Chris Brown is headed to lunch in a place where eyes pan like security cameras, scanning for threats. It's the giant, circus-tent of a cafeteria at the Olympic Village, and everywhere athletes are stealing furtive glances at those who would get between them and their destiny.
But not Brown, the best quarter-miler in the world who won't wrap himself in the Stars and Stripes should he visit the medal stand. Brown is relaxation personified, as if the beach culture of Eleuthera, the tiny Bahamian island where he grew up, is oozing from his innards, and out the flopping mini-dreads that make him look like he's hiding in a weeping willow when he turns sideways.
Brown casts a half-nod here and there as he passes familiar sprinters, and when Tyson Gay, the United States' most recognizable runner (he failed to make the 100-meter finals several days after the encounter) comes briskly by, he lifts a limp fist and offers a languid, "Sup boss."
Gary Kikaya, a fellow 400 runner from the Democratic Republic of Congo passes and asks, "You ready, Chris?" Brown needs no words to reply. He keeps on walking, but bows his head and casually thrusts two hands up into the air, as if he has already won. The gesture is so utterly lackadaisical that it's hard to imagine that something as explosive as the 44.40-second quarter-mile he ran in June in Oslo could possibly have been a product of this same body, which at 5-foot-9 and 29 years old is the biggest road bump between the United States and a second consecutive 400-medal sweep.
To get a sense of just how dominant the U.S. has been in the 400, it helps to do a little bean counting. If the gold medal counts as a win, and everything else as a loss, the U.S. is 17-4 all time in the 4x400-meter relay. Only Kenya, in 1972, has beaten the U.S. relay since 1956.
Twelve different American runners have produced the top 66 performances all time in the one-lapper. The top non-American time ever, coming in at 67th, is a 44.10, run in 2006 by Kikaya.
The International Association of Athletics Federations, track's governing body, recently scrapped the 4x400-meter relay world record - 2:54.20 -- that the U.S. set in 1998, because one member of the team, Antonio Pettigrew, admitted to doping. So the record was passed to -- drum roll -- a U.S. team from 1993. And that team is followed on the all-time list by nine other American relays ranging from 1968 to 2007. (It should be noted that, though none of the members of these teams tested positive prior to the listed performances, at least four of the relays had a member who later in his career was suspended for or admitted to using drugs). In 2005, a team of American college kids from Louisiana State University ran the 4x400 faster (2:59.59) than all but seven other countries ever have. In 2004, an American junior team, made up of athletes aged 19 or younger, ran 3:01.09, faster than the national records of some not-so-small countries, like Italy and Spain. The last time the U.S. competed in an Olympics and did not win the 400 gold was in 1976 (American runners took silver and bronze).
Considered as a historical unit, even with some performances revoked for doping, American quarter-milers may be the most dominant team in any sport, ever.
At the Athens Olympics, U.S. runners swept the 400, and they swept again last summer at Worlds in Osaka. This year, American runners enter the Games ranked first (Jeremy Wariner; 43.86), second (LaShawn Merritt; 44.00), and fourth (David Neville; 44.61). Brown sits third. "I've been trying to break it up for years," Brown says. "That's my mission. To break it up, and do something that nobody has ever done before."
Brown has experience in attempting what nobody has done before. In 2000, he took the baton for the last lap of the Olympic 4x400 in second place, 20 meters behind American Michael Johnson. Brown blasted around the first curve, intent on catching Johnson, and actually gained ground on the greatest one-lap runner ever. But he went out too hard, and faded to fourth in the final 70 meters, behind surging Nigerian and Jamaican anchor legs. The United States has since been stripped of that medal, because of Pettigrew's admission, and the other teams will be moved up one spot, giving the Bahamas the bronze. "If I would've known this would happen," says Brown with a smile, "I would have settled for second [instead of chasing Johnson]."
Don't believe him. Chris Brown would've chased Michael Johnson no matter what, because that's what Chris Brown does. He looks for the biggest challenge on the biggest stage. That's how he came to quarter-mile'ing in the first place.
Back when he was in high school in Eleuthera, an island of about 7,000 people, he was a half-miler and miler. (His 1:49.54 run a decade ago is still the Bahamian record.) Things changed when he started coming to Nassau, the Bahamian capital, for races. Brown would look up into the stands before his middle distance races, and noticed that "everybody going to get hotdogs and use the bathroom and find drinks and eat pizza," he says, "and nobody checkin' for me." When the 100 and 200 came around, the stands would be full again. "Everybody would be trying to peep in the gate or break their neck trying to see who was running the hot events," Brown says. And Brown wanted that stage, to compete against "those fellas who was enjoying the crowd," he says. So when he transferred to a high school in Nassau for his senior year, Brown focused on the sprints, and the 400 in particular, looking to infuse it with the same excitement that brought Bahamian fans back to their seats for the short sprints.
According to Jamial Rolle, a 200-meter runner on the Bahmian Olympic team, "guys like Chris," as well as the Bahamas' "Golden Girls," five female sprinters who won a slew of gold medals at recent Olympics and world championships, "have made track the number one sport in the Bahamas."
Brown says he's already recognized everywhere he goes in the islands, and a sprint gold is the kind of thing that gets a life-sized Chris Brown hanging from light poles in Nassau. (It happened for the Golden Girls).
But with the 400 prelims beginning on Monday, there is no prediction to be found that slots anyone other than Wariner and Merritt for gold and silver. And given their recent runs, rightfully so. But Brown, with the help of a man who knows a little about displacing Americans on the medal stand, is feeling better than ever.
Starting last December, Brown came under the tutelage of Innocent Egbunike, a Nigerian sprinter who took silver at 1987 Worlds, right in front of America's Butch Reynolds, who would set the world record the following year. Before joining Egbunike, Brown was part of a group that trained with Steve Riddick, his college coach at Norfolk State University. Riddick coached several other athletes, including Marion Jones, who were derailed by drug scandals, and Riddick himself was sentenced to five years and three months in prison in January for his involvement in a money-laundering scheme. "I switched coaches because, one: my time was stuck," Brown says, "and two: he's in prison."
A blessing in disguise for Brown. Egbunike, whose Georgia-based training group includes U.S. 400-meter hurdler and Sydney gold-medalist Angelo Taylor, makes a DVD of every practice and race for his runners to watch. His athletes become their own coaches. After a decade-and-a-half of racing, Brown recently noticed that he cocks his head and tightens his shoulders when he runs all out. "I'm running more relaxed now," he says. "Instead of me going to get it, I let it come to me. I'm running free, free and relaxed."
As free and relaxed as he is, though, Brown knows that this is the most pivotal moment of his athletic career. His mother, Nola, and fiancee, Faith, wanted to be in Beijing to see it, but Brown asked them to be content to watch on TV, so that he could focus only on himself during the Games. "This is a big one for me," he says, for the first time betraying a hint of anticipation. "I have to force people to make mention of my name and my country," Brown continues. And in the 400, he knows, the only road that leads to the kind of recognition he craves, the road that leads to gold, silver, or bronze, runs right through the United States.