Low-profile champs Allen Johnson and Charles Austin keep winning
U.S. Olympians Allen Johnson and Charles Austin are accustomed to winning quietly, their achievements largely unnoticed in the hubbub surrounding other track and field athletes. They won gold medals on consecutive nights at the 1996 Games but were eclipsed on the second evening by Carl Lewis, who won his fourth Olympic long jump gold, and by Michael Johnson, who won the first leg of his 400- and 200-meter double. "I remember thinking, Hey, what about me, folks?" said Allen Johnson about his Olympic victory. Four years later, little has changed.
Last Friday a sellout crowd of more than 24,000 packed Zurich's Letzigrund Stadium to witness the prestigious Weltklasse, the best—and, with a budget of nearly $3.5 million, the richest—one-day track meet in the world. The fans saved their fullest throat for Swiss 800-meter runner Andr� Bucher's victory, U.S. 100-meter man Maurice Greene's win (9.94 seconds into the wind), a hard-earned 100-long jump double by Marion Jones and distance victories by Romania's Gabriela Szabo and Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie. Oh, and Johnson won his specialty, the 110-meter hurdles, and Austin prevailed in his, the high jump.
All Johnson has done, in addition to taking an Olympic gold, is win two world titles, in 1995 and '97, and run eight of history's 17 fastest times. His 12.92 in the '96 trials was only .01 off Briton Colin Jackson's world record, set in '93. After missing much of '99 with a calf injury, Johnson won the Olympic trials last month in 12.97. In the event in which the U.S. has had—historically and currently—the greatest depth, Johnson is a solid contender for best ever.
In a way the lack of celebrity has helped Johnson, who ran a 13.17 at the Weltklasse. "It's made him more professional in his approach to his sport," says his longtime coach, Curtis Frye. "He's not running off here and there for photo shoots or commercials. He's at the track working every day." Johnson agrees, with a qualifier. "I see the benefit," he said in Zurich, "but there are rimes when I wouldn't mind being famous."
Austin won't go even that far. "All I ever wanted was to make a living high-jumping," he said before winning in the Weltklasse with a leap of 7'7�". "I'm doing that, and I'm thankful every day." Austin set the American record of 7'10�" in Zurich nine years ago, went 7'10" to win in Atlanta and has taken the past six U.S. tides, building, like Johnson, an enduring legacy. Also like Johnson, he doesn't budge the needle on the flamboyance meter.
In Sydney, Johnson will be favored over Anier Garcia of Cuba, while Austin will be among a handful of jumpers challenging favored Vyacheslav Voronin of Russia. Of course, even if Johnson and/or Austin wins, the spotlight will find somebody else.
Old Man Down The Road
It seems odd to say that 27-year-old Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, who holds the world records at 5,000 and 10,000 meters and just might be the best distance runner in history, looks old, but he does. In Zurich, Gebrselassie won the 5,000 in 12:57.95, a pedestrian time by his lofty standards. (His world mark, set in 1998, is 12:39.36.) He used a withering final 200 meters to seal the victory but at the end was gritting his teeth to hold off Kenya's Paul Tergat. Later, Gebrselassie said not only that he's planning to run just the 10,000 in Sydney but also that the Zurich race was probably his last 5,000. "My body is getting older and slower," he said.
Gebrselassie, who pounds his tiny, 117-pound frame with a long, miler's stride, missed three months of training last fall with a sore right Achilles tendon, the first serious injury of his career. He plans to run a half-marathon shortly after the Games and a marathon in 2001. It has long been assumed that when Gebrselassie moved to the marathon, he would be unbeatable. This no longer seems such a certainty.