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Man Of the Century
Merrell Noden
June 24, 1991
Leroy Burrell's world record in the 100 brightened a bungled TAC championships
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June 24, 1991

Man Of The Century

Leroy Burrell's world record in the 100 brightened a bungled TAC championships

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The 100 meters is the simplest of races. No hurdles. No turns. No tactics. It deserves a simple record. Yet beginning in 1968, when Jim Hines ran 9.95 in the 7,800-foot altitude of the Mexico City Olympics, every world record for the 100 has been compromised—either devalued by being set at altitude, erased by revelations of anabolic steroid use or achieved by default.

Last Friday afternoon, when Leroy Burrell settled in the blocks for the 100-meter final at the USA/Mobil Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Downing Stadium in New York City, the record stood at 9.92. It belonged to his training partner and Santa Monica Track Club teammate Carl Lewis, who had set the mark at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, despite crossing the line behind Ben Johnson. It wasn't Lewis's fault that Johnson was later disqualified for using steroids, but a second-place finish hardly makes for an inspiring world record.

Who better than Burrell to set things straight? He had run the world's fastest 100 in each of the last two years. At 24, he is bright and blunt. Burrell had heard all the reasons why Lewis, also entered in Friday's race, was not going to run fast: He turns 30 on July 1. He hasn't run faster than 10.05 since the Seoul Games. He was badly beaten by Dennis Mitchell in Seville, Spain, on May 30. Burrell, however, knows better than to write off Lewis. "Carl and I both know what's going on," he said last summer, shortly after beating Lewis at the Goodwill Games.

What's going on, quite simply, is that Lewis has been low-keying it. The last two years were relatively unimportant ones in track and field, and Lewis took the opportunity to explore other interests, including working as sports director on KHYS, a Houston radio station, and writing and promoting Inside Track, his autobiography. But the time had come to crank it up. The World Championships begin Aug. 24 in Tokyo, and Lewis, the two-time defending champion in both the 100 and the long jump, knew that the top three finishers in each event in New York would qualify for the U.S. team. The time will come when it's safe to write off Lewis. However, as last weekend's meet made clear, that time has not come.

The eight sprinters rose in their blocks. Burrell seemed to explode with the gun. "I accelerated like I've never accelerated before," he said. By 40 meters he led the field and had a full stride on Lewis, who, after false-starting, could take no chances in coming out of the blocks.

"My start was just terrible," Lewis said later. "Everybody was ahead of me."

"The race happened so fast," said Burrell. "I came to consciousness at about 80 meters. It was almost like somebody had pushed fast forward." He added, "And I came back."

He came back to a nightmare. He suddenly felt intensely tired. Even worse, said Burrell, "I could hear Carl coming and felt I didn't know where the finish line was. The tape was kind of bowed. Carl hit it before I did. That scared the heck out of me."

Burrell searched for the infield clock. It showed 9.90. "I thought, Gosh, that's fast. I hope I won, because I'll be the world-record holder."

Fortunately for Burrell, races end at the finish line marked on the track and not at the tape, which serves mainly to help runners judge their approach. The photo of the finish revealed that Burrell had reached the line first, less than a foot in front of Lewis. Burrell then waited to see whether the wind, which had fluttered first the tape and now his heart, was going to rob him of a world record. It turned out to have been blowing at 1.9 meters per second, a shade under the 2.0 limit allowed for a 100-meter record.

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