Ode to Joy

Carl Lewis exulted along with all of Barcelona's gold medalist, many of whom vanquished giants to win their events
August 16, 1992

At the end Carl Lewis was back where he always wanted to be. When Dennis Mitchell popped the stick into Lewis's hand with a one-meter lead in the 4 x 100-meter relay, Lewis took five fast steps, looked up the track and screamed out, "Yes!" and then "Yes!" again at the sheer blast of being right where he burns most brightly, right where we had worried he would never be again, anchoring the U.S. team in an Olympic sprint-relay final.

And this was no cameo. Lewis lifted into his great fluid top speed, extended the U.S.'s lead to seven meters over Nigeria and crossed the line in 37.40, taking a 10th of a second from the world record that three of these same four men, Leroy Burrell, Mitchell and Lewis—Mike Marsh was a newcomer—-had helped set in last year's world championships, in Tokyo. This is the sixth time in nine years that Lewis has anchored a U.S. 4 x 100-meter team to a world record. His closing, running-start 100 was timed in 8.8, which means that Lewis, at 31, may well have screamed down the Barcelona track faster than he, or anyone else, had ever run.

"Life is about timing," said Lewis, and he didn't mean the electric eye. Suffering from a sinus infection that spread to his thyroid, liver and kidneys, Lewis finished sixth in the 100 at the U.S. trials and so qualified for the relay only as an alternate. Even after 10 days of antibiotics reversed his decline and he beat Burrell and Mark Witherspoon in a 100 in Italy, he didn't ask U.S coach Mel Rosen to put him in his old slot in the relay because that could have bumped one of his teammates. "They can win without me," he said.

But in the 100 semifinals in Barcelona, Witherspoon went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon. So Lewis was called, and tie was ready. "We dedicated the race to Mark," he said. "Lord, I'm thankful right now. This was my best Olympics."

Oh, yeah, he had also won the long lump. Lewis called himself lucky—he reached 28'5½" on his first jump, then sweated out a last try by world-record holder Mike Powell that fell just 1¼" short of catching him. The two titans, never close but always respectful, shared a brief hug, during which Powell went a good way toward describing the whole Olympic track meet. "This is some hard——, man," he said. Lewis threw his head back and shouted agreement.

In Barcelona, it seemed, the more prohibitively you were favored, the more surely some obstacle—some untimely bug, vexing wind, parting tendon, over-zealous official or hot, spattering drug charges—would rise up and slap you down or make you miserable. The U.S.'s lock in the 200, Michael Johnson, was weakened by food poisoning and didn't make the final. Ukraine's Sergei Bubka pulled a Dan O'Brien and no-heighted in the pole vault. Algeria's Noureddine Morceli fell victim to a Kenyan tactical trap and finished seventh in the men's 1,500.

Remarkably, only three of the 39 1991 individual world champions won in Barcelona. All were women: Marie-Josè Pèrec of France in the 400, Heike Henkel of Germany in the high jump and Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria in the 1,500.

All things good and terrible seemed equally possible, even within a single race. Ten meters ahead of the field in the 400-meter hurdles final, his face all liberation and light, Kevin Young stretched out toward the last barrier. That hurdle of aluminum tubing and enameled ash, three feet high, was all that stood between Young and history, fortune and a lifetime of being able to wake up in the middle of the night and thrash around yipping over how deliciously it had all worked out. He had run his race so perfectly that each barrier had appeared exactly where he wanted it. He never had to chop or even adjust his steps, just flow over and on, over and on. Now, in the stretch, the crowd was roaring not at some threat, but out of awe. Young knew he was going to win and was going to be near Edwin Moses's world record.

Then his heel struck the top of the last hurdle, hard, and drove the barrier down. Young thought of nothing but balance. Others, their hearts stopping, thought of how close he was, finally, to confirmation. In 1985, when the spidery, 6'4" Young, fresh out of Watts, was a UCLA freshman trying to break 51 seconds, he met assistant coach John Smith. "We saw a little spark in each other's eyes," Young says now. Spark was good, but Smith also saw a stride so long that at full speed Young needed to take only 12 steps between intermediate hurdles, something Moses had experimented with but had never done in races. Smith told Young he could be the world's greatest 400-meter hurdler.

For a while Young was on course, winning two NCAA 400-meter hurdles titles and placing fourth in Seoul. Moses's world record, set in 1983, was 47.02. Moses himself felt that if Young ever smoothed his race out, his record would be in jeopardy.

But for four years Young was unable to improve on his best of 47.72, while others ran faster. Young's problem was his gift, those 12 steps. He had to generate such speed to take them that he often had little control of his races and tired late. Finally he began to run with a finesse appropriate to his character, for he is a graceful man. He reached Barcelona doing workouts that promised a breakthrough, but it hadn't come yet.

In the Olympic Village, Young roomed with 400-meter runner Quincy Watts, who is also coached by Smith (and by Smith's former coach, the grand master at developing 400-meter men, USC's Jim Bush). Watts wrote his goal on the wall: 43 LOW. Since Butch Reynolds's 400-meter record is 43.29, Watts wasn't absolutely requiring himself to break a world record. But Young was. On the same wall he wrote: 46.89.

That seemed a little much. Moses had burned his 47.02 at his physical peak, in a race in Koblenz, Germany, that had not been preceded by any strength-sapping preliminaries. In Barcelona, Young had run 48.76 in his heat and a personal-best 47.63 in his semi.

But in the final Young indeed executed his revelation of a race, running 12 steps only between the third and fifth hurdles and effortlessly changing to 13 for all the rest. And then he hit that last hurdle.

As it fell, he came over it with momentum intact, and broke into a smile. He drove on, raising an arm in victory with six meters to go. He had never done that before. But he had never run such a race. No one had. Young's time was 46.78, breaking Moses's record by .24 of a second.

Forty-seven seconds had stood for nine years as a great natural barrier, like the 20-foot pole vault, the eight-foot high jump. "I'll always have my little niche in history now," Young said later. "I'll always be the first man who broke 47. And it was easy out there."

He was one of the very few who said anything like that. But another was his sweet-smiling roommate, Watts, who had placed only third in the U.S. trials but flew to a 43.71 in his semi, erasing Lee Evans's 24-year-old Olympic record of 43.86. He did this even though he floated in over the last 10 meters. Lord, what might he do in the final? Lord, who was this guy?

Watts spent his first 13 years with his mother in Detroit, wearing out his welcome. "I wasn't the kind of kid who got involved with drugs," he said. "I was just mischievous, the class clown. I had to leave Catholic school in Detroit because of, well, because of a lot of little things that kind of added up."

Watts's mother shipped him to his father in Los Angeles, who marched him right into age-group sports, where he met the aforementioned John Smith. "At 14, he ran 48.6," said Smith, who could only smile at his talent. "He won the state high school 200 in 20.97 before he was 16."

But he hated the 400. At USC, Watts just wanted to sprint the 100 and 200, but he kept pulling his hamstrings because his quadriceps were overdeveloped from playing basketball. When Bush said this might be solved by going to the quarter, Watts gagged. "In the 100 or 200 you never really experience the bear on your back that you do in the 400," said Watts. Just the thought of it sent him off for a redshirt season with the USC football team. Ruminating on life while holding a tackling dummy for linebackers sent him back to Bush ready to absorb crucial lessons of flow and form. He has been a confirmed 400-meter man only since March 1991. "He will be," Bush says, "the best who ever lived."

In Barcelona, Watts seemed the image of blithe youth, unaffected by dangers all around. U.S. trials champion Danny Everett's weak right Achilles tendon would not carry him through Watts's semi. In the other semi, won by Seoul champion Steve Lewis, Britain's Derek Redmond went down on the backstretch with a torn right hamstring. As the medical attendants were approaching, Redmond fought to his feet. "It was animal instinct," he would say later. He set out hopping, in a crazed attempt to finish the race. When he reached the stretch, a large man in a T-shirt came out of the stands, hurled aside a security guard and ran to Redmond, embracing him. This was Jim Redmond, Derek's father. "You don't have to do this," he told his weeping son.

"Yes, I do," said Derek.

"Well, then," said Jim, "we're going to finish this together."

And so they did. Fighting off security men, the son's head sometimes buried in his father's shoulder, they stayed in Derek's lane to the end, as the crowd gaped, then rose and howled and wept. "What was Dad thinking?" said Redmond the next day, mortified. "What was I thinking?" Later he would be buried in an avalanche of messages from those moved by his Olympian dementia.

In the final Watts kept an eye on Steve Lewis, three lanes outside, and moved so hard going into the second turn that he reached the stretch with a five-meter lead. He tried so hard that he clearly tightened, but he kept his lead and won in 43.50, another Olympic record, the second-fastest 400 ever run. Lewis was second, in 44.21. "The more you run this race," Watts said, "the easier it gets."

There seems an aspect of ease, of Zen bliss, to the smooth, round face of men's 200-meter champion Mike Marsh. He, too, broke the Olympic record in a semi, easing over the finish line to find he had dashed an unexpected 19.73, only .01 from Pietro Mennea's world record. Had he not floated in, Marsh clearly would have run 19.65 or better, so his hopes for the final were considerable. It was interesting how he dealt with them. "I thought I could run faster," he said, "but I knew I couldn't press. When you run fast, it feels easy. So I kept telling myself to relax."

Settling into the blocks for the final, Marsh looked as relaxed as a cat on a couch. But at the gun he didn't move with feline alacrity. "I practically walked out of the blocks," said Marsh. "I thought, Well, this isn't working." He caught Frank Fredericks of Namibia by the time they reached the stretch and sprinted powerfully past to win in 20.01, a time the greedy crowd greeted with disappointment. But few are better equipped than Marsh to deal with the delicate mixture of emotions that follows a victory in which you haven't done your best. Still contained, he said, "I'm a little regretful, but it's not going to make me lose sleep."

Gwen Torrence appeared in all the other women sprinters' dreams, shaking her finger. Torrence raced with grit and steel, winning the women's 200 in 21.81 from Jamaica's Juliet Cuthbert. Torrence also ran a blazing leg on the U.S. 4 x 400-meter relay team, which finished second to the Unified Team, and anchored the U.S. 4 x 100-meter relay to gold in 42.11, taking great pleasure in passing the Unified Team's Irina Privalova in doing so. Privalova was one of the opponents who Torrence believed had used performance-enhancing drugs. She had told Cuthbert, an old friend, that she suspected both Privalova and 100-meter champion Gail Devers. When Cuthbert repeated that for the press, all hell broke loose.

It was no good for Torrence to say, "It's not an accusation, it's just an opinion," because those named felt as if they'd been hit with hot bacon grease. Devers's coach, Bob Kersee, worked his way furiously up the ladder of officialdom, TAC to USOC to IAAF, demanding an investigation or a reprimand of Torrence. He got the latter. Torrence released a statement saying she regretted her actions. Still, it all seemed unnecessary, as Torrence ignored the lesson Carl Lewis had learned as long ago as the 1987 world championships, when he suspected Ben Johnson: Without hard evidence, it does no good to opine.

Devers left her defense to Kersee and went to the 100-meter hurdles. In the final she found herself flying at the final barrier in control of the race, about to complete the women's sprint-hurdles double for the first time since Fanny Blankers-Koen in 1948.

But Devers, finding it hard to force her all-out sprint stride to change to a controlled hurdle stride, caught the last hurdle with her leading right toe, couldn't shake clear of it and toppled forward, staggering, falling, driving toward the line in the embodiment of every runner's nightmare: falling while the field shot by. She crossed the line in a posture reminiscent of Pete Rose diving for the bag and placed fifth, her sure gold suddenly transformed into an abrasion on her left shoulder. She came to her feet and seemed to accept this blow in an instant.

"It just wasn't meant to be," she said. "Obviously."

Fate clearly was smoothing the way for Greece's Paraskevi Patoulidou, who swept past the falling Devers to win in 12.64, just ahead of LaVonna Martin's 12.69. Greece had never even had a female Olympic track and field finalist before, and its last track medal was in 1896. Patoulidou ran, weeping, back past the stands, searching, calling for Dimitris. Later she was asked who Dimitris was. "My husband," she said, holding her flag to her lips like a religious relic.

"Did you ever find him?" she was asked.

"No," she said. "I think he is somewhere alone, and he is crying."

Long jumper Heike Drechsler of Germany looked as if she would cry all night while struggling with the wind. But she held off until she had finally won, with a leap of 23'5¼" to the 23'4½" of the Unified Team's Inessa Kravets. But Drechsler had a pal on the field. Jackie Joyner-Kersee took the bronze medal with 23'2½", then went to Drechsler, whom she had beaten several times before in major competitions, and said how genuinely thrilled she was for her.

There was little diplomacy in the men's distances. After Morocco's Khalid Skah won the 10,000 from Kenya's Richard Chelimo, he was disqualified because his stupendously strange lapped teammate, Hammou Boutayeb, had assisted Skah by talking with him during the race and impeding Chelimo's progress. Skah appealed, saying, in essence, that he himself had been yelling at that piece of camel's dung Boutayeb to get the hell out of the way. To Kenyan fury, Skah was reinstated the next day. The 10,000 award ceremony was the meet's most thunderous, 65,000 Catalans and others being unconvinced of Skah's innocence. The Kenyans then closed ranks, William Tanui and Nixon Kiprotich taking one-two in the 800 ahead of the U.S.'s Johnny Gray.

"After us, more will come," intoned Tanui, and indeed they did, as Mathew Birir, Patrick Sang and William Mutwol swept the 3,000-meter steeplechase. And then the Kenyans executed a cunning plot in the 1,500.

Joseph Chesire sprinted to the lead, then eased gradually back on the pace. No one passed him. For the first 800 the best male milers in the world ran slower than the women had in their 1,500. The race was now going to go not to the best miler, but to the best sprinter. All this time Kenya's David Kibet stationed himself outside the shoulder of the favorite, Noureddine Morceli of Algeria, boxing him in. When the field at last started to kick on the last backstretch, Kibet sacrificed his own chance to win and held Morceli inside. Morceli backed out and went four lanes wide, but it was too late. People you never heard of, fresh as daisies, were tearing way ahead.

But the Kenyan tactic had hurt Kenyans as much as it did Morceli. This left an opening for Spain's Fermín Cacho, who came up on the inside and won in 3:40.12. The first Kenyan, Chesire, was fourth, a fitting reward for making an Olympic final seem to settle not a single thing.

The women's 1,500 put the men's to shame, as Algeria's Hassiba Boulmerka followed the searing pace of Lyudmila Rogachova of the Unified Team and kicked past her gloriously over the last 200 to win in 3:55.30, almost five seconds faster than she had ever run and the fifth-fastest time in history. The women's 10,000, too, was absorbing, as South Africa's Elana Meyer, her freshly reinstated nation's best hope for gold, ran free of all but Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu and then turned and appealed to her to share the pace. Tulu gently declined, waited to the last lap and flew away to win effortlessly.

Effort was etched on the face of Dave Johnson, who endured a painful decathlon, made possible by a stroke of good luck early in the competition. On his third shot put attempt, after two fouls, Johnson's foot slid against the toe board, and the event judge called a third foul, ending all hope of a medal. But he was wrong. To foul, Johnson had to touch the top of the board. He had not. A field referee gave Johnson a fourth throw. To whistles, he put 50'1¾", his best, and stayed alive. Only to die a lingering death. While Czechoslovakia's Robert Zmelík was building an insurmountable lead with a 13.95 in the 110-meter hurdles, Johnson limped in at 14.76 and revealed that for three weeks he'd had a stress fracture of the navicular bone in his right ankle. His doctors had said there was a 20% chance the bone would snap cleanly in two when he hurdled on it. It hadn't. "But it felt like running on a bloody stump," said Dave.

When it was all over, Zmelík—It's Robert!—had won, with 8,611 points to Spain's Antonio Pe‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±alver's 8,412. Johnson finished in third, with 8,309 points.

But Sergei Bubka, the Olympic champion, the breaker of 30 pole vault world records, stood on no stand at all. He opened at 18'8½" and twice was stymied by the wind on the runway. "Every meter the wind seemed to change back and forth," he said. When he stood and waited for it to calm or get behind him, it seemed to him that the two-minute clock raced faster than he had ever seen it. Rushed, he passed his last try at his opening height, and the bar went up to 18'10½".

He had decided, if he wasn't to reach top speed on the runway, to go to a less stiff pole. So, inevitably, on his one remaining attempt, the wind pushed him powerfully, the pole bent too much and he hit the bar on the way up.

"I'm not a machine," he said rather mechanically. "I'm human, and now we will see who's a friend and who is not."

But even as Bubka prepared us to depart from the Barcelona Olympics convinced of the evanescence of all things, a wonderful quartet of American 400-meter men put aside all their differences and ended things with a grand rush. Andrew Valmon led off and made what followed possible with a smooth 44.6. He handed off to Watts, who was running second in order to break the race open. But Valmon had already left the field behind. So Watts ran majestically to a huge lead with a 43.1, the fastest 400 leg ever run.

He gave the stick to Michael Johnson. A good many of the 400 men had opposed the inclusion of Johnson, because even though his ability is unquestioned, he hadn't run the 400 in the U.S. trials. But when he struggled in the 200, and when Everett, a prime critic, was injured, opinions changed. "The guys encouraged me to run," said Johnson. "This was the greatest fun I ever had." Even a subpar Johnson is a superb 400 man. He ran 44.7 and handed off to Steve Lewis, who flew as he had not done in four years.

"I didn't think record until the last curve," he said. "I saw the scoreboard screen with us way out there, and I thought, Oh boy, oh boy...."

Lewis blazed his leg in 43.3, hit the line in 2:55.74, and the oldest world record—set by the U.S. firm of Matthews, Freeman, James and Evans in 1968, and tied in 1988—was broken. "Isn't this good?" gasped Lewis as he was mobbed by the guys, all at last brought together by Olympian necessity. "Isn't this good?"

PHOTOBILL FRAKESLewis seized his moment, anchoring his sixth world-record-setting 4 x 100 relay team. ILLUSTRATION PHOTOJOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASHINGTON POSTLewis's first leap landed his third straight gold in the long jump. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERPowell (left) soared but had to settle for silver; Young (right) hit his stride, and his final hurdle, en route to smashing the 47-second barrier. PHOTORICHARD MACKSON[See caption above.] PHOTOGRAY MORTIMORE/ALLSPORTWith help from his father, Redmond made it to the finish of his 400-meter semifinal. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONMarsh (right) was too relaxed at the start but shifted into overdrive to win the men's 200... PHOTOBILL FRAKES...while in the women's 200, Torrence's win was a relief after a tense week of controversy. PHOTOMIKE POWELL/ALLSPORTDevers's late stumble in the hurdles cost her a historic double. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERDrechsler (above) won the women's long jump, finally defeating her friend Joyner-Kersee (left). PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL FRAKESAlgeria's Boulmerka (right) was all pumped over her win in the 1,500, but Skah (1214) couldn't exult about his 10,000 win over Chelimo (1110). PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL FRAKESA Kenyan steeplechase sweep (left to right): Sang (silver), Birir (gold), Mutwol (bronze). PHOTOPETER READ MILLERBar none, Germany's Henkel (left) was tops in the high jump while Canada's Mark McKoy (far right) proved to be the real thing in the 110 hurdles. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWho would have envisioned Bubka failing to clear a height in the pole vault? PHOTOJOHN IACONOSteve Lewis (left) anchored the world record 4 x 400 relay, then hoisted his gold with teammates (from left) Johnson, Valmon and Watts. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.]