Johnson blows past 400 field, Reynolds Via long jump, Lewis on 5th Olympic team

June 20, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- There is a low-key arrogance about Michael Johnson, the result of his humble beginning in a sport he now dominates. So when he was asked last week about a possible challenge from world record-holder Butch Reynolds in the 400 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, Johnson was polite but to the point.

"Historically, Butch's strength is in the last 100 meters," Johnson said. "Historically, by then I hope to be gone."

History repeated itself last night at Olympic Stadium.

Not only did Johnson overcome a slow start to scorch the field and win his 53rd straight 400 final, but Carl Lewis rebounded from his last-place finish in Saturday night's 100 final to make the U.S. team in the long jump. By doing so, Lewis became only the second American track and field athlete to make five Olympic teams, the first since sprinter and long jumper Willye White qualified for the U.S. women's team from 1956 to 1972.

"It's the one event that never deserted me," Lewis said. "It's always been there for me. It's always been my favorite event. I'm going for my fourth gold medal."

Johnson will be going for his first, as well as for Reynolds' record. Only his poor start last night prevented Johnson from getting it, as his time of 43.44 seconds was .15 off the time Reynolds ran in 1988. It was the fastest 400 ever run in the U.S., the second fastest ever by Johnson and the third fastest all-time. Looking to avenge the two-year ban by the sport's international governing body that kept him out of the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Reynolds closed what had been a gap of about eight yards down the stretch to finish second in 43.91 seconds. Alvin Harrison finished third (44: 09) to make the team.

Asked if he purposely slowed down at the end as he had in his first three heats, Johnson smiled. "I didn't let up. When you're out there running 43.45, there's a point that your body says you can't go any faster. That was the point it said it. I made some mistakes at the beginning of the race by not going as hard as I should have. The mistakes at the beginning cost me at the end."

Though Johnson admitted that most of the conditions were favorable toward breaking the record, that this was only his second 400-meter race of the year might have hurt him. He

vowed that he would come back here next month looking for both the gold medal and the world record. But before that, he has to come back Friday for the first round of the 200 meters.

"I've got to become meaner and more aggressive," said Johnson.

Johnson has a more modest streak going in the 200, having won 19 straight in that event. Just as Reynolds and 1992 Olympic gold medalist Quincy Watts believed they had a chance to beat Johnson in the 400, Jeff Williams believes he will beat Johnson in Sunday's 200-meter final. "Jeff Williams is a great athlete and he has a terrific chance to make the Olympic team, but he has a terrible chance of beating me," Johnson said, only half-joking.

Reynolds is still holding out the chance of winning the gold medal in the Olympics. Before the trials, he had described his relationship with Johnson as "love-hate." While most believe it's a byproduct of Johnson's behavior at last year's nationals -- he waved at Reynolds just as he was about to cross the finish line -- Reynolds downplayed it last night.

"This is a sport, this is a competitive sport, love comes in and hate comes in," said Reynolds. "He's the only guy in the world I haven't beat since I came back [from his ban after testing positive in 1990 for steroids]. I'm getting tired of finishing second."

Asked if Johnson is beatable, Reynolds said, "I believe that everybody is beatable. . . . But it's hard to be the best and stay the best."

Just ask Lewis. After dominating the sport in three events for much of the 1980s, Lewis came to these trials in the midst of a rejuvenation. But after cramping up before the start of Saturday night's 100-meter final, there were questions whether Lewis, soon to be 35, would make the team in either the long jump or 200.

It wasn't quite history repeating itself, with Lewis finishing third behind Mike Powell and Joe Greene in last night's long jump final. But it was good enough for Lewis to have a chance to add to his legacy of eight gold medals, one short of the Olympic record. After fouling on his first attempt and making a pedestrian jump on his second, Powell overtook the field by jumping 27 feet, 6 1/2 inches on his final attempt. Powell's jump knocked out Mike Conley, who had qualified in the triple jump. Lewis qualified with a jump of 27-2 3/4 .

Lewis also will be part of the field trying to stop Johnson. While Johnson said he is not looking past the 200 and the possibility of sweeping here as he did at last summer's world championships, others are looking at what he will be favored to do next month. Namely, becoming the first man to win both the 200 and the 400 at the same Olympic competition. And, perhaps, break Reynolds' record.

"I know I can run 43 flat right now," said Johnson. "Today was an opportunity. The conditions were perfect. I have nobody to blame but myself. I'm going to have to get my stuff together. When I come back next month, I'll be ready to break it."

(Results, 9D)

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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