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Time Bandits
Frank Deford
August 06, 2001
Maurice Greene is the latest holder of the grand and curious title World's Fastest Human, bestowed on men who have stolen fractions of seconds from the 100-meter record
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August 06, 2001

Time Bandits

Maurice Greene is the latest holder of the grand and curious title World's Fastest Human, bestowed on men who have stolen fractions of seconds from the 100-meter record

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Unlike many modern athletes, Greene understands his place in the annals of his sport. "Mo is very respectful of history, of what came before," Smith says. Seeing Greene's potential, the coach early on instructed him in how to behave, should he indeed become royalty. "He caught on right away," Smith says. "In fact, now he's spending too much time promoting the whole sport."

At the Penn Relays in April, Michael Johnson was making what was billed as his "farewell appearance on American soil." While Johnson rarely competed in the U.S. and was never popular, lacking any crossover appeal—"the anti-Carl," Lewis dismissively calls him—he was Lewis's successor as the premier U.S. male track champion. Greene and Johnson have never been friends, and before their 200-meter showdown at the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer they even had something of a newspaper feud. Riled, they both got all worked up and injured themselves in the race—thus to lose the Sydney medals that were there for the taking. Yet during his last U.S. victory lap at the Penn Relays, on the far turn, Johnson was startled by Greene, who dashed onto the track and embraced him. Ave atque vale. Hail and farewell.

After the meet Greene sat in the hotel bus. It began to depart, but he demanded that the driver wait till Johnson arrived. "I can come right back for him," the driver said, but Greene protested that there was too much traffic. So the bus waited.

This summer, though, Greene has assumed Johnson's mantle, and even if Marion Jones remains the prime all-gender U.S. track personality, he will be the indisputable male star at the world championships starting this week in Edmonton. The mere fact that Greene competes in the 100 affords him the most visibility. The 100 is more than ever the cynosure of track, but for a long time even the World's Fastest Human played second fiddle to the mile. That was the glamour race. As recently as a quarter century ago, middle-distance runners could demand guarantees, while sprinters had to take nothing or leave it. Two things changed this situation.

One was Lewis. Smith swings his arm wide around the lobby of the five-star hotel where the track performers are sequestered in Athens. "We're in this hotel because of one man: Carl Lewis," he says. "Carl said, 'This is the kind of hotel where I'm staying,' and he did, and soon everybody was with him. Nobody was better at supporting other athletes than Carl. He was smart and confident, but he got an unfair reputation. Amateurs were supposed to be grateful, and he wasn't, and he was made to pay for that."

"They didn't like what I was making, so all the promoters declared a prix fixe for everybody," Lewis says. "I said, 'Fine, I'll take the summer off.' " There would be no cut rate. The promoters caved. Lewis was too valuable at the box office. Also, he was the first postwar World's Fastest Human to market the role.

The second reason for the ascension of the sprints was a variant of racial prejudice. Blacks had been a presence in sprints as far back as 1886, when a black man identified only as A. Wharton became one of the first runners on record to "beat even time"—that is, run the 100 yards in 10 seconds flat. (The 100 yards is about nine yards and a foot shorter than the 100 meters.) Eddie Tolan, whom white sportswriters dubbed the Midnight Express, was the first African-American to win Olympic gold in the 100 meters, in 1932, preceding Jesse Owens, the so-called Ebony Antelope, in 1936. After Hayes's gold in 1964, the sprints were increasingly—then utterly—dominated by blacks, even as the longer races, especially the mile, remained largely a white province. However, as Africans began to enter the distance lists, beating whites, interest in the longer races, even the mile, began to diminish. Suddenly African-American and African-European sprinters became more attractive.

Still, even now a journeyman white middle-distance runner typically commands higher guarantees than all but the top black sprinters. Emmanuel Hudson shakes his head ruefully in acknowledgment of this economic reality. "Oh, definitely," he says. Hudson knows.

Hudson is lobby-sitting in Athens with Ian Stewart, a former world-class middle-distance runner, who organizes and promotes British meets. The business of track remains something of an old-world Turkish bazaar, with runners or their managers haggling with promoters—not only about guarantees, but also about airline tickets (including class), hotels and performance bonuses. "If we ever get a white American—or even a [white] British—runner who can win the 1,500, he'll dwarf what Maurice is making," says Stewart. Hudson purses his lips, nodding at that cold assessment.

So if Alan Webb, the Virginia high school phenom who broke the scholastic mile record at the Prefontaine meet in Oregon this spring, develops into a star, he'll turn the economics of track and field on its head. Ever mindful of the continuum of history, Greene—he who ran onto the track to bid Michael Johnson goodbye—jumped out and embraced Webb in welcome at the Prefontaine. "He don't look like no high school dude," Mo said.

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