Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis rose to the set position, and the world waited. They were in adjacent lanes in Rome's Olympic Stadium on Sunday, the second day of the World Track and Field Championships. It was 6:40 p.m., the air was almost still, the temperature 79°. The six next-best sprinters in the world flanked them, but it had been clear for months that this could be nothing but a match race. It became the most compelling 100-meter dash in history.
Johnson's arms were spread the width of his lane to keep his body low against the force of his explosive departure. He has the fastest acceleration of any man who ever lived. Lewis was arranged in more upright fashion. He runs the best concluding 50 meters of all time. There is not a thing about these men that isn't in sharp contrast.
They had not spoken as they set their blocks and stripped off their sweats, but Lewis had sent pointed regards in the preliminaries. He ran an amazingly casual 10.05 in the first round, a meet record, and cut that to 10.03 in his semifinals. Johnson, after bolting to a three-meter lead in his semi, shut down all engines, surrendered two meters in the last 10, and still ran 10.15. Had he kept going, he probably would have run 9.95 and equaled his own world's best sea-level time. But he held back.
"The way Carl was runnin' the heats," he would say in the swift lilt of his Jamaican youth (he moved to Canada when he was 14), "he was settin' me up. But the time to do my runnin' was in the final."
September 6, 1987
Both men knew how the final had to go. Johnson would blast out to a lead, then Lewis would reach his greater top speed. In the last, tearing 40 meters, they would discover which man would withstand the strength of the other. Lewis had run those quick heat times to show that he was back from his 1986 knee injury. If Johnson sensed the panther behind him closing in, as Lewis had closed in while winning the 1984 Olympics (Johnson was third), the Canadian might tighten.
Johnson, just as inevitably, wanted Lewis to remember the 9.95's he had run in Moscow in 1986 and in Cologne two weeks before the Rome meet and that, although Lewis had won nine of their 14 races since 1980, he had not beaten Johnson for two years.
Both were supremely prepared. Johnson and his coach of 10 years, Charlie Francis, had worked for two seasons toward a goal of 9.85. Calvin Smith's 1983 world record, set in Colorado Springs, was 9.93. "Ben had shown that he could do it, but he needed the right wind, track and competition," said Francis. "In Rome he had them all. Carl was stronger than he was in L.A." U.S. head coach Mel Rosen, of Auburn, said bluntly, "These guys are running to win. And to win will take a world record."
The gun sounded. Johnson reacted with such brutal suddenness that there will eternally be questions about this start. A few in the stadium sat back expecting a recall, because within 10 steps Johnson had a lead of two meters. "It was not a good start," Johnson would say. "It was a great start."
Too great, of course, and the start becomes false. But the sensors in the blocks did not detect Johnson applying any undue pressure before the gun, so there was no recall. "At the start," Lewis said, "I was focused on my lane, so I can't say I saw him fly. But at 10 meters he was so far ahead it was unbelievable."
Johnson, the most heavily muscled of all the great sprinters, had thrown himself into motion so powerfully that he was barely in control. "I almost ended up in Carl's lane," he said later. Perhaps distracted, Lewis stayed uncharacteristically low in the first 20 meters and was slow to come up into his full stride. When he did, he swayed left and for a time ran almost behind Johnson's right shoulder, as if drafting. Finally, at 50 meters, he began to gain.
By 75 meters, Lewis could go no faster. Too much of a gap remained. Unless Johnson slowed, Lewis wouldn't catch him. But Johnson no longer tightens late. He is the complete 100-meter sprinter. He hit the finish line a meter clear.
And there was the time. The unofficial clock, which at Rome had almost always been within a hundredth of a second of the official mark, read 9.84. The wind was a legal .95 meters per second. Johnson, certain that he had taken the record, set out on a victory lap.
Lewis finished and turned and gestured toward the starter, and it was in his mind to complain that Johnson had not been recalled. Then he knew that acceptance was the order of the day, and he ran to offer Johnson his hand.
Until he saw the time, Lewis didn't think he had run very well. "I thought it might be about 10 seconds," he said. But Lewis had been clocked in 9.93 for second, which would have been his first individual outdoor world record.
Johnson's official time was 9.83. Memorize that, because 9.83 will be the 100-meter record for a long, long while. Yet Johnson's joy seemed restrained. "I'm not the guy to go crazy showing it," he said, "but I am happy. I was like this as a kid, keepin' things inside."
He agreed that what he had done ranked with Bob Beamon's 29'2½" long jump at the Mexico City Olympics. "If anyone's going to break my record," he said, "their first 50 is going to have to be awesome. They're going to have to be better than me."
Such was the tingling afterglow in the stadium following Johnson's run that only 12 minutes passed before a second world record was set. Bulgaria's willow whip of a high jumper, Stefka Kostadinova, cleared 6'10¼" on her second try, showing that before anyone breaks Johnson's 9.83 a woman will high-jump seven feet. Kostadinova had escaped a loss to the U.S.S.R.'s Tamara Bykova only by scraping over 6'8¼" on her final attempt. So where did she get two extra inches, except from the electric atmosphere? That mood, however, was not created by Johnson alone.
The blessing of these championships is that they are not the Olympics. The Montreal, Moscow and Los Angeles Summer Games were, as the International Amateur Athletic Federation's guidebook says, "lamed" by black African, U.S. and Soviet boycotts. But four years ago in Helsinki these worlds were begun and proved to be a superior competition without the surrounding tumult of an Olympics.
As the Rome meet began its nine-day run there were no splintering political divisions. Warring Iran and Iraq stayed away, but Israel and Palestine marched among the 165 nations represented in Saturday's opening ceremony. Moreover, because most athletes' contracts with sponsors contain healthy bonuses for wins in the worlds, there was no ducking for commercial reasons. Every able-bodied contender came to Rome and came in peak condition. The resulting competition was as fierce as the Eternal City had seen in ages, and Romans turned out in full force.
Sixty-five thousand spectators hung on every throw by Alessandro Andrei, the 6'3", 262-pound policeman from Padua who was the 1984 Olympic shot-put champion. With one round of throws remaining, Switzerland's Werner Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár led the event with 72'7". Andrei was second with 71'9½". Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár, a rangy 6'7" and 273, stepped into the ring and was engulfed in catcalls and whistling. Expressionless, he launched the 16 pounds of steel 72'11¼". If Andrei, now in the ring for the last throw of the competition, were to fall short by just a few inches, he would have only his own crowd to blame.
Andrei clenched his teeth so hard it looked as if they would crack as he shot across the ring, but the sphere fell to earth at 71'4¾", and Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár was Switzerland's first-ever world or Olympic gold medalist in track and field. John Brenner of the U.S. took the bronze medal with 71'4¼".
In the 10,000 meters, Kenya's Paul Kipkoech drove himself through some of the most devastating surges since the U.S.S.R.'s Vladimir Kuts won the 5,000 and 10,000 at the 1956 Olympics. After a slow mile Kipkoech burned a lap in 61.2, then eased back into the pack and was forgotten. But at 6,000 meters he began sprinting down every backstretch, a tactic that carried him through a 13:25 final 5,000 en route to a winning 27:38.63. He warranted an ovation from the crowd. But he finished in chaos.
The official who was operating the sign that keeps runners informed of the remaining laps had been flashing the correct number at Kipkoech, then quickly reducing it by one in order to be ready for Kipkoech the next time around. This had the effect of telling all of the Kenyan's straining pursuers that they had one less lap to go than was true. With 800 meters remaining, half the field started mistakenly sprinting. With one lap to go, runners began stopping, sure that they were finished, only to be ordered by officials to cover an additional sick, gasping, resentful circuit.
But for the mess, Hansj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árg Kunze of East Germany might have caught Italy's Francesco Panetta for second. Mexico's Arturo Barrios, Britain's Steve Binns and Switzerland's Markus Ryffel all stopped, all resumed, all deserved better. Four countries protested. The officials let the tainted results stand.
A race without controversy was the women's marathon, won by Rosa Mota of Portugal in a runaway reminiscent of Joan Benoit's win at the L.A. Olympics. Mota left all opposition after only three miles and extended her lead with every subsequent step.
This was the most beautiful marathon ever run. In golden afternoon light, the runners passed through just about every Roman square from St. Peter's to the Colosseum. The 11½ miles of ancient cobblestones were hell on blisters, and it was so warm that the runners yearned to plunge into the Bernini fountains.
When Mota strode lightly down Viale dei Gladiatori and into the stadium to finish in 2:25:17, she had won by more than a mile. The time and her huge margin made her a worthy successor to Benoit as the world's reigning female marathoner.
Too, the contrasts among the 5'2", 99-pound Mota, the lithe Kostadinova and the oak-muscled Johnson caught the plural nature of their sport, the astonishing variations that track and field celebrates in human speed, endurance and strength. One basked with them in their mastery. Theirs seemed a reward as old as the setting, the knowledge that they had set high standards for ages yet to come. And for a World Championships perhaps yet to peak.