Among swift, no sign of meek and mild

July 27, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Who is the fastest man in the world?

Tonight's 100-meter final should settle it, but here's an idea sure to offend all the narcissists seeking one of sport's most coveted titles.

None of them!

If Frankie Fredericks wins the 100 and Michael Johnson beats him in the 200, then isn't Johnson the fastest man in the world?

In fact, isn't Johnson the fastest man in the world anyway, since his world record in the 200 (19.66) breaks down to two world records in the 100?

Well, Johnson's 200 time didn't include a second trip out of the starting blocks, so such an analysis might be unfair. Truth be told, each of tonight's finalists probably could whip him in the 100.

On the other hand, if Johnson wins the 200 and 400, he'll emerge as the biggest track star in the Olympics. And if he sets another world record in the 200, some might indeed suggest he's the fastest man in the world.

"That's hilarious," two-time Olympic champion Carl Lewis sniffed yesterday. "The 100 is the event that usually determines the fastest in the world. But we are not thinking about that.

"When you go out, you're just running to win. Who's to say who the fastest man in the world is? Is it the world-record holder? Is it the Olympic champion? Being Olympic champion is exciting enough."

Responded Johnson: "Since there's no official title, it's always up to speculation. There's no way to prove that one way or the other. But i'm happy to know that in a lot of people's minds, I'm that man."

Whatever, it's fun asking the question, just to see the outraged reactions from the 100-meter sprinters, who rank among the biggest egomaniacs in sports.

"When Michael Johnson can run 27 miles an hour, maybe we can start talking about it," huffed Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago. "Right now he's just the fittest man in track, he's not the fastest." Sprinters, don't you love 'em?

They pout like baseball players, strut like football players and talk trash like basketball players. And heaven forbid you ask them to compete without providing a hefty appearance fee.

Jesse Owens' widow recently called Johnson to tell him that he reminded her of her late husband by carrying himself with such dignity.

She didn't call Dennis Mitchell, who celebrated his first-round victory in the 100 yesterday by pumping his fists, raising his arms and tugging on his jersey to display the "USA" logo to the crowd.

And she never called Lewis, who once wore spiked heels in a tire ad.

Dignity?

You've come to the wrong event.

Lewis, naturally, isn't a Johnson fan -- he has toned down his criticism of late, but only after calling Johnson's performance at the world championships "boring," and saying, "He doesn't have it."

Here's Jon Drummond, another U.S. 100-meter runner, on Johnson: "Everyone knows the man who wins the 100 is the fastest man in the world. If Michael wants that title, he can step down. I'll be glad to beat up on him."

One Nike man dissing another.

Impressive.

The sprinters usually are more devoted to their sponsors.

Take Great Britain's Linford Christie, the defending Olympic champion. He reportedly might race wearing blue contact lenses with white pumas plainly visible at the center -- Puma, of course, being his shoe sponsor.

An athlete selling his eyeballs.

Is no body part sacred?

Christie is the Hamlet of this group, the one who couldn't decide until July 1 whether he wanted to defend his title. Yesterday, he blew off a fellow competitor from Bangladesh who asked for his autograph. Nice guy.

Not everyone in the field is insufferable.

Canada's Donovan Bailey is an affable, gregarious sort, despite carrying the weight of erasing the stigma created by another Jamaican-born Canadian, Ben Johnson.

And Fredericks also seems to keep things in perspective, which is understandable considering he grew up under South African rule in his native Namibia.

Fredericks, 28, was the hottest runner in the weeks leading to the Olympics, and is considered the favorite in tonight's stunning field.

In a recent 11-day span, he nearly broke the 100 record twice and ended Johnson's two-year winning streak in the 200.

Indeed, he probably would have broken Leroy Burrell's world record of 9.85 if he hadn't raised his arms in celebration July 3 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The rub on Fredericks?

Well, he appears more muscular than in recent years, and he hangs with Christie, who has been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.

A victory by Fredericks tonight could result in yet another Olympic steroid controversy, but let's stick to the controversy at hand.

Who is the fastest man in the world?

The crowd of more than 80,000 should shout "Johnson!" when the race is about to begin, just to see the entire field commit a false start.

Pub Date: 7/27/96

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