Ideally, even as you discover here how Harry (Butch) Reynolds Jr. of Columbus, Ohio, planned and trained for and ran a 400-meter race incomparably faster than anyone in history, the image he became in the stretch ought somehow to wash across the page, across the wall, across the brain. For it was in that stretch when everything changed, when an old world cracked and fell away, and a fresh, loose, happily expansive one took its place.
The day before Zurich's Weltklasse meet last Wednesday. Reynolds was asked whether he had heard from Lee Evans after Reynolds had won the U.S. Olympic Trials 400 in 43.93, the second-fastest time ever. Evans, whom Reynolds has never met, set the world record of 43.86 almost 20 years ago, in the 7,349-foot altitude of the Mexico City Olympics. Although the reduced air density there assisted, Evans's old 43.86 remained officially intact, albeit with a little scarlet A affixed to it in some track record books. Adulterated by altitude.
Evans currently coaches sprinters in far-off Cameroon on a Fulbright scholarship.
"He hasn't called yet," said Reynolds with a green-eyed wink on Tuesday. "Maybe after tomorrow."
August 28, 1988
Thus Reynolds revealed he was gunning for the record. "I've got to go to Africa and look Evans up," he continued. "I'd like to say, 'Why'd you set it so steep?' Ever since the trials I've been asking myself, where can I find .07 of a second? And I've been answering: in my head, in trying."
As well, it would take a windless evening, a great field and a maniacal crowd. All of which meant Zurich, the richest meet on the European circuit. Meet director Andreas Brugger's budget, estimated at $1.3 million, empowered him to purchase fields for several races that were the equal of Olympic finals; the most expensive was the long-awaited 100-meter rematch of Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson.
But no race was stronger than the 400. In Lane 2 was Roberto Hernandez of Cuba, who has run 44.22 but probably won't see Seoul because of his country's boycott. World-junior-record holder (44.11) Steve Lewis, a UCLA sophomore, was in Lane 3. Reynolds would be in 4. Innocent Egbunike, Nigeria's silver medalist in the 1987 World Championships, was in 5, and UCLA senior Danny Everett, who was a close second to Reynolds in the U.S. trials last month with 43.98, was in 6.
Reynolds had given thought to running at altitude himself, at a meet six days earlier in Sestriere, Italy, 6,668 feet up in the Alps, near Turin. There Roger Kingdom blasted through the 110-meter hurdles in 12.97, becoming the second man to break 13 flat and threatening Renaldo Nehemiah's world record of 12.93. But Reynolds, sure of his strength, passed in favor of low-altitude Zurich, saying, "A 20-year-old world record doesn't deserve an 'A' next to it any longer."
As he walked to the track in Zurich on Wednesday, all that confidence evaporated. "I don't feel there's a record here tonight," he said suddenly. His nerves had overcome his need to run. "I wanted to let this record thing wait until the Olympics," he went on. But his brother and training mate, Jeff, 18 months younger, whose best is 44.98, wouldn't hear of it, telling Butch he had never been more ready.
The runners went to their marks at 8:20 p.m. beneath a deep lavender sky. There was no wind. They had to wait for the densely packed standing-room crowd near the start to finish screaming for Europe's most beloved triple jumper. Willie Banks of the U.S. Reynolds shook hands with several opponents but simply nodded at Everett, whom he judged the greatest danger.
"I felt weak and drained in the blocks." Reynolds said later. "But at the gun you just react."
Egbunike reacted like a madman. Always a fast starter, he shot around the first turn seemingly all out, making up two staggers on the other runners. "What could his strategy possibly have been?" asked Reynolds. "Did he want to pull me too fast and burn me out? Or steal the win?"
Quarter-milers are sprinters who must carry their speed. They succeed according to how well they practice a brutal finesse. Evans's best all-out 200 was 20.4. In the Mexico 400, he passed 200 in 21.4, then poured everything he had into a final 200 of 22.5. Thus his record was the greatest single expression of the essence of the quarter: holding on.
In Zurich, Egbunike hit the 200 in 20.6, instantly becoming the embodiment of all the guys who have ever said, "One of these days I'll go out that fast and not come back." They always come back. He started coming back.
Reynolds was three meters behind. "Innocent went out so fast that I looked out of the race," he said. His flowing, rangy stride seemed almost languid compared with the furious pumping of Egbunike. "I didn't panic. I knew I had time to make up what he'd gotten." Reynolds's 200 time was 21.1. He had made a swift furlong look like cruising.
On the turn, he went to work. "I could see Innocent dying up there," he said. "I wanted to get near him by the end of the turn. I got within striking distance, and suddenly Steve Lewis was right on my left hip."
Into the stretch, it looked like a typical 400. The early burner, Egbunike, was dead. He would finish sixth in 44.97. Everett was just four feet behind Lewis, who was two feet behind Reynolds. "I knew it would be a close finish," Reynolds said.
How gloriously wrong he was. For when he dug down in response to Lewis, Reynolds cut loose as no quarter-miler has ever done. While the field stiffened, strained and goggled, he sprinted freely, beautifully, emotionally ahead.
"In the stretch," he would say, "you're holding your body. You're gutting it out, but you're holding composure. If you start moving your head or throwing your arms around or going side to side, you're fighting. You've got to not do that. You've got to hold that fatigue, hold it in. Feel it. Hide it."
He was running with an expression of wild, almost malicious delight, and he was pulling to a huge lead. Thirty meters from the finish he closed his eyes and showed his teeth. "I knew it was world-record pace," he said. "That was determination. I was saying to myself, Go all the way."
Behind him Lewis and Everett were running strongly—and being left as if in wet cement. Lewis would slow, thunderstruck, before the line, and Everett would pass him, 44.20 to 44.26.
Nine meters ahead of them, almost all of that margin gained in the last 100, Reynolds somehow sensed exactly where to lean, scraping off an extra couple of hundredths, and he was done, transformed into queasy gelatin, easing into the arms of his brother.
"It's mine!" said Reynolds a few minutes later when he could speak. "No altitude, no wind, no stipulations. It's all mine."
And shall be for the foreseeable future. His time was 43.29. Where Reynolds had hoped to find .07, he had found .57. It was as if he had beaten Evans by a full five meters.
He and Jeff took a victory lap, and the crowd sang and swayed and grew giddy with the man and the occasion and the shock. The next events went on practically unnoticed in the buzzing clamor. U.S. shot-putter Randy Barnes threw 73'6¾". Paula Ivan of Romania ran the year's fastest women's 1,500, 3:56.22, and Johnny Gray almost broke his American record in the 800 with 1:42.65, but the applause for them was light, distracted. "Twenty years." people said.
"It's lasted 20 years until tonight." It took the richest footrace in history to concentrate the mind again. Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis were about to duel at 100 meters for the first time since Johnson beat Lewis and set the world record of 9.83 last Aug. 30 in Rome. And even they were wild about Harry. "Butch's race was electrifying," said Lewis. "I tried to channel the energy."
The channels of money both camps required to indulge in this rematch were, by track standards, cascades. The top appearance fee usually necessary to retain a highly sought athlete is about $25,000. Lewis and Johnson had other ideas. Earlier this year they authorized promoters to hunt up sponsorship for some match races. "We gave Heritage Sports [a Virginia-based agency] a short-term option to generate funds above a certain minimum," said Lewis's manager, Joe Douglas. "That minimum was $250,000 per race, per individual."
The response to the idea of paying two men $50,000 a second was ringing silence. Running majestically, Lewis won the U.S. trials 100 in a wind-aided 9.78; Johnson pulled a hamstring in May and was hiding out on the island of St. Kitts while his doctor feuded with his coach over what had caused the hamstring pull and what to do about it. No race offers were forthcoming.
Then Johnson, employing Berkeley physiotherapist Jack Scott—who also treats Lewis—staged a dramatic comeback on Aug. 6 and won the Canadian trials in a wind-aided 9.90.
The wheels began to turn. Japanese firms expressed interest in a race in Tokyo after the Olympics. And Brugger wanted a match right away in Zurich. He found the extra money by offering each of the 31 countries that were taking the television feed from the meet the chance to kick in a premium to get Lewis and Johnson together at last.
The deal was finally set only the day before the meet. "They both knew they'd run a 100 here," said Johnson's agent. Larry Heidebrecht. "But whether it'd be against each other was an open question."
The quarter of a million that Lewis and Johnson each probably received in Zurich is more than double what Zola Budd and Mary Slaney received for their 1985 London rematch after Slaney's 1984 Olympic fall. But Lewis and Johnson put on 10 times the race.
They were in adjacent lanes. Lewis was the last to finish stretching and musing and to take his marks. The starter said, "fertig" ("set"), there was a photographer's flash, and Johnson jumped the gun. When he was charged with a false start, he complained that he had been drawn off by the flash. Because no one else had moved, the charge stood. One more jump and Johnson would be disqualified. "Once he was in the hole like that," said Heidebrecht, "he had to be conservative."
The next time the gun fired, Lewis and Johnson moved as one. Johnson displayed a good measure of his old acceleration, but Lewis never let the gap grow to the full meter it had been in Rome. "I knew his lead at 50 meters wasn't enough." Lewis said.
Even so, Johnson looked good until 80 meters, when his lack of racing sharpness showed in his arched back. Lewis passed him with 10 to go and won in 9.93, equaling his best. Johnson, when he saw he was beaten, simply shut down. He was actually braking as he finished. Calvin Smith rushed past in Lane 8 to take second with 9.97. Johnson was third in 10.00.
"My coach [Tom Tellez] will be pleased." said Lewis, hoarse from a head cold. "I ran my own race. Smooth as glass."
It had been a promoter's dream. Both men emerged healthy and able to fight lucratively again. "There are five weeks to Seoul," said Heidebrecht. "And Ben will improve more than Carl will."
Lewis, a genuine artiste, has seldom felt the need to be one of the guys, but he has admitted to envy of one aspect of the old days—the Lee Evans-Tommie Smith-John Carlos-Bob Beamon old days, now so nearly obsolete—and that is the sense of social mission those sprinters enjoyed. Yet, by engineering such a bonanza for themselves, Lewis and Johnson may have unified modern athletes more than they know.
Banks held a meeting to sound out the feelings of men like Linford Christie of Great Britain, who was fifth in the 100 in 10.07, for which he reportedly received a princely $5.100. Even Reynolds received only about 10% of Lewis's haul.
Brugger defended Lewis's and Johnson's deal as being fresh TV money. It didn't cut into what he could pay the others. The athletes understood that, but lamented that track has no athletes' union. They must take what promoters offer, and they will suffer that arrangement until they attain solidarity. "There will be further meetings." said long and triple jumper Mike Conley.
"I'd say to those people, Don't get jealous," said Carl Lewis. "This will help track. If a potential sponsor came here today because of this race and saw all the rest of this incredible night, he'd say, "Wow, let's get this sport.' "
Back at his hotel the new world-record holder took off his shirt and called friends at home. "We've got some good news," he said to one. "I just broke the world record....
"Yes, I did....
"No, it's not quite as painful as having a baby...."
When Frank Zubovich of Ohio State, Reynolds's coach, heard the new-age time, he yelled the perfect Buckeye expletive: "Holy Toledo!"
Still on the phone, Reynolds watched his race for the first time on TV. "Jeez, Innocent made up three aggers on me.... But I worked the turn well.... I came home real strong, good knee lift, good arms...."
With wide eyes, he finally fully understood what a stretch he had run, and he broke into the same savage grin with which he had run it. When it was over, Reynolds was just as amazed as the rest of us.
"I can't say how fast I can go now," he said, subdued, thinking of all that had gone right. "I know I'm the man for the Olympics now. The guys behind me here [Everett and Steve Lewis] are my teammates, so I've got to...I want to do all I can to keep us close together."
He'll have no trouble. The night before the race he was delighted to take extensive ribbing from the other quarter-milers about his evolving haircut. "They noticed I gave up my curler and went to the soft look, the Ivy League look," he said. "I'm happy I like people, and I like it that you can do that in track. I like it, too, that once the race is over, the stats come into play, and they're fun."
Sort of sobering fun. Reynolds improved the 400 record by 1.3%. Subtract that from some other records and see what you get. Reynolds, told that his 43.29 would be the equal of a 9.70 100 meters, or of a 3:43.38 mile, held his head and rocked and moaned.
Looking up at last, he said, "Something my mother once said is right. I admit I'm blessed. The Heavenly Father watched me through this race, this year." Reynolds stared at the legs that had held in the pain. He seemed then to have come full circle in two hours, from confidence to apprehension, from triumphant ecstasy to reflection, and now, with us all, to humility.