Bullet Bob sits back in his chair, his legs jiggling faster with the memories of a time when no one on God's green earth could keep up with him.
Greene was a high school football star, and he says that he, too, would have left sprinting for the gridiron if track hadn't become at least quasi-pro. Now, just turned 27, he is convinced he can cut the record to 9.76. After all, Greene is positive he had that time made at the Olympic trials last year when he slowed in an early heat and cruised. Of course, maybe you can catch lightning in a bottle only once. Lewis long-jumped 30 feet at Indianapolis in 1982 but was called (inaccurately, it seems) for fouling. It didn't bother him; he was sure he could do it again sometime. But he never came close.
Smith believes Greene can get the record down to 9.65, which would be shocking, except that Greene was stuck on 10.08 in 1997 until he put everything together and threw off a 9.86. "Fireworks started going off in my head," he recalls. The impossible dream in sprinting is to sustain speed through all 45 strides. Sprinters reach their top speed in the middle third of the race, eating up more than 12 meters per second, before tailing off. Greene can maintain top speed longer, to about 80 meters out. "I have a gift," he says.
"You can't feel yourself slowing down," Hayes says, "because everybody else is slowing down too." Even Lewis, a slow starter who ran down opponents, was not really kicking at the end. He was only slowing up less than his rivals. The sprinter's kick is illusory, like the rising fastball. The trick to reducing the record by anything more than another few hundredths of a second, then, is to find a way for a human to maintain speed for all 100 meters. Smith, the visionary, thinks it's possible. "Everybody says you're going to fall apart at the end, but why?" he asks. "Why does it have to be that way?"
Lewis is incredulous. "You do that, then you're in the eights," he cries out, wide-eyed.
Apart from reengineering genetics, what more can be done? Besides, at a certain point, each improvement upon the record will be less ado about almost nothing. It is one thing to cut the record from 10.2 to 10.1. But who will care if the World's Fastest Human does the hundred in 9.744 instead of 9.745? Greene appears to have the perfect body, a wonderful attitude, excellent habits, the best coaching. Smith has never worked an athlete harder, but the only new substantive advice he could offer Greene this year was to make sure he kept his fingers straight out and not clinch his fists. "It can't be that simple," Greene says ingenuously, "can it?"
At the top rank, maybe it is. Running better is not like learning a new off-speed pitch or a complicated extra move in the paint. It's genetics and guts and then one foot before the other. What more simple physical advice can there be? Maybe that's why so many track coaches tend to sound so orotund. "Feeling running fast is better than thinking running fast," Smith says. And: "I tell my runners that I'm more interested in how you're looking and doing than in how fast you're going." And: "Get in and clean out the despair and keep the vision clean." And: "Eat right. Sleep right. Dream correctly." Dream correctly? "Of course."
In addition, Smith always reminds Greene not to rush things. That sounds perverse in dealing with speed, but once a sprinter panics and rushes out of kilter, he can't recover. Lewis believes that because his opponents believed it was so crucial to get out in front, they placed too much emphasis on the start. That idea, Lewis says, still damages the way many sprinters and their coaches prepare. Not Greene. "The one thing I'm capable of," he says, "is patience. The one time I didn't take my time was in the 200 trials last year against Michael Johnson. That's when he'd said in the paper that I wasn't ready, and I injured myself. But when I run fast, I run outside myself, and I'm not tired at the end."
He and Smith were walking off the track after a workout in Athens in June, talking speed. What's the difference between quick and fast? Smith started to pontificate on the subject, but Greene looked at him and shook his head, smiling. Smith shut up. Greene said, "It's like this: Quick, I can win a race. Fast, I can do some damage." Smith nodded. That took care of that. Greene smiled his little-boy smile and skipped a step.
Running fast is so elemental. Maybe it is all the more so for Greene, because like most of the World's Fastest Humans, he is chasing only time. Perhaps that is why Hayes seems most fondly to remember that Olympic relay race, the one occasion when he actually had to beat somebody. Lewis cites the 1991 world championship in Tokyo as his best. He set the record at 9.86, but five others broke 10 seconds, and first Dennis Mitchell, then Burrell, then Lewis led the way. "That was a race," he says, relishing the memory. "Records that you set in one day shouldn't matter as much as they've come to. It's like baseball: What wins games over a season is pitching. Someone like Greg Maddux doesn't look that strong, but over a season...." Lewis let the thought hang for a moment, then finished with a flourish: "I had the best pitching."