Johnson's quest not only hot track story American's 200/400 chase competes with heat, other rivalries for top billing

Atlanta Olympics

July 26, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- There's no denying that the track and field competition at the Olympics will be dominated by Michael Johnson's quest to become the first man in its history to win both the 200 meters and 400 meters. But Johnson's story will not be the only one to emerge from the competition that begins today at Olympic Stadium.

From the opening rounds of the men's and women's 100-meter dashes this afternoon to the men's marathon a week from Sunday, the spotlight will focus on the thrill of victory and the agony of the heat. A combination of the hard track and sizzling temperatures turned last month's Olympic trials into a battle of who could survive without cramping before their finals.

In fact, the heat could become the biggest focus of the eight days of competition.

"I think that particular day you will have to deal with whatever's going to happen," U.S. men's coach Erv Hunt said earlier this week. "I think the fact that people have been here for some time and have gone through the trials and also through a Grand Prix meet [in May], that will make a difference."

The American team is faced with an interesting paradox. It's the most experienced group the United States has sent to an Olympics in recent memory, perhaps ever. But more than a few members -- 34 of 96 overall -- are nearing or past 30, making them more vulnerable to injury. Carl Lewis, who is trying to win his fourth straight gold medal in the long jump here, failed to make the team in either the 100 or 200, in part because of balky muscles.

Gwen Torrence, who was expected to be the favorite in both the 100 and 200, failed to make the 200 after suffering a pulled thigh muscle while winning the 100 at the trials. And there are some who have questioned Johnson's decision to cash in immediately on his world record in the 200 at the trials by running in several meets in Europe, one in which his streak in the 200 was ended at 21 straight by Frankie Fredericks.

"If Michael doesn't win both here, he might have sacrificed millions for a couple of hundred thousand in appearance money," an official for USA Track and Field said recently.

Johnson arrived in town yesterday and will run his first heat in the 400 today. He hasn't lost in the final of a 400 since 1989, bringing a 54-race winning streak in the event to Atlanta. The final will be on Monday night.

"A lot of people feel I've got the golds already," Johnson said last week. "I don't know if I have them yet."

If Johnson is running to erase the memory of the 1992 Olympics, where a case of food poisoning ruined his chances in Barcelona, he is not alone. Torrence, too, had bitter disappointment in the women's 100 there, finishing a distant fourth and then complaining that the performances of the top three -- including gold medalist and fellow American Gail Devers -- might have been chemically enhanced.

"If it wasn't for the controversy in Barcelona, I'd just be like [200-meter Olympic champion] Mike Marsh," Torrence said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "Nobody would know me. You've got to win that one magic race."

Devers has. Her story about coming back from life-threatening illnesses as well as injury to become the world's fastest woman received big play in Barcelona, but seemed to pale in comparison to the anguish of Devers when, comfortably in front of the field, she tripped over the final hurdle in the 100 hurdles.

"This time," Devers said, "I'm going to run over all 10."

And then there's the story of Dan O'Brien, the world's greatest athlete. O'Brien wasn't in Barcelona, having no-heighted in the pole vault during the Olympic trials in New Orleans. But O'Brien hung in there, spent time in recovery for a drug and alcohol problem, and won the trials last month in Atlanta. He is considered the favorite in the competition that begins Wednesday.

His female counterpart, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, is ready to make her final appearance in the Olympics, but the two-time defending heptathlon champion is 34 and her body seems to be breaking down. Joyner-Kersee had several physical problems at the trials, some of them heat-induced, and though she made the team, she lost her first heptathlon competition since the 1984 Olympics.

Though it seems doubtful that track stars from countries other than the United States will get much play on NBC, there are some wonderful stories that will be written in the next 10 days involving foreigners. It will start tonight with the first round of the 10,000, where world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia begins his own attempt for a double gold. He also will run in the 5,000 meters.

"I think it's possible," Salah Hissou of Morocco, one of those expected to challenge Gebrselassie in the 5,000, said earlier this week, "but I will try not to make it possible."

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