He struck so quickly, so frighteningly quickly, that he threw us all back upon raw instinct. When Canada's Ben Johnson exploded to a world-record 9.83 seconds in the 100-meter dash at the World Track and Field Championships in Rome last August, we really shouldn't have been so shocked, but we were, and our reflexes didn't do us much credit.
Some of us, seeing Johnson so far ahead in the first strides, yelled that he must have jumped the gun. He had not. The electronic sensors in the blocks caught his reaction time as a swift but perfectly legal 0.129 of a second.
Some of us, convinced by long experience that the fastest starters are the slowest finishers, knew that Johnson would fade and be caught by Olympic champion Carl Lewis. Wrong again. Though Lewis tied the old world record of 9.93, he never got close. Johnson won by more than a meter. Those 40-odd inches of daylight now represent the gap between Johnson and all of history's previous World's Fastest Humans.
Yet we—that regally complacent "we" whose jaws dropped when Johnson supplied his proof—should be shocked that we were shocked. Ben Johnson is so good, and has been so good for so long, it's astounding that we simply had no widespread appreciation of his supremacy until Rome.
Johnson was capable of the world record two years ago. The wins and margins were there; only the breezes were not right for records at the World Cup in Canberra, Australia, in 1985 or at Zurich in 1986. We watched him set and reset the indoor 60-meter record. We watched the last 50 meters of his 100 grow ever stronger. What clouded our judgment?
In a word: Lewis. Lewis's 1984 Olympic gold medals in the 100 (in which Johnson placed third), 200, long jump and 4 X 100-meter relay were so impressive that for the next two seasons, when he was hurt (hamstring, knee) and distracted (recording, acting), we gave him the benefit of the doubt. In 1985, when Johnson had the better year, Track & Field News ranked Lewis first in the 100 anyway. In 1986, when Johnson beat Lewis at the Goodwill Games in 9.95—then the fastest 100 ever at sea level—Lewis lightly said, "You have to respect him. This seems to be really important to him. Me? I'm just biding my time this year."
It took Rome and Johnson's 9.83 to club us into sensibility. And along with recognition of Johnson as the best 100-meter sprinter of all time came the uneasy feeling that a deserving man had been made to endure unworthy doubts.
A childhood stutter, the accent of his Jamaican youth and a natural shyness have made Johnson a man who quietly works within his limits, even as he extends them. He presents himself for public notice mainly through his running and gives the appearance of being cool to any judgment except that of the stopwatch, the finish camera or the eye of his coach of 10 years, Charlie Francis.
Lewis, by contrast, is a man of nuanced expression. His mind can seem a searchlight: Whatever he fixes with his gaze thereby glows and is revealed. He wants to sing, he wants to act, so he prepares and performs in these disciplines. And because he does not wish to find himself belting out his meaning to the void, he needs an audience.
Johnson wishes not for applause but respect. But that was the one thing he didn't seem to get from Lewis. In Johnson's view, Lewis pronounced his acknowledgment without performing the inner bow that is the true granting of it. Lewis, so radiantly certain of his own worth no matter how many times he was beaten, was a man guaranteed to gall the taciturn Johnson.