Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis rose to the set position, and the world waited. They were in adjacent lanes in Rome's Olympic Stadium on Sunday, the second day of the World Track and Field Championships. It was 6:40 p.m., the air was almost still, the temperature 79�. The six next-best sprinters in the world flanked them, but it had been clear for months that this could be nothing but a match race. It became the most compelling 100-meter dash in history.
Johnson's arms were spread the width of his lane to keep his body low against the force of his explosive departure. He has the fastest acceleration of any man who ever lived. Lewis was arranged in more upright fashion. He runs the best concluding 50 meters of all time. There is not a thing about these men that isn't in sharp contrast.
They had not spoken as they set their blocks and stripped off their sweats, but Lewis had sent pointed regards in the preliminaries. He ran an amazingly casual 10.05 in the first round, a meet record, and cut that to 10.03 in his semifinals. Johnson, after bolting to a three-meter lead in his semi, shut down all engines, surrendered two meters in the last 10, and still ran 10.15. Had he kept going, he probably would have run 9.95 and equaled his own world's best sea-level time. But he held back.
"The way Carl was runnin' the heats," he would say in the swift lilt of his Jamaican youth (he moved to Canada when he was 14), "he was settin' me up. But the time to do my runnin' was in the final."
Both men knew how the final had to go. Johnson would blast out to a lead, then Lewis would reach his greater top speed. In the last, tearing 40 meters, they would discover which man would withstand the strength of the other. Lewis had run those quick heat times to show that he was back from his 1986 knee injury. If Johnson sensed the panther behind him closing in, as Lewis had closed in while winning the 1984 Olympics ( Johnson was third), the Canadian might tighten.
Johnson, just as inevitably, wanted Lewis to remember the 9.95's he had run in Moscow in 1986 and in Cologne two weeks before the Rome meet and that, although Lewis had won nine of their 14 races since 1980, he had not beaten Johnson for two years.
Both were supremely prepared. Johnson and his coach of 10 years, Charlie Francis, had worked for two seasons toward a goal of 9.85. Calvin Smith's 1983 world record, set in Colorado Springs, was 9.93. "Ben had shown that he could do it, but he needed the right wind, track and competition," said Francis. "In Rome he had them all. Carl was stronger than he was in L.A." U.S. head coach Mel Rosen, of Auburn, said bluntly, "These guys are running to win. And to win will take a world record."
The gun sounded. Johnson reacted with such brutal suddenness that there will eternally be questions about this start. A few in the stadium sat back expecting a recall, because within 10 steps Johnson had a lead of two meters. "It was not a good start," Johnson would say. "It was a great start."
Too great, of course, and the start becomes false. But the sensors in the blocks did not detect Johnson applying any undue pressure before the gun, so there was no recall. "At the start," Lewis said, "I was focused on my lane, so I can't say I saw him fly. But at 10 meters he was so far ahead it was unbelievable."
Johnson, the most heavily muscled of all the great sprinters, had thrown himself into motion so powerfully that he was barely in control. "I almost ended up in Carl's lane," he said later. Perhaps distracted, Lewis stayed uncharacteristically low in the first 20 meters and was slow to come up into his full stride. When he did, he swayed left and for a time ran almost behind Johnson's right shoulder, as if drafting. Finally, at 50 meters, he began to gain.