In the right hands, track and field can be a blessedly uncomplicated sport. Sergei Bubka's hands. Wilson Kipketer's hands. Allen Johnson's hands. Marion Jones's hands or any of the hands with which she shared a baton on the U.S. women's 4 x 100-meter relay team at the World Championships in Athens. They embrace the ancient basics and sprinkle them with gold. Run fast, jump high, throw far. Stand tall and sing along with the national anthem.
As Athens fell into its customary smoky darkness on Sunday evening, bringing the championships to a close, the 33-year-old Bubka of Ukraine, history's most dominant pole vaulter, cleared 19'8�" to win a stirring competition over Maksim Tarasov of Russia and Dean Starkey of the U.S. Bubka has now won his event at all six World Championships, starting with the first one, in 1983.
Bubka's transcendent triumph came one day after Jones's blistering second leg broke open the women's sprint relay; two days after the incomparable Kipketer, a native of Kenya running for Denmark, toyed with the 800-meter field and won in 1:43.38, and three days after the U.S.'s Johnson followed his '95 World Championship and '96 Olympic victories in the 110-meter hurdles by winning yet another gold. These athletes are the best in the world. They win simply and simply win.
The men's sprinters from the U.S. are also the best, and their talent pool is the deepest. They should be all over the 4 x 100 like fat on a shot-putter, but instead they have turned the sport's seminal relay into torture. Wes Craven should do the documentary. Early Saturday evening, as the sweltering Olympic Stadium was just beginning to fill for the penultimate session of the Worlds, the U.S. lined up in lane 2 for its preliminary heat in the 4 x 100-meter relay. There were 27 teams spread over four heats, and 16 of them would advance to the semifinals; the U.S. should have been able to qualify with Jerry, George, Kramer and Newman.
Brian Lewis, a 22-year-old junior at Norfolk State College who finished fifth in the 100 meters at the U.S. championships in June, ran the opening leg for the Americans and tore through a fast curve before preparing to pass the baton to Norfolk State teammate Tim Montgomery, who had won the bronze medal in the 100 meters six days earlier. Montgomery began running hard before Lewis reached him, which is normal in the four-by-one, but neared the end of the 20-meter passing zone with his left arm extended backward, yet without the baton, which is not normal. Only when Montgomery literally stopped just past the end of the zone—too late—did Lewis finally make the pass, at which point Montgomery looked desperately at the position of his feet and then jumped into the air in anger. Roughly 11 seconds into the first heat, the U.S. was out. There would be no avenging the gold medal losses to Canada at the '95 Worlds and '96 Olympics and no reprise, on the anchor leg in the final, of the previous Sunday's Maurice Greene-Donovan Bailey 100-meter duel (won by Greene). Even the uninitiated Greek fans gasped in astonishment.
Had they been paying attention for the last decade, they would simply have nodded. Last Saturday's relay fiasco marked the fourth time in the last seven major competitions (World Championships or Olympics) over 10 years that the U.S. has sabotaged its own chances to win the men's 4 x 100 relay. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 1995 Worlds in G�teborg, Sweden, baton mistakes similar to Saturday's bounced the U.S. from the competition before the final. Last year in Atlanta the U.S. team was so mired in the controversy over whether Carl Lewis should run (he ultimately did not) that it never jelled and was crushed by Canada and Bailey in the final. Dennis Mitchell, the veteran U.S. sprinter who was supposed to run the third leg and hand off to Greene but never got to touch the stick, hurried off the track last Saturday and shook his head. "Three times, man," Mitchell said, referring to relay disappointments he has suffered in '95, '96 and, now, '97. "Three times."
Initially, it appeared that the problem resulted from Montgomery's having left too early. Yet Brian Lewis was quick to blame himself. "Tim left fine," Lewis said. "I could see he was going fast, because Tim's running real well right now, and I yelled, 'Stick!' But that just tells Tim I'm going to make the pass. I should have yelled, 'Slow down!' " This is all true. But there's much more to it than that, and the roots of Saturday's mistake lie in the archaic—and seemingly unchangeable—U.S. system.
U.S. men's coach Dean Hayes, track coach at Middle Tennessee State, came to Athens with six potential runners for the 4 x 100 relay, which is not unusual because injuries can thin the pool, and some members need to rest in early rounds after running individual events. Five of the athletes—Greene, Montgomery, Jon Drummond (winner of the 200 meters at the U.S. championships), Vince Henderson (a 24-year-old former Arkansas sprinter) and Brian Lewis—were chosen from the finalists at the U.S. nationals (again, customary). Seeking experience. Hayes added Mitchell for a two-day relay camp in San Diego in mid-July and decided that his top four, in order, would be Drummond, Montgomery, Mitchell and Greene. Hayes denies that he had made up his mind about a first alternate, but Henderson says that Hayes and Mitchell told him at the camp, "You earned the [alternate's] spot."
Hayes wished to keep the same four legs through all three rounds in Athens, but that was patently unrealistic. Drummond ran the final in the 200 meters (he finished seventh) last Friday night, less than 24 hours before the first round of the 4 x 100. "I said all along I wasn't going to run the first round," says Drummond. Yet Hayes, typical of the good college soldier that USA Track & Field summons to coach its national teams, persisted. He held out hope that Drummond would change his mind, until 20 minutes before the relay members were brought to the stadium for their heat. Meanwhile he didn't tell Henderson (who thought he was the alternate) or Lewis (who didn't know if he was the alternate) who would replace Drummond. "I asked him three times, starting the night before," says Henderson. "He kept saying Drummond might run, when everybody knew he wouldn't."
Hayes says he picked Lewis because Henderson is more versatile; the coach wanted to save Henderson in case a member of the relay was injured in either of the first two rounds. "You've got to worry about advancing first," says Henderson. It is an obvious yet crucial point.