For one American sprinter it was the street swagger that melted away, and for the other it was the uncommon composure of an ingenue turned queen that finally cracked. Of course, Maurice Greene and Marion Jones cried when they were finished, when the world championships were theirs, when the cork was at last popped from their bottled emotions.
For the 23-year-old Greene the moment came on Sunday night in the belly of Olympic Stadium in Athens, long after he had won the men's 100 meters at the World Championships. Greene had been a rock through two days and four rounds of brutal running, holding his youthful nerves together while battling on equal psychological terms with defending world and Olympic 100-meter champion Donovan Bailey of Canada, a master of the sprinter's mind game. Ultimately Greene beat Bailey to the gold medal in 9.86 seconds, equaling the third-fastest time in history. Earlier this year Greene had promised, with scant credentials, to restore U.S. sprinting to its rightful place in the world order, and he had promised further to break Bailey's world record of 9.84 (he nearly did it). He talked and walked.
Now, however, in the hallway outside an interview room, Greene fell into the arms of his father, Ernest, who had flown in two days earlier from Kansas City, Kans., through Memphis and Amsterdam to Athens (a frequent-flier jackpot), to watch the youngest of his and his wife Jackie's four children run on the grandest stage shy of the Olympics. Late last September, Ernest and Jackie had driven with their son from Kansas City to Los Angeles and delivered him to the doorstep of sprint coach John Smith, who would mastermind Maurice's swift transformation from the world's 24th-ranked 100-meter runner to its fastest. Remembering that trip, Maurice held his father tightly and sobbed until he let go and slumped into a nearby chair. As Smith stroked the back of his protégé's head, Greene shed tears that fell on the concrete floor, and he repeated again and again, "I worked so hard, I worked so hard...."
For Jones, just 21, the cool veneer of a champion with many more medals in her future was peeled back ever so slightly when she walked off the track moments after she had won the women's 100 meters in 10.83 seconds. Her time was the best in the world this year and just .01 of a second slower than the lifetime bests of fellow Americans Gail Devers and Gwen Torrence, her predecessors as world champions in 1993 and '95, respectively. (Suffering from injuries, neither ran the 100 in Athens.) In the tunnel leading from the track, Jones found her fiancé, U.S. shot-putter C.J. Hunter. "She started crying right away," said Hunter. "It was quick, though. It's Marion—she even cries fast."
Together, and scarcely 20 minutes apart, Greene and Jones became the first man and woman from the U.S. to cross the finish line first in the 100 at a fully loaded international championship meet since Jim Hines and Wyomia Tyus at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. (Carl Lewis and Evelyn Ashford swept at the '84 Los Angeles Olympics but without Eastern bloc countries present; Lewis and Florence Griffith Joyner swept the golds at the '88 Seoul Games, but only after the drug disqualification of Canada's Ben Johnson, who crossed the finish line ahead of Lewis.)
While Devers and Torrence built a bridge from Flo-Jo to Jones, the decline of U.S. men's sprinting has been a front-burner topic in track since the early '90s. Greene's gold in Athens was the first for an American male in a major-championship 100 since Lewis won the 1991 Worlds in Tokyo. Behind Greene and Bailey (9.91), Tim Montgomery of the U.S. took the bronze medal in 9.94, beating two-time Olympic 100-meter silver medalist Frank Fredericks of Namibia and adding even more historical weight to the evening.
That Greene may now claim the fragile title of World's Fastest Human was unthinkable barely a year ago, when, hampered by a pulled hamstring, he flamed out in the second round of the Olympic trials. He signed on with Smith, who is known for developing young sprinters, and has since melded smoothly into Smith's HSI, the club that also includes Sunday's prerace favorite, Ato Boldon of Trinidad, and U.S. 200-meter champion Jon Drummond. Greene announced himself formally when he won the national 100 championship at Indianapolis in June, running 9.90, or .18 of a second faster than his previous best. At dinner that night Boldon declared, "Maurice and I are going one-two in the Worlds." To which Greene replied, "Be sure not to let anyone [else] beat you."
Boldon and Greene were separated by just a thin wall in their beach hotel near Athens and by even less than that in a second-round heat last Saturday night. Boldon ran 9.87, equaling the fourth-fastest time in history, while Greene nearly caught him in 9.90. In another race during that same round, Bailey ran 10.10 and limped off the track. Speculation went off the charts: Is Donovan hurt? Is Donovan sandbagging?
After Boldon won Sunday's first semifinal in 10 flat, Greene nipped a much sharper Bailey in the second, 9.90 to 9.91. As they approached the finish line with Greene slightly ahead, Bailey eyeballed Greene, who glared back. After Bailey ran off the track, he shouted at Greene, "I'm back! I'm back!" Greene woofed at Bailey, "Yeah? I gotcha! I gotcha!" It appeared that with the final looming, Bailey had worked his psychological game perfectly, finding his own form and a weak snot in Greene's psyche. "Not true," said Greene later. "Donovan never got into my head."
For the final, Greene drew lane 3, next to Bailey in 4. Boldon was in 6, but racked by prerace cramps, he would never be a factor, finishing fifth. At the gun Greene came away first and had daylight on Bailey at 50 meters, precisely where Bailey had exploded to win the '95 Worlds and the '96 Olympics. Bailey made his move again here, but with less pop, and Greene stayed clear. "We hit 75 meters, and I knew he wasn't going to get me," said Greene afterward. At the finish, in the ultimate display of youthful exuberance, he turned his head and stuck his tongue out at Bailey.