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The Color Of Speed
GARY SMITH
December 06, 2004
Many fans just can't believe that Jeremy Wariner, the Olympic 400-meter champ, is white--and they've argued it out on the Web
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December 06, 2004

The Color Of Speed

Many fans just can't believe that Jeremy Wariner, the Olympic 400-meter champ, is white--and they've argued it out on the Web

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The Fern> Does anyone else sometimes see this message board as a whole pasture of dead horses being beaten to death by a bunch of guys who think they know everything, trying to convince everyone else that they do.

The stench of dead horseflesh is no easy thing to dispel. A man reading this story might easily despair, concluding that it's hopeless, that it'll never happen ... unless he takes a step backward from the pasture, and then another and another, all the way back to where the white-haired man is standing. Imagine how different it all looks and smells from 70-year-old Clyde Hart's perspective.

Imagine that your first day on the job was in 1957 in Little Rock, where you're assigned to search lockers for bombs while busloads of white people prevent nine black children from walking through the doors of your high school, requiring the 101st Airborne to occupy the school for the rest of the year to prevent violence ... and to burn your high hurdles at night to stay warm. Imagine that six years later you're promoted to coach at Baylor, in perhaps the most prestigious athletic conference in the land--the Southwest Conference--where not a single black man competes in track and field ... until you bring in one of the first two, Ronnie Allen, just before the '70s roll in. You turn around, and it's the '90s already, and you're the coach of a black millionaire sprinter named Michael Johnson as he stands in the middle of an Olympic stadium in northern Georgia and flings his golden shoes into the adoring crowd. Turn around again and you're the coach of a gold-medal-winning Southern white youth who chooses the look and style of a black youth as he sprints right through what's left of the barriers because he never even sees any barriers. Imagine all that occurring in less than 50 years, in the course of one man's working days, and then smell the air again.

"People just don't realize what sports has done in this country," says Hart. "It's mixed kids together and made them realize that some things they've been taught about people aren't true. It's been the great equalizer in America.

"There's absolutely been a barrier for white sprinters in America. There's a stigma there. White kids think that it's a black kids' sport, that blacks are superior. There are plenty of white kids with fast-twitch fibers, but they've got to get off their rumps. Too many of them would rather go fast on their computers in a fantasy world. It's not about genes, although they may play some part in it. It's about Do you want it badly enough?"

Jeremy turned pro when the Olympics ended. He'll continue attending Baylor, a couple of classes a semester, and continue training under Hart even if the coach retires from his Baylor job after next spring's meets. Jeremy plans to run for gold in two or three more Olympics, to double up in the 200 and 400 as soon as he can talk his coach into it ... and to replace the zirconium earrings with diamonds as soon as the first fat check rolls in.

Of course, he now needs someone to plan his schedule and his travel logistics. So former Baylor sprinter Deon Minor became his manager. And he needs someone to protect his image, represent him in corporate conference rooms, negotiate his track appearances and endorsement deals. So he chose Michael Johnson. It was such an obvious decision, who would even stop to marvel over a white athlete with a black agent?

Sure, the kid might push some people's buttons, but they were all at a far remove ... buttons on the computers of lonely souls in cyberspace. No such conflict existed in his day-to-day life. And that's the real story down here, deep in the heart of Texas: There is no story. Just a nice, quiet, radically fast young man with no interest in making social statements and no clue as to why anyone--all the reporters who peppered him with questions about race after he won the gold medal, all the people roaming websites, even a writer from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED--would make color an issue. Why anyone would thrust 1957 on him.

"My generation doesn't see color the way others did," he says. "I never felt that barrier. Just be yourself, have fun and don't let nothin' bother you. It's not about how you look. It's about how you feel, and I feel more comfortable looking the way I look.

"I don't care what people say. I don't care if my opponents use drugs. If they're using 'em, let 'em use 'em. It'll come back on them some day. Being skinny, I feel like I have an advantage because I have less weight to carry around the track. Race issues, drug issues, I just learned to let 'em go past me. When I get on the track, my mind clears, and all I hear in my head is what Coach Hart told me: Stay focused. Get out strong. Work the turn. Keep your form."

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