, the most decorated woman in U.S. Olympic track and field history with her sixth medal, a bronze in the long jump. She took the medal on her sixth jump, which was five more than she had hoped to take on a right hamstring so badly injured that she doddered down the runway looking more like a grandmother than an Olympian. "I said to myself, This is it, Jackie, this is it," she said later. "This isn't the way you wanted it to be, but this is your last shot. If the leg is going to pull, it's going to pull." She pounded hard off the takeoff board and hit the sand 22'11¾" away, a bronze medalist by one inch.

Decathlete Dan O'Brien, so long dominant, was pushed to the final event, the 1,500 meters that he so dislikes, by 21-year-old Frank Busemann of Germany. Needing to come within 32 seconds of Busemann, who was eighth in 4:31.41, O'Brien ran 4:45.89, his fastest time in four years, and at the finish stopped and wept.

Olympic Stadium was a revelatory celebration of track and field in the United States. Morning sessions with nothing more than preliminary rounds drew crowds approaching 80,000. "I was always told Americans weren't interested in track and field," said Roger Black of Britain, silver medalist in the 400 meters behind Johnson. "Then I go out and see 80,000 people in the morning." Into this atmosphere of good cheer came Relaygate, starring Lewis. On July 29, Lewis had won his ninth gold medal and fourth consecutive long jump title in a moment of high drama. It was an ideal farewell—except that Lewis wasn't ready to leave, not with a 10th gold potentially available in the 4x100, an event the U.S. had won in each of the 14 Olympics in which it had successfully gotten the baton around the track. "Everybody wants to run the four-by-one," Mitchell said early in the final week. "They see a gold medal out there." And despite an eighth-place finish at the U.S. Olympic trials in mid-June, Lewis has never lost faith in his sprint speed. "I will run some very fast 100s this year," he said at the trials. "I'm in the best shape of my life."

On one side of the issue was Lewis, who began campaigning for the anchor spot the morning after his long jump victory, at a press conference called by his shoe company, Nike. "The pressure is on because people want me to run the relay," Lewis said. "People feel I have the right to run. That's where the pressure is. It's not coming from me." Later that day he appeared on CNN and, when asked what people could do to get him on the relay team, said, "Call the Olympic people."

Lewis and his longtime manager, Joe Douglas, insist Lewis wasn't lobbying for a spot, that he was responding to questions. "We went on 16 shows," Douglas said. "Five of them asked about the relay. It's the media that did this, trying to ruin Carl's life after the biggest moment of his life. Why, he was crying in the car the night of the long jump. He said, 'Joe, there was so much support for me out there.' "

There truly was support for Lewis to run the anchor. It was a potentially riveting moment: The greatest track and field athlete in U.S. history bringing home the stick on U.S. soil. But there was the matter of team rules and fitness, and the keeper of those flames, U.S. track coach Erv Hunt, had selected his relay team—Jon Drummond, Leroy Burrell, Mike Marsh and Mitchell—in early July and offered Lewis a position as one of the three alternates, on the condition that he attend a three-day relay camp beginning July 9 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Lewis, who finished last in the 100 at the trials, declined. In Hunt's mind the issue ended there. "Somebody would have to get hurt [for Lewis to run the relay]," Hunt said early in the Games. "Probably five or six guys."

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