Late last Saturday, with the darkness of the Sacramento night filling a window behind him, Maurice Greene collapsed into a chair in his hotel suite. Around him the room was littered with water bottles, pieces of fruit and videotapes of his races, the detritus of an athlete leaving nothing to chance. On the inside of the door was a sign that Greene had made on his computer back in Los Angeles and printed in bold red ink: MAURICE GREENE, 2000 OLYMPIAN. It was the last thing he had seen before leaving his suite mat afternoon to win the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. Now he stretched his thick legs as far as they would reach and raised his arms toward the ceiling. " U.S. Olympian," he said, testing the tide. "This is the best there is."
Now he understands. They all understand. There is little in U.S. sports quite like the track and field trials, a quadrennial crucible that selects three people in each event and dashes the hopes of hundreds of others. The trials send the likes of Greene, Marion Jones and Michael Johnson to the outsized glory that awaits them at the Games. The eight days of competition identify precocious warriors like 21-year-old Stanford miler Gabe Jennings and reward the dogged spirit of runners like 1,500-meter qualifier Maria Runyan, who is not only gifted but also legally blind. Yet the trials also coldly dismiss Jeff Hartwig and Tisha Waller, the best men's pole vaulter and women's high jumper in America. They halt comebacks such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee's without regard to past greatness, leaving her sixth in the long jump. The trials make people understand how precious it is to survive, to just make the team.
Four years ago, at the trials in Atlanta, Greene was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 100. He was too young, too skinny and—with an injury to his right hamstring-too hurt. A month later he drove from his home in Kansas City, Kans., to Atlanta to see the Games. He cried as he sat in the stands watching Canada's Donovan Bailey win the 100 in a world-record 9.84 seconds.
Greene moved to L.A., changed coaches, won two world titles and in June 1999 ran 9.79 to crush Bailey's mark. But until last weekend he still was not an Olympian. After running a 9.93 for an easy victory in Friday's opening round, Greene recovered from a wobbly start in Saturday's final to overtake his training partner Jon Drummond and win in 10.01 seconds into a stiff headwind, dragging Drummond and another teammate, Curtis Johnson, onto the Olympic team with him. Greene cried again after the race, with Drummond, with coach John Smith, with his father, Ernest Greene, in a skybox overlooking the track. "It all started in '96," said Ernest. "That's when he understood how much it meant to him."
Jones can relate. She was at the '96 Games too, sitting in the stands, a college basketball star at North Carolina watching her future husband, C.J. Hunter, compete in the shot put and seeing women she once had stomped win medals. "It was tough to watch," said Jones, who'd been running only part time since '93 while concentrating on hoops. "It made me miss it."
Her stirrings were even older than Greene's. In 1992, Jones was a junior at Thousand Oaks High, north of Los Angeles, and one of the best high school sprinters in history. She went to the trials that summer in New Orleans and nearly made the team, finishing fifth in the 100 and fourth in the 200. She was invited to join the U.S. team for Barcelona as part of the relay pool, which would have all but guaranteed her a medal, but she declined. "When people come over to my house to see my gold medals, I want to be able to say I ran for them," Jones says of her decision, the implication being that she probably would have run in the early relay rounds but not in the finals. Her gutsy step-aside has become a part of Mrs. Jones's legend.
Yet the story may not be completely accurate. While there's no doubting how Jones feels—she surely does want to be able to say that she earned her first gold medal (as well as the other four she hopes to bring home from Sydney)—her mother, Marion Toler, who raised Jones as a single parent, says Jones wanted to go to Barcelona as a relay alternate. It was Toler who said no. "We had an agreement that we made before the school year began," said Toler last week in Sacramento. "There was a list of conditions that Marion had to meet, including grades, behavior, respect for her coaches. If she didn't meet all these conditions, she wouldn't be allowed to go to the Olympics, and she did not meet all of them. [ Toler says that grades were a factor, though not the only one.] Before the trials I told her that if she finished in the top three, she could go, but if it was a relay situation, and there was some decision to be made, she would stay home. She was not happy. She wanted to go."
The dream, then, was eight years old when Jones, now a two-time 100-meter world champion like Greene, swept down the track last Saturday, cutting a headwind in 10.88 seconds (her nonaltitude best is 10.70), far clear of Inger Miller (11.05) and Chryste Gaines (11.13). Past the finish she threw her arms into the air, feeling an even greater joy than she had expected.
Less than 24 hours later Jones earned a place on the U.S. team in the long jump with a performance that underscored her toughness. After fouling on her first two jumps, she needed a legal leap of at least 20' 11�" (her season's best coming into the trials was 22'10�") on her third attempt to advance to the final three jumps. Another foul, or anything short of that distance, and Jones was gone, along with her plans for five golds. Under enormous pressure, performing in a stadium packed to capacity of more than 23,000, Jones, an inartistic jumper at the best of times, survived on athleticism and desire, jumping 22'1�" to move into fourth place. Two attempts later she went 23'�", her best jump in two years, and won the event. In the warmup area Michael Johnson watched on television. "Man, she cut it close," he said, "but she's a competitor. That's what showed today."
What Johnson showed on Sunday was his dominance of the 400 meters. He chose not to chase his year-old world record of 43.18 in gusty winds, yet he still ran a controlled 43.68 (a time bettered by only two other runners in history) to win by almost a second over Alvin Harrison. Eight years ago in New Orleans, after Johnson had earned his first Olympic berth, at 200 meters, he went back to his hotel room and jumped up and down on the bed shouting, "I made the Olympic team!" Though he's had phenomenal success since then—he won gold medals in the 200 and 400 in Atlanta and holds world records in both events—his respect for making the Olympic team has not diminished.