Ideally, even as you discover here how Harry (Butch) Reynolds Jr. of Columbus, Ohio, planned and trained for and ran a 400-meter race incomparably faster than anyone in history, the image he became in the stretch ought somehow to wash across the page, across the wall, across the brain. For it was in that stretch when everything changed, when an old world cracked and fell away, and a fresh, loose, happily expansive one took its place.
The day before Zurich's Weltklasse meet last Wednesday. Reynolds was asked whether he had heard from Lee Evans after Reynolds had won the U.S. Olympic Trials 400 in 43.93, the second-fastest time ever. Evans, whom Reynolds has never met, set the world record of 43.86 almost 20 years ago, in the 7,349-foot altitude of the Mexico City Olympics. Although the reduced air density there assisted, Evans's old 43.86 remained officially intact, albeit with a little scarlet A affixed to it in some track record books. Adulterated by altitude.
Evans currently coaches sprinters in far-off Cameroon on a Fulbright scholarship.
"He hasn't called yet," said Reynolds with a green-eyed wink on Tuesday. "Maybe after tomorrow."
Thus Reynolds revealed he was gunning for the record. "I've got to go to Africa and look Evans up," he continued. "I'd like to say, 'Why'd you set it so steep?' Ever since the trials I've been asking myself, where can I find .07 of a second? And I've been answering: in my head, in trying."
As well, it would take a windless evening, a great field and a maniacal crowd. All of which meant Zurich, the richest meet on the European circuit. Meet director Andreas Brugger's budget, estimated at $1.3 million, empowered him to purchase fields for several races that were the equal of Olympic finals; the most expensive was the long-awaited 100-meter rematch of Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson.
But no race was stronger than the 400. In Lane 2 was Roberto Hernandez of Cuba, who has run 44.22 but probably won't see Seoul because of his country's boycott. World-junior-record holder (44.11) Steve Lewis, a UCLA sophomore, was in Lane 3. Reynolds would be in 4. Innocent Egbunike, Nigeria's silver medalist in the 1987 World Championships, was in 5, and UCLA senior Danny Everett, who was a close second to Reynolds in the U.S. trials last month with 43.98, was in 6.
Reynolds had given thought to running at altitude himself, at a meet six days earlier in Sestriere, Italy, 6,668 feet up in the Alps, near Turin. There Roger Kingdom blasted through the 110-meter hurdles in 12.97, becoming the second man to break 13 flat and threatening Renaldo Nehemiah's world record of 12.93. But Reynolds, sure of his strength, passed in favor of low-altitude Zurich, saying, "A 20-year-old world record doesn't deserve an 'A' next to it any longer."
As he walked to the track in Zurich on Wednesday, all that confidence evaporated. "I don't feel there's a record here tonight," he said suddenly. His nerves had overcome his need to run. "I wanted to let this record thing wait until the Olympics," he went on. But his brother and training mate, Jeff, 18 months younger, whose best is 44.98, wouldn't hear of it, telling Butch he had never been more ready.
The runners went to their marks at 8:20 p.m. beneath a deep lavender sky. There was no wind. They had to wait for the densely packed standing-room crowd near the start to finish screaming for Europe's most beloved triple jumper. Willie Banks of the U.S. Reynolds shook hands with several opponents but simply nodded at Everett, whom he judged the greatest danger.