Ben Johnson broke first, boldly. He burst off the starting blocks with such astonishing force Saturday night in the final of the Vitalis/U.S. Olympic Invitational 55-meter dash in East Rutherford, N.J., that his five rivals were left frozen. There was just one problem. The starting gun hadn't fired.
Forgive Johnson his haste. The Jamaican-born Canadian is the world's fastest human and a man eager to write his name next to every sprint record in the book. Yet here he was facing the strongest field of the indoor season. He might not even win. It would all depend on the start.
Johnson crouched back into the blocks in Lane 5. To his left was the evening's national anthem singer, Carl Lewis, kicking the tightness from his legs. Lewis competed in pain most of last year because of a calcium deposit on his left knee, and he dealt privately with the discovery of cancer in his father. He fell from the world's No. 1 ranking in both the 100 meters and the long jump for the first time since 1981. Johnson defeated him in all three of their '86 meetings. In September, Lewis underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, and in recent weeks he had been running strongly.
Two lanes farther over was Pitt junior Lee McRae, the NCAA indoor and outdoor sprint champion and holder of the world-best time at 55 meters (6.00). McRae is the only man to have beaten Johnson indoors over the last two seasons. He is an aspiring trade school teacher trained in plumbing, but in longer sprint races he has been known to clog up at the end. That wouldn't be a problem on this night. Over such a short distance, he might even rate as the favorite because of his uncannily quick starts.
February 23, 1987
Johnson looked up the track, eyes fixed on the tape. He had had to change shoes after his trial heat. He is such a dense, powerful runner—5'10" and 180 pounds of solid iron—that the force of his footfalls against the plywood track had sheared off, twisted or driven into the plastic sole all but two of his spikes. That kind of power carried Johnson to a low-altitude 100-meter world record of 9.95 in Moscow last summer (the official record is Calvin Smith's altitude-aided 9.93) and to world indoor marks for 50 and 60 meters this winter.
Johnson froze, head up. The five other finalists crouched in place, heads down. A crowd of 11,400 immediately went silent.
Crack! McRae shot off, half a stride ahead of the field. It was as if he had sensed the trigger being pulled. "Our sprint coach makes me do drills to work on my reactions," McRae would explain later. "I get down on my hands and knees and then have to jump up when he makes any little sound. Sometimes he drops a nickel on the turf and I have to pick the sound up off that."
The stocky 5'9½" McRae didn't run track until he was 15, when a disagreement with his high school baseball coach in Pembroke, N.C. ("He wanted me to play the outfield; I wanted to play shortstop"), led McRae to switch spring sports. A highly regarded football prospect, McRae was told by Pitt coaches he would have to gain at least 30 pounds in order to be competitive for a tailback position. Realizing that the added weight might ruin his sprinting career, McRae decided to turn in his football helmet.
McRae's pursuers on Saturday night appeared to need a good open-field tackle to keep him in range. Johnson had broken to a slight lead over Lewis, but neither had much time to catch the youngster from Pitt. Johnson in particular felt as if he were just spinning his wheels. "I had no traction at all," he would say later. Yet gradually he crept closer to McRae.
The race came down to a lean at the tape. McRae clattered across the line in 6.04, less than four inches in front of the furiously charging Johnson (6.05) and only about a foot and a half ahead of Lewis (6.09). Fourth-place Mark Witherspoon, 23, Lewis's training partner, passed the line in 6.10. Never before had four runners finished in 6.10 or better in the same race.
And now the fun began. More than a few observers thought that McRae had false started. "It was a good start, but not one of the better ones I've had," insisted McRae.
Lewis was diplomatic. "Lee had an absolutely phenomenal start," he told a group of reporters. "I'll leave it at that." Later, when the crowd of interviewers had thinned, Lewis confided to a friend, "Lee jumped tonight. He did."
Meanwhile, Johnson checked the soles of his shoes and again found that several spikes were twisted or sheared off. He was tired, having been delayed more than three hours on his flight from Toronto on Saturday afternoon. "Next time I come down to run in the U.S. I'll be ready," he said.
As the three sprinters discussed the race, their differences in backgrounds and personalities became clear. Johnson, who grew up running barefoot for a Jamaican parish team, came to Canada in 1976 with his mother and five siblings, looking for a better life. He soon got in trouble with the Toronto police for catching a pigeon in a city park and roasting it for a meal, something he had done without a second thought in Jamaica. Although Johnson has since adjusted to life in North America, he still hasn't overcome the stutter he picked up years ago by imitating his older brother. In private, Johnson is shy, but in public he appears cocky. "You will see some very, very fast times," he promised on Saturday, looking ahead.
Lewis is just six months older than the 25-year-old Johnson, but he seems so much more the veteran, so much more polished. His clocking on Saturday night was his best in three years, and he wore his delight openly. Spotting a TV camera, Lewis stuck his face in front of it and declared, "The kid is back!"
The real kid, McRae, smiled warmly as he told of having Lewis as an idol just a few years ago. "Now I'm my own idol," he said jokingly.
"I was just trying to get out in the first 8 to 10 yards and push the whole way through," McRae continued. When someone pressed McRae about Lewis and Johnson and the possible false start, he said, "I try to avoid politics. I'm still in school. Ben and Carl, they run for a living. I run for fun."
All right. But what about that start, Lee? "Instincts," he said, and left it at that.