The day began in fits and starts, a stuttering of spirit as organizers and fans wondered whether it was all worth it. A pipe bomb had ripped through Centennial Olympic Park in the early hours, casting a deep gloom that the morning's rain did little to dispel.
But proclamations were made, assurances broadcast, and before yon knew it the (James were back in business. The skies cleared and stadiums filled. It was amazing' how quickly those deadly moments could be put aside if you had a race to run or a ticket to watch someone else run. Suddenly all you were thinking about was a photo finish in the women's 100 meters (Gail Devers beating 36-year-old Jamaican Merlene Ottey by the length of one of her talonlike fingernails) or Kenny Harrison having won the triple jump, kneeling in the Olympic Stadium pit to scoop into a plastic bag sonic of the sand he had just soared over.
There was nothing, however, like the men's 100-meter race to remind us why we love competition so. The sprint is the marquee event of track and field, 10 seconds of pure sport. And this field promised a churning blur to remember: returning Olympic champion Linford Christie, a 36-year-old Briton; Namibia's Frankie Fredericks, the last man to beat Michael Johnson in a final (in the 200 meters); the 1995 world champion, Canadian Donovan Bailey; and 22-year-old Trinidadian Ato Boldon. Olympic Stadium was filled with 81,742 people who had set aside their fear in order to watch.
They were rewarded. To everyone's amazement, Christie was banished from the field before the race began, having twice false-started. He protested the call, refused to leave the track, sulked about the blocks for five minutes and, in a magnificent show of petulance, stripped down to his trunks before finally retreating to a stadium tunnel near the starting line.
The crack of the pistol, the explosion of color and the crazy, manic charge down the straightaway—Bailey, chugging from behind as if drawn on a wire, crashing through the pack at 70 meters, finishing with a world-record time of 9.84, his grin as wide as his lead: It was breathtaking. It always is.
It was great sport, wonderful theater, reassurance you could take home in a bag. The Olympics, after a false start of its own, was oil and running again.