Throwing a long late-afternoon shadow on broiling asphalt, John Capel bounded away from the Sacramento stadium where two hours earlier he had earned his first Olympic berth, flying to a stunning win in the 200 meters on Sunday. Capel's coach, Mike Holloway, scooted along in front of him. The runner's father, John Sr., walked behind, proudly wearing the medal that had been draped around his son's neck. In rapid patter Capel re-created his race, including the moment when the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials crossed from athletic showcase into absurd spectacle. "I'm out of the turn, straightened for home," said Capel, pumping his arms as if still sprinting. "Then I look up at the big screen, and I couldn't believe what I saw. There's Michael Johnson lying on the track behind me, and there's Maurice Greene hobbling along, out of the race." Capel shook his head, as if clearing cobwebs after taking a left hook.
The 200 was to have been the crowning moment of the eight-day trials. The first weekend had been terrific. The second had started off even better on a cool, breezy Friday night when 36-year-old Regina Jacobs, who only five days earlier had won the 1,500 meters, broke her own U.S. 5,000-meter record by a ridiculous seven seconds. Jacobs thereby established herself as the best U.S. women's middle distance runner in nearly two decades—since Mary Slaney in her prime—and a serious medal threat in whichever event she runs in Sydney. Jacobs, who'd been planning to compete only in the shorter race in the Games, awoke on Saturday morning in her hotel room, turned to her husband-coach, Tom Craig, and asked, "Now, what exactly is the Olympic schedule for doubling in the five and the 15?"
On Sunday world pole vault champion Stacy Dragila broke her own world record by clearing 15'2�", further cementing her status as the favorite to win the first women's Olympic vault. (She won the exhibition vault at the '96 trials, but she went home to Pocatello, Idaho, and resumed her job as a hostess at Frontier Pies because the event had yet to be added to the Games.) Gail Devers, who has two Olympic golds in the 100 meters, broke her own U.S. record in the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 12.33 seconds, the fastest in the world in eight years. Joetta Clark-Diggs, 37, made her fourth Olympic team by throwing herself across the line in the 800, a finish that might have been mundane except that she was preceded by her sister, Hazel Clark, a willowy 22-year-old former NCAA champion from Florida, and their sister-in-law, Jearl Miles-Clark, the U.S.-record holder at the distance. All three women are coached by J.J. Clark, who is Joetta and Hazel's brother and Jearl's husband. (There will be a quiz later.) Finally, Marion Jones, who makes the remarkable seem routine, cruised to victory in the 200, putting herself in position to chase five golds Down Under.
Yet all of this seemed like mere prelude to the meet's final event, the men's 200. For more than a year Greene had baited Johnson, and lately Johnson had given as good as he'd gotten. After Greene won the 100 and Johnson the 400 on the first weekend in Sacramento, a climate of hostility hung over the Sunday race, adding both excitement—"I will always tune in to watch two guys who dislike each other," Johnson said last week—and an element of danger. Greene's coach, John Smith, had said long before the race that he feared that neither man would make it to Sydney healthy if he invested too much in the Sacramento 200.
The intensity was ratcheted up after Johnson, who will be 33 in September, ran an easy 19.89 in his Saturday preliminary heat but had to fight off a cramp in his right quadriceps muscle. Johnson, the 200 and 400 gold medalist in Atlanta and the world-record holder in both events, spent Saturday night with his stomach in knots, worried that he might have to pull out and that his defection would trigger a cascade of negative press, as had his injury in a 150-meter match race against Donovan Bailey in '97 and his injury withdrawal from the 200 at the '99 U.S. nationals in Eugene, Ore. That latter scratch, from a race Greene went on to win, had prompted Greene's agent, Emanuel Hudson, to launch the entire Maurice-Michael spitting contest.
"I'm thinking, If I pull out of this race, what are people going to write about me?" Johnson said on Sunday, long after the 200. "It's sad that track is in such bad shape that it needs one-on-one battles to get people's attention, when the sport—and especially the sprints—doesn't lend itself to those kinds of match races." As a result Johnson had told his wife, Kerry, late on Saturday night that he would not run the 200 in Sydney even if he qualified at the distance.
Johnson survived his semifinal on Sunday, which was won by Capel in 20.03, with Johnson second and Greene third. Less than two hours later, however, as he climbed into his blocks for the final, he knew he was cooked. In the short view, he was paying for trying to run three 200s in 30 hours in brutal heat. In the longer view, Johnson's body can no longer take the extreme torque he applies at that distance. "I practiced a short start, and both hips cramped," he said. "I knew getting into the blocks for the race that I shouldn't do this, but I felt like I had to, because of what would be said if I didn't."
Johnson may have earned respect by trying, but he lasted only 50 meters before his left hamstring cramped, dropping him to the track. Surrealistically, Greene pulled up less than 50 meters later, grabbing his left hammy and hopping to a stop. "New script for the Western," said Johnson's coach, Clyde Hart. "Both gunslingers get shot."
If Johnson was saddened and distraught, Greene was just mad. "He was p- - - - - off that he didn't get to finish the race," said Smith. Younger and less inclined to analysis than is Johnson, Greene had enlivened his days of preparation for the 200 by leading his training partners in water-balloon and giant-squirt-gun fights in their hotel hallways. On Sunday night he went ahead with a subdued 26th birthday party at a Sacramento cafe. He should recover from his injury and run the 100 in Sydney. Johnson should recover and run the 400.
The 21-year-old Capel, meanwhile, is just beginning his Olympic career. He left Florida in April, abandoning his football scholarship after two modest seasons without consulting coach Steve Spurrier. "I tried to talk him out of leaving, tried to get him to stay in school," said Holloway, the assistant men's track coach for the Gators. "For some people, at certain times, school is not the right place. John will go back eventually."