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The Great Race

Sept. 02, 1991
Sept. 02, 1991

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Sept. 2, 1991

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The Great Race

Carl Lewis shattered the world record in the best 100-meter dash ever run

It had once actually seemed a race devoid of drama. Sure, the 100-meter final on the first weekend of the World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo would bring together the two fastest legal sprinters in history, but because Leroy Burrell (9.90) and Carl Lewis (9.92) are friends who share a coach and whose mothers were sitting together at National Stadium, this could not be a race for blood or revenge or redemption. "Our relationship has grown stronger since I began beating Carl last year," said Burrell. "We're the same kind of people. Our friendship will transcend track."

This is an article from the Sept. 2, 1991 issue Original Layout

Indeed, all Lewis and Burrell appeared to talk about were "personal goals" and the "challenging standards" the other set. "I see Leroy's talent every day," said Lewis. "It makes me humble. It makes me realize I have to run my own race." Burrell sang the same song.

What was more, Lewis's great antagonist of Seoul and Rome wasn't in the race. Instead, he was watching from the stands. Ben Johnson, whose world-record 9.83 in these championships in 1987 was thrown out after his '88 Olympic bust for steroids, made only the Canadian 4x100 relay squad.

The Tokyo 100, then, promised simply to be a formal passing of the torch. Lewis is 30 and has been at the top of international sprinting for a full decade, twice a normal career. His start, never strong, was weakening. It was time, he heard people say, for him to give up the 100 for the 200, in which the start is less vital.

One of those people was not his coach. "Carl's the best," said University of Houston coach Tom Tellez, who also headed the U.S. men's team in Tokyo. "He's been there. He's done it all. Leroy has run fast, but he-hasn't done what Carl has done, and you can see from the way Lewis was gaining at the end of Burrell's world-record race at the TAC nationals in June that Carl's still got speed."

"My start has been inconsistent this year," said Lewis, "in part because I know Leroy's is so good. I just have to run my own...."

Tellez's ravings about Lewis couldn't have calmed Burrell's nerves, but these are relationships built on brutal honesty. "Pressure?" said Burrell. "I've tried rather desperately to look at this like I have all the other meets I've won this year. It will be the same old people on the track."

There was a flaw in this thinking, because last Saturday, on the meet's first day of competition, as the flame atop the stadium rose orange against a moist, gray sky, it was a transformed Lewis who presented himself for his quarterfinal race. In the last 20 meters he gained nearly two meters on Great Britain's Linford Christie. Then, braking, he gave a meter back and still won in a wind-aided 9.80, the third-fastest 100 meters ever run under any conditions.

"Maybe the track has something special," Lewis said of the new polyurethane surface put down for the world meet. Then he watched as Burrell, left sitting at the start of his heat, recovered, lunging and overstriding, to win in a legal 10.11. Lewis's expression was a delicate mixture of exultation for himself and concern for Burrell's vulnerability.

On Saturday evening Lewis and Burrell talked. "Carl pushed me some," Burrell said. "I had been really anxious and didn't relax. He helped me to reconstruct myself."

It helped, too, that Burrell's father, Leroy Brown, who had undergone open-heart surgery earlier in the week in suburban Philadelphia, was released from the intensive care unit in Bryn Mawr Hospital on Saturday. "Once I heard his voice on the phone, my spirits began to rise," said Burrell.

The 100 semifinals on Sunday afternoon showed that a great event was building. In the first, Lewis lost ground to two faster starters, Bruny Surin of Canada and Frank Fredericks of Namibia and BYU, but he reached the front with 20 meters to go, displayed startling lift, and won in 9.93. "After that, I knew there would be a world record," he said.

What he didn't know was who the winner would be. In his semi, Burrell strained visibly near the finish, but won in 9.94, ahead of the 9.99's of teammate Dennis Mitchell and Christie. The final, two hours away, now promised the perfect Lewis-Burrell match.

The Emperor and Empress of Japan arrived at the stadium, perhaps sensing glory. A huge, portentous full moon rose beside the roiling flame. Tellez took Lewis aside and made no effort to keep the anger out of his voice. "You ran your best race in the semis in the L.A. Olympics," he said. "You ran your best race in the Rome World Championships in the semis. You ran your best race in the Seoul Olympics in the semis." Lewis saw his career flying before his eyes. "I will not," said Tellez, "have you run your best race in the damn semis here."

Chastened, Lewis went to the start. He was in Lane 5, with Mitchell to his right in Lane 6. To Lewis's left was Christie, separating him from Burrell, who was in Lane 3. Then, for Lewis, there did come a hunger for what had been denied him.

"I thought, the last time [in the Seoul Olympics 100], drugs beat me," he said later. "This time if someone beats me, he beats me fairly. But this time I'm going to focus on my own lane, run my own...."

Lewis was the more solemn in the blocks. At the gun Mitchell was the fastest out of them. "A step and a half out, I stumbled a little," recalled Mitchell. "That made me wake up. I gathered myself and went through the early phases of my race faster than I ever have." He looked only at the bare track ahead. He would be aware of no other runner until the race was over.

Although Burrell lurched to the right of his lane, he felt himself accelerating as well as he had in his world-record race on June 14 at the national championships in New York City. At 15 meters Burrell, Mitchell, Ray Stewart of Jamaica and Christie were clear of Lewis. Almost abreast, they stayed ahead of him.

"I had a good start," said Lewis. "The others had incredible starts. I'll bet four people broke the world record for 50 meters. I felt great at 60, and I still was about fifth."

The fact that he knew this meant he wasn't perfectly intent on his own lane, but it wouldn't be Lewis not to be aware. "At 60, I said to myself, I have a shot," he would recall. "At 80, I said, I have a great shot."

By then Burrell had a clear lead, but he had expended most of his reserve to get it. He thought he had the race under control, but he couldn't be sure because he is legally blind in his right eye and Lewis was two lanes to his right. When Burrell thought of how Lewis would come on, he thought of Lewis's knees.

"They come so high," said Burrell. "I can't do that. He takes a deep breath, relaxes his jaw, lifts those knees and carries his speed home. I get to a certain point, and after that it's hope and pray."

He was at that point. But only 10 meters were left. And Lewis's knees were high and handsome. "At 90, I had cleared everyone but Leroy," said Lewis.

He was running with a light, driving precision. His open hands were flat as knife blades, each coming exactly to eyebrow level. With 10 meters to go, he showed a vexed expression. He still couldn't tell who would win this thing.

Burrell sensed Lewis now. "I should have relaxed at the end," said Burrell. Instead he tried to lean, but he was beyond controlling his torso. The move broke what traces were left of his form.

At 95 meters, Lewis was by. "He passed us like we were standing still," said Burrell, with some pride in the once and present king.

Lewis looked left at the finish line and only then knew that Burrell was behind him. He ran on rejoicing, first in simple victory, savoring being world champion once more. However, within two steps he looked for the time, saw it, saw that it was a world-record 9.86, saw that the wind was a legal 1.2 meters per second, safely below the 2.0 mps limit. Then the great rush came, the tears and the need to embrace Burrell and Mitchell, the spearing wish that his father, who died in 1987, had been there to see the feat.

Lewis had participated in five relay world records. He had crossed the Seoul finish line second, behind Johnson, and his time of 9.92 had been the world standard for nearly two years after Johnson was stripped of his record. Now, for the first time in his life, after going undefeated for more than a decade in the long jump, after winning six Olympic gold medals, Lewis had at last set an untainted, unshared world record.

"The best race of my life," he said over and over. "The best technique, the fastest. And I did it at 30."

Lewis, the most theatrically expressive of performers, had contrived to summon his climactic performance just when it seemed he could astound us no more. His reaction was unguarded, free of calculation, choked with feeling. "The emotions at the [finish] line are hard to explain," he said. "You can't achieve a night like this without so many people caring about you, and you them. There was my club, my coaches, then our families, Leroy's and mine, the training, the standard Leroy set. If he hadn't run his 9.90 in June at the nationals, we wouldn't be here talking about any 9.86. I had to rise to that standard. I had to run the best race of my life to beat him, and it was close. I'm proud of all of us who ran the greatest 100 in history."

No other race comes close. Burrell also broke his old record by finishing second in 9.88. "My goal was the record," he said. "And I got it. Somebody just broke it a little ahead of me. Who better to lose the record to than a friend you know you can race again."

Mitchell regained his peripheral vision at the finish and saw he was third in 9.91. Those three men, all raised near each other in the Delaware Valley, are now the three fastest in history. The 31-year-old Christie was fourth in a British, European and Commonwealth record of 9.92. He walked away stunned, saying, "Maybe I am getting too old for this."

Fredericks, in fifth, ran an African record of 9.95. Stewart, who finished sixth, set a Jamaican mark with a 9.96. "Imagine," said Burrell. "A legal 9.96 for sixth."

Such depth of brilliance made some observers search for strange properties in the new Tokyo surface, but Lewis and Burrell recoiled at such talk. "Fast men make fast tracks," said Burrell.

"It was not the shoes, not the track," said Lewis. "It was the legs."

"Just think," said Mitchell greedily, after the three guys from the Philadelphia suburbs had danced on the victory stand, "what a relay we can run."

They will get their chance, joined by Andre Cason, in the 4x100 on Sept. 1. "Cason is primed to lead off," said Mitchell. "And you know Leroy is going to get me the stick quick. I'm going to run a third leg that's going to be unbelievable. And then we'll all stand around and watch Carl. And the clock."

"First, I have a long jump to get ready for," said Lewis. "This was a great victory, but in a few hours it will be over. Leroy has the 200 to prepare for. We don't want to celebrate too long and lose our focus. We want to be able to..."

Go ahead, let him say it.

"...run our own races."

PHOTOBILLY STICKLAND/ALLSPORTLewis (1136) blew right past (from left) Mitchell, Christie and Burrell.PHOTOGRAY MORTIMORE/ALLSPORTLewis (third from left) had a good start, but some of the others' were "incredible."PHOTOBOB MARTIN/ALLSPORTJohnson (left) was in the stands on the day Lewis (opposite, third from bottom) broke the record.PHOTOYANN GUICHAOUA/VANDYSTADT/ALLSPORT[See caption above.]PHOTOSTEVE POWELL/ALLSPORTAfter he stepped across the finish line, Lewis felt a wave of emotion.PHOTOBOB MARTIN/ALLSPORT[See caption above.]