BARCELONA, Spain -- The first time Leroy Burrell raced against Dennis Mitchell was in 1984 during a high school meet of champions at Philadelphia's Franklin Field.
Tomorrow, the backyard dispute shifts across the Atlantic, with the two expected to meet as the co-favorites in the men's Olympic 100-meter final.
The winner not only will claim hometown bragging rights, he'll replace a third Philadelphia-area runner -- Carl Lewis -- as the world's fastest human.
Lewis is the two-time defending Olympic champion, but he failed to qualify for the event after finishing sixth at the U.S. Olympic trials in New Orleans.
Mitchell and Burrell ran 1-2 in that race -- the same order as when they first met in '84. Still, Burrell claimed a slight edge entering the preliminary heats this morning.
"Looking at it, I've been better than all these guys the last two years," he said at a news conference Wednesday. "There's no reason I shouldn't be again."
Burrell has run the second fastest 100 in history (9.88 seconds), Mitchell the third fastest (9.91). The amazing thing is, neither won the race in which those times were recorded.
His world record of 9.86 came at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo. Burrell never ran better, yet never was more disappointed. He owned the previous record, for 72 days.
More than a year later, the race continues to define all three runners -- Lewis the magnificent champion, Burrell the shocked also-ran, Mitchell the surging challenger.
Burrell, 25, also ran under his previous mark in Tokyo, but he panicked at the start, pushed too hard at the finish and remains haunted by the result to this day.
Even now, he can't get away from Lewis. Just two weeks ago, the two Santa Monica Track Club teammates met in the 100 at a meet in Sestriere, Italy.
But now come the Olympics. Lewis qualified only in the long jump, so for the 100 it doesn't matter if he's fully recovered from the sinus infection that plagued him at the trials.
In fact, Lewis is picking Burrell.
"It's just like in boxing -- until you knock the champ out, he's the champ," he said. "Leroy has been the best in the world for two years."
Burrell, of course, offers precisely the same analysis, and a list of excuses to account for his recent defeats in New Orleans and Sestriere.
"The heat really got to me in New Orleans," Burrell said. "Through that, I discovered I had a few physical problems that didn't become evident to me until I became dehydrated."
Foremost among them was a strained back muscle that Burrell in sists was the reason Lewis ran him down in Sestriere. On Wednesday, however, he pronounced himself loose and fit.
"In Sestriere, it kind of reached a plateau," Burrell said. "After the race, I doubled over in pain. I don't know what it stemmed from. I think it was just being run down.
"The rest [since then] has benefited me quite a bit. From head to toe, I feel much better. I feel like I did a couple of years ago."
And the heat? It also will be a factor in Barcelona -- the temperature has been in the low 90s all week -- but Burrell said he's preparing by increasing his intake of water and vitamins.
So, this could be the climax of a journey that began when Burrell was a junior high student in Philadelphia. He played baseball and football, but was blind in his right eye.
"Leroy, you're a nice kid, but you're wasting your time," a junior high coach named Bob Kane told him. "Go out for track."
Burrell did, and in 1985 he led his high school team to the Pennsylvania state championship by scoring every point in the state meet.
He missed all of '87 because of knee surgery, but it was he, not Mitchell from New Jersey, who became the bigger star. It is he, not Mitchell, who is favored to win Olympic gold.
"I think out of everyone, I'm a bit more talented, and a little more experienced," Burrell said. "I can accelerate better than anyone, maintain my speed better than anyone."
His nemesis is gone.
( His big moment has come.