Man Of the Century

Leroy Burrell's world record in the 100 brightened a bungled TAC championships
June 23, 1991

The 100 meters is the simplest of races. No hurdles. No turns. No tactics. It deserves a simple record. Yet beginning in 1968, when Jim Hines ran 9.95 in the 7,800-foot altitude of the Mexico City Olympics, every world record for the 100 has been compromised—either devalued by being set at altitude, erased by revelations of anabolic steroid use or achieved by default.

Last Friday afternoon, when Leroy Burrell settled in the blocks for the 100-meter final at the USA/Mobil Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Downing Stadium in New York City, the record stood at 9.92. It belonged to his training partner and Santa Monica Track Club teammate Carl Lewis, who had set the mark at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, despite crossing the line behind Ben Johnson. It wasn't Lewis's fault that Johnson was later disqualified for using steroids, but a second-place finish hardly makes for an inspiring world record.

Who better than Burrell to set things straight? He had run the world's fastest 100 in each of the last two years. At 24, he is bright and blunt. Burrell had heard all the reasons why Lewis, also entered in Friday's race, was not going to run fast: He turns 30 on July 1. He hasn't run faster than 10.05 since the Seoul Games. He was badly beaten by Dennis Mitchell in Seville, Spain, on May 30. Burrell, however, knows better than to write off Lewis. "Carl and I both know what's going on," he said last summer, shortly after beating Lewis at the Goodwill Games.

What's going on, quite simply, is that Lewis has been low-keying it. The last two years were relatively unimportant ones in track and field, and Lewis took the opportunity to explore other interests, including working as sports director on KHYS, a Houston radio station, and writing and promoting Inside Track, his autobiography. But the time had come to crank it up. The World Championships begin Aug. 24 in Tokyo, and Lewis, the two-time defending champion in both the 100 and the long jump, knew that the top three finishers in each event in New York would qualify for the U.S. team. The time will come when it's safe to write off Lewis. However, as last weekend's meet made clear, that time has not come.

The eight sprinters rose in their blocks. Burrell seemed to explode with the gun. "I accelerated like I've never accelerated before," he said. By 40 meters he led the field and had a full stride on Lewis, who, after false-starting, could take no chances in coming out of the blocks.

"My start was just terrible," Lewis said later. "Everybody was ahead of me."

"The race happened so fast," said Burrell. "I came to consciousness at about 80 meters. It was almost like somebody had pushed fast forward." He added, "And I came back."

He came back to a nightmare. He suddenly felt intensely tired. Even worse, said Burrell, "I could hear Carl coming and felt I didn't know where the finish line was. The tape was kind of bowed. Carl hit it before I did. That scared the heck out of me."

Burrell searched for the infield clock. It showed 9.90. "I thought, Gosh, that's fast. I hope I won, because I'll be the world-record holder."

Fortunately for Burrell, races end at the finish line marked on the track and not at the tape, which serves mainly to help runners judge their approach. The photo of the finish revealed that Burrell had reached the line first, less than a foot in front of Lewis. Burrell then waited to see whether the wind, which had fluttered first the tape and now his heart, was going to rob him of a world record. It turned out to have been blowing at 1.9 meters per second, a shade under the 2.0 limit allowed for a 100-meter record.

He was quietly overwhelmed, fighting back tears during an interview on the infield. "When a lifelong dream culminates, you don't know what to think," said Burrell. "You imagine yourself feeling very happy, but that isn't exactly what you feel. It is very humbling."

More so for the fast field that swept across the line behind him. Lewis, who had run 9.93 in second, pronounced himself more than satisfied. "I just need competition," he said. "I need meets." Mitchell was third, in 10.00.

Despite the record, University of Houston coach Tom Tellez, who coaches Burrell and Lewis, believes that both runners can go faster. "Leroy reached his maximum a little too soon," said Tellez, who advocates a smooth acceleration to peak speed by 60 meters and then relaxing to maintain that speed to the finish. "Carl spread his acceleration out more. The only thing he didn't do was react with the gun. He had to sit there."

Although it was Burrell who established the record, Tellez kept talking about Lewis. "He amazed me," said Tellez, who has coached Lewis for 11 years. "I didn't think he could run that time with that start. That may be the fastest I've ever seen anybody move. I wish Carl was in the 200.1 think it would be a heck of a race."

Even without Lewis, Saturday's 200 offered the best matchup of the meet, pitting Burrell against Michael Johnson, last year's Track and Field News Male Athlete of the Year. Unfortunately, the race was run into a strong head wind, making fast times impossible. Burrell started well and seemed to have a slight lead on Johnson as they sped into the homestretch. But as Johnson said later, "Coming out of the curve, it felt like I was in control. I was putting pressure on Burrell, because he tried to respond and couldn't." Johnson won the race by one meter, in 20.31.

"I was flat," said Burrell, for whom the 200 final was his sixth run of the weekend. He nevertheless edged teammate Floyd Heard for second, 20.42 to 20.44.

Given the meet's stature and the population of metropolitan New York City, the turnout at 22,000-seat Downing Stadium could only be considered disappointing. "This is a seriously low-key meet," said Daley Thompson of Great Britain, the world-record holder in the decathlon who was on hand as a spectator. "If this meet were held anywhere else in the world, the place would be full up." When Friday's attendance was announced as 7,523, Thompson said, "Give or take 7,000."

But Thompson was inspired by what he saw in the decathlon. Forced to cope with all the adversity man and nature could devise, Dan O'Brien, 24, turned in a performance that was very nearly Thompsonian. On June 12, the first day of the meet, O'Brien clocked 10.23 in the 100—hardly in Burrell's league but still .03 of a second faster than Thompson's decathlon best. Distressingly, though, there was no wind gauge. TAC has contracts with equipment suppliers Swiss Timing and UCS, but there was a misunderstanding as to who would provide the wind gauge. At 11 a.m., when the most eagerly anticipated U.S. decathlon in years was about to begin, the stadium was without a wind gauge, which meant that there could be no world or American record. A gauge was found early that afternoon, although it was too late for O'Brien.

"It's unfortunate they didn't provide a good arena for these guys," said Bruce Jenner, who won the decathlon gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. Indeed, though TAC awarded New York City the meet 18 months ago, workmen stayed barely one step ahead of the decathletes. When the decathletes arrived at the designated long jump runway, it was still being surfaced. They moved to another runway. And the takeoff apron for the high jump was perilously soft, but they used it anyway.

Tracy Sundlun, who as executive director of the Metropolitan Athletics Congress served as codirector of the meet, accepted the blame. But how could TAC officials have allowed preparations to be so lax? Among all U.S. track meets, the trials for the World Championships are second in importance only to the Olympic trials. With the sport suffering in this country because of a decline in participation and poor attendance—the cover billing on the May issue of Track & Field News asked, WHAT IF THEY GAVE A TRACK MEET AND NOBODY CAME?—it is incomprehensible that TAC officials didn't do whatever was necessary to get the facility ready in time. Organization, obviously, is the last bastion of amateurism in U.S. track and field. Neither TAC president Frank Greenberg nor Ollan Cassell, TAC's executive director, had inspected the facility before the start of the meet.

Somehow, the confusion did not seem to affect O'Brien's concentration. That first day he also long jumped 26'1½", put the shot 52'8¼", cleared 6'9¾" in the high jump despite a lengthy rain delay and ran 47.70 for the 400. O'Brien's first-day total was 4,747 points, making him the first person to break 4,700 on one day and putting him a staggering 478 points ahead of defending champion Dave Johnson, who was in second place.

This was remarkable progress for someone who, just four years ago, seemed to be going nowhere. "I didn't really do things I could go to jail for," said O'Brien, casting about for examples of his misspent youth in Klamath Falls, Ore. "I did get five F's one semester [in college]."

The decathlon structured his life. "If I don't do something all day," he says, "I'm going to mess around."

His discipline was never as apparent as in Thursday's pole vault, which has been O'Brien's downfall in past meets. At last year's TAC meet in Norwalk, Calif., he barely cleared 14'1¼", doing so with all the grace of a drunken sailor falling out of bed. Last week, despite the swirling winds, O'Brien cleared personal bests three times, topped by 16'8¾", best in the competition.

To surpass—even unofficially—Thompson's world record total of 8,847 points, O'Brien needed only to run the final event, the 1,500, in 4:44.94. That is more than a second slower than he ran at last year's championships. But the pace lagged in the third lap, and O'Brien all but walked across the line to finish in 4:45.54. His score of 8,844 was 377 points more than runner-up Johnson's, and it would have easily broken Jenner's American record of 8,634. "It's a mental thing with him," said Mike Keller, O'Brien's coach, referring to his charge's 1,500 performance. "He's a sprinter." Yes, but at 6'2", 180 pounds, O'Brien is not nearly as heavily muscled on top as either Johnson or Thompson. O'Brien is lean enough to inspire hope that he'll one day run a respectable 1,500.

"He's pretty raw in most things he does," said Thompson. "I see him as a 9,500 man. He could be anything he wants to be. That's the great thing about youth."

Jackie Joyner-Kersee was an easy winner in both the heptathlon (6,878 points) and the long jump (22'8"), in spite of a nagging groin injury. The hazardous conditions did nothing to put her husband and coach, Bob, in a good mood. "TAC has got the athletes handcuffed," he said. "If it weren't for the World Championships, most of the athletes would have seen this, turned around and gone home."

The athletes clearly were ready. This was without doubt the best U.S. track meet since the '88 Olympic trials. On Friday, Greg Foster, 32, winner of the last two World Championships, defeated his old nemesis, Renaldo Nehemiah, 32, in the 110 hurdles, in 13.31. Then, during a three-hour span on Saturday afternoon, seven athletes turned in world-leading marks for 1991, including Danny Harris (47.62) and Kim Batten (54.18) in the 400 hurdles; Antonio Pettigrew (44.36) and Lillie Leatherwood (49.66, fastest by a U.S. woman in nearly six years) in the 400s; Mark Everett (1:44.28) in the 800; and Mark Croghan (8:21.64) in the 3,000 steeplechase.

Still, it was Lewis, 10 years after winning his first national title, who gave the crowd its biggest thrill on Saturday. He had won 64 straight long jump competitions, dating back to 1981, when Larry Myricks defeated him at the national indoor championships. Lewis's '88 Olympic teammate Mike Powell had come close to ending the streak last summer, falling 1½" short at the Goodwill Games.

Lewis's first jump on Saturday was a ho-hum 27'2½". Powell, who followed him in the jumping order, sprinted down the runway, hit the board and broke the sand 28'1¼" away. Lewis was going to have to work.

And he did, leaping 28'2¼" on his second try. Powell, however, didn't let Lewis savor the lead. He came right back with a jump of 28'3¾". Lewis jumped 28'2¾" and 28'¼" on his third and fifth attempts, respectively.

Before his last attempt, Lewis pulled his socks up and stood at the top of the runway with his head bowed. The crowd made no sound. He ran his right hand over his hair. Then he ran. When he landed, Lewis raised his hands to the crowd. It would be close. The mark showed up: 8.64 meters. He had edged Powell by one centimeter, the narrowest measurement the sport recognizes. That translates to 28'4¼". Lewis stood in the middle of the runway, lifted both palms wide and then fell backward. The fans loved it.

But they seemed to love Powell—or at least his role as scrappy underdog—even more. They clapped rhythmically, sending him down the runway on his final jump. He landed and looked and knew he had not gone far enough: 27'11½". Powell pounded the ground and held his head in his hands. "Like a cat, I have nine lives," said Lewis. "But I think I've used eight of them up."

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBurrell was a blur as he drew away from Lewis (3) to eclipse the latter's record in the 100. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNO'Brien's javelin and pole vault were good enough, but meet officials assuredly weren't.
PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER[See caption above.] PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNFoster extended himself and then some in outrunning the field in his 110-hurdles specialty. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERLewis kept his long jump streak alive with this dramatic final leap.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)