The greatest conquest begins to wither the moment it is achieved. So as a quiet reminder, Olympic medalists are presented with something green and freshly cut. The significance of the moment may last, but its steaming paella of sensations—its juice and hoarse joy—will cool and fade.
Yet notice: Barcelona Olympians tickled and batted each other not with delicate rosebuds but with bunches of tough Mediterranean herbs, which can flavor a stew long into winter. So in this season of reminiscence, if we grind a sprig of Barcelona's laurels in the palm, we find the sharp aromas of bay leaf and sage suddenly evoking the heal and vapors of Olympic Stadium atop Montju‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤c. And memory being so hopelessly bound up with emotion, the flooding images resolve into those of a single day, the most compelling day of the Summer Olympics—and of the year. Indeed, to have witnessed the track and field events contested on Aug. 8, 1992, was surely to have partaken of one of the most memorable experiences in sporting history.
That evening's four relays, three individual races and two field events combined to drive the emotions of the crowd of 65,000 in ways so connected and operatic that the events seemed not randomly scheduled but willed. Each worked out its own matters of redemption and justice and human limits and then took its place in a larger narrative, race by race, meaning by meaning. Victors struck ecstatic blows for wonderful causes. A nation and a king poured down their passion upon a native son as he seized the moment of his life. A great champion screamed in agreement with his own world-record resurrection.
And then this day topped even that, in a way that left the throng dumbstruck and blinking. Many who were there just sat and trembled and refused to leave. Who was eager to trudge back down the mountain to life as it would now be, forever flat? And who among us, inhaling the scent of faded laurels, can resist one more look back?
December 28, 1992
Each modern Olympic track crowd has had its own character. Munich's was rather self-satisfied. Moscow's was boorish, and Los Angeles's so unschooled in the sport that it booed Carl Lewis for passing up his last four long jumps after he had the event won, had no chance for a record and was saving himself for the 200. Seoul's throng was made melodic by the inclusion of thousands of schoolchildren, but it watched as if it were at an unfamiliar ballet, delighted by the swirl of trained motion yet untouched on deeper levels.
It took Barcelona to fill an Olympic stadium with a crowd prepared to grasp what it was seeing and give it full, appropriate voice. The crowd was composed largely of working-class Catalans, emotive and still politically supersensitive after waiting out four decades of Francoist oppression. Marching up Montju‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤c, many of the spectators reached to touch an inscription on a bronze statue of an athlete holding up a torch. It read, in part, "...que va morir per defensar la justica social, la fraternitat i la tolerancia."
Once inside, the gathering found that the steep-sided Olympic Stadium created an echo chamber that generated great volume but stirred sounds together. Few could make out what the announcers were saying. The crowd was thrown back on its own knowledge of the athletes, which was considerable.
Therefore the throng came alert when Gwen Torrence went out to run anchor for the U.S. 4 X 100-meter relay team. Two days before, she had won the 200-meter dash. "Now I just had two goals," she would say later. "I wanted to get something for Evelyn Ash-ford, who was leading off, who's 35 and whom I've always respected more than I could ever tell her, because we were competitors. And I was determined to walk that Privalova woman down."
It's a fine, fierce sprinter's expression, walking down. It makes a few seconds' overtaking seem the cruel work of hours. Torrence felt that Irina Privalova, the Unified Team's anchor, deserved it. Torrence suspected that Privalova had used performance-enhancing drugs, and she had caused a sensation by saying so after she finished fourth in the 100, won by U.S. teammate Gail Devers over Jamaica's Juliet Cuthbert and Privalova.
"If I'd won the 100, I'd have said the same thing," Torrence insists now. Yet what she actually said at the time was rather muddled and grew more so. "After the race, I thought I'd been sixth, so I said maybe two people ahead of me weren't competing fairly. But I'd actually been fourth, so that seemed to them to narrow it down to the medalists. I went to Juliet and told her, 'I didn't mean you on drugs,' and she said, 'So you must have meant Gail and Irina,' and later she told the press that. But I didn't mean Gail."
And Irina? "I can't document anything," says Torrence, "but for five years I have felt that we have to say what we know as athletes. Everyone knew about Ben Johnson and Katrin Krabbe. It just would have been nice if other athletes had backed me up." Devers's coach, Bob Kersee, was so incensed at Torrence's vague charges that he raged to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which made Torrence apologize. The regret in her statement was strictly pro forma. "I don 'l regret saying what I said," she would later admit, "because I was speaking from my heart."
Anchoring the relay, she would have a chance to sprint from her heart if the baton could be gotten to her. In the 1991 world championships, in Tokyo, the U.S. women dropped the stick when Carlette Guidry tried to pass it to Esther Jones, and Jamaica won. In Barcelona, "Our only worry was the order we were in," recalls Torrence. "At our first relay meeting, our coach, Miss Barbara Jacket, instructed us only that Evelyn would run first."
The second and third legs were given to Jones and Guidry, in reverse order of their Tokyo fumble. Jones is a graceful sprinter but has no early rockets. Ashford hits her top speed late and holds it well. Thus theirs was the pass Torrence thought might misfire.
Ten seconds after the gun, her every fear was justified. "Maybe I stunned Esther," said Ashford. "I was coming so fast I ran right up her butt." Ashford almost passed the slow-starting Jones, and as she did she steadied Jones's left wrist with her own left hand and pressed the baton into Jones's palm. By the time Jones was away, the U.S. was behind Jamaica and the Unified Team.
As Jones delivered the stick cleanly to Guidry, Cuthbert pulled a hamstring and staggered out of her lane. Jamaica was finished. That meant that with 100 meters to run, as Torrence felt Guidry slap the baton into her hand, all she could see, a full two meters ahead", was the green uniform and pale skin of Irina Privalova.
Torrence walked her down. "It was beautiful," said Ashford.
It was close. Torrence caught Privalova with only 20 meters to go and won by about half a meter, giving the U.S. a time of 42.11 to the Unified Team's 42.16. Nigeria nipped France for third, causing Beatrice Utondu, Faith Idehen, Christy Opara-Thompson and Mary Onyali to shriek and grab each other in such hysterical earnestness that they almost tore the stretchy green Lycra from their bodies.
By contrast, the gold medalists were almost subdued. Relief and reprieve figured in their feelings. Torrence took about six lungfuls of righteous satisfaction and, after a victory lap, left to rest for a leg in the 4 X 400 relay. Ashford, having capped 16 years of Olympic sprinting with her fourth gold, said she was tickled to find herself a bellwether for the 31-year-old Carl Lewis: "He said, 'Look what Evelyn is doing at 35. Maybe I still have some running in me.' "
Lewis was being grandly coy. As he stood at the top of the homestretch before the men's 4 X 100 relay, he swung his arms loosely and burst out in a wide, white, voracious grin. Two days before, he had won the Olympic long jump from his 1991 conqueror and the world-record holder, Mike Powell. A week before, he had not been expected to run this relay. Now he was back, and just in time.
Suffering from a sinus infection that slowly spread to his thyroid, liver and kidneys, Lewis had run sixth in the 100 at the U.S. trials in June and so qualified for the relay only as an alternate, behind Dennis Mitchell and Lewis's Santa Monica Track Club teammates Mark With-erspoon, Leroy Burrell and Mike Marsh. (James Jett of West Virginia ran fifth and also qualified as an alternate.) When Lewis regained his health, he reported for relay drills at the U.S. training camp in France, but he did not pressure men's head coach Mel Rosen to move him into the starting four, because that would have bumped Marsh. "I wasn't going to do that to Mike," says Lewis.
Mitchell, a garrulous soul, growled that he felt sure Rosen would find some way to get Lewis on the team. Rosen insisted that the lineup wouldn't be made final until 48 hours before the heats.
The issue became moot in the 100-meter semifinals when Wither-spoon ruptured an Achilles tendon. "Thankfully," says Lewis's coach, Tom Tellez, "Carl was there, with that great, steadying influence."
One who needed a little bracing was Rosen. "With Witherspoon out," he says, "we changed the relay order and put Marsh first; then Burrell, because he doesn't sec well from one eye and is best on the straightaway; and Mitchell third. Carl would anchor."
But Mitchell now wanted to anchor. "I said, 'You're nuts; you always run third,' " says Rosen. "He said he'd won the trials, he deserved to anchor. I said, 'I'm not going to run Carl Lewis third. With Lewis anchoring, those other anchors arc going to be scared out of their wits.' "
The U.S. sprinters won one semifinal in 38.14 and watched Nigeria take the other in a dangerous 38.21. "We ran terribly," says Lewis. "We were concerned about Nigeria's raw speed—especially Dennis. He felt we needed to make up the difference in other ways, like the passes."
Thus on the afternoon of the final, Mitchell appeared before Rosen. "He said he was going to get the team and go over to the practice track early and stretch out their exchange zones," recalls Rosen. The coach paled. The fastest pass is one in which the outgoing sprinter uses almost all the 20-meter zone to build speed, and the incoming runner leans and stretches to get the stick into his hurtling teammate's hand at the last instant. Such passes, leaving no room for error, petrify Rosen. He insisted on putting a safety mark at the midpoint of each sprinter's zone, where, Rosen said, he would be pleased to see every pass completed. "I never thought about going for any world record," he says now. "The name of the game in the Olympics is to be careful and win." Rosen told Lewis to move back his check mark—the spot that, when hit by Mitchell, would signal Lewis to begin to run—only a couple of feet.
When Rosen reached the practice track, Lewis had more news. "Now Dennis wants to run our warmup handoffs at full speed," he said.
"He's crazy," said Rosen. "Half speed."
"Dennis is hilarious, says Lewis, "if you're on his team. He can be annoying if you're not. He talks crap from the time he hops off the bus to the time he gets the stick."
"I'm annoying on the track," Mitchell agrees. "I work to be annoying. That's what drives me. Carl's internally driven.... We're complete opposites on the track, but we're both professionals and able to put aside the outside stuff once the gun goes off."
When the teams were led into the stadium, someone called to Lewis, "It's windy. Watch the wind."
Shoot, Lewis thought. There goes any chance for a record.
Lewis had convinced himself—in order to be prepared for it—that he would be behind when he received the baton. But at the gun Marsh executed a superb start, and he had a slight lead as he reached Burrell. Their pass was slick, safe and swift.
Lewis watched with transparent joy. "Waiting to anchor, you have time to think, to talk," he said. So his competitors were privy to his thoughts. "Seeing Mike start well and seeing the good exchange, I could feel the energy dying out in the other anchors. I said, "Look at that, the gods are with us today.' It was obvious we were going to win, and that everybody around me didn't appreciate that."
Burrell passed cleanly to Mitchell. "'Watching the guys was unbelievably moving," said Lewis. "I love relays. I love depending on other people and being depended upon." His affection for relays flows from a desire to be a part of a larger effort, to take a great team home.
But to do that, he needed the baton. He accelerated and thrust his left hand back. Mitchell drew near, leading by a meter, and stretched out the stick. ""The baton hit my lingers," says Lewis. "But Dennis hadn't let go of it. He held it there for that dramatic tenth of a second while my fingers wrapped around it and rolled it into my palm. I switched it to my right hand and thought, It's over. It's done."
By then Mitchell was shouting at Lewis to get going, the pack was coming. It wasn't. Great Britain's Olympic 100-meter champion, Lin-ford Christie, had taken off too soon and had to brake and turn to get the stick. Britain dropped to fourth.
"Dennis's yelling snapped me back into focus," says Lewis. He took five fast steps, looked up the track and screamed out "Yes!" and then "Yes!" again as he felt the power within him.
"At 50 meters, my mind was slamming a steel door shut," says Lewis. "We wanted this to be a clinic."
It was exactly that. The crowd had been absorbed in a close race. Now it was jerked to its feet by the sheer Platonic form of a sprinter, the archetype of slashing human speed that is Carl Lewis in full flight.
Lewis extended the U.S. lead over Nigeria from one meter to seven, crossed the finish line, saw the clock stopped at 37.40 and was astounded to realize that his team had taken .10 of a second from the world record set by Andre Cason, Burrell, Mitchell and Lewis in 1991. "Factoring in the wind, this has to equal 37.2," Lewis would say later.
Then Mitchell reached him. "That strange old Mitchell," said Rosen, who would stay in the stands and let the team go to its victorious press conference without him. "He hasn't talked to Carl all week. Now he jumps into his arms."
"Dennis is a good guy at heart," says Lewis. "Believe it or not, the more Dennis and I are together, the fewer problems we have."
As the U.S. sprinters took their victory lap, the crowd was thunderously approving but far from satisfied. The world record had charged the air with possibility, and the crowd's sound was deep and low, the underroar of a great furnace still ascending toward full heat.
Not that Algeria's Hassiba Boulmerka needed any more fire. The 1991 world champion in the women's 1,500 meters was both exalted and deplored in her own country and within her own religion. Her dilemma was stark. The more she won, the more she embodied the untapped potential of Algerian and Islamic women—something Boulmerka dearly wanted to do. Yet the more she won, the more she seemed, to many traditional Muslims, to be a symbol of moral decay. She had been denounced by imams for running with naked legs in stadiums full of men. If she continued to refuse to submit to traditional Islamic strictures, she would elicit the hostility of radical Muslims.
Her Olympic year began with dislocation when Algeria's army deposed the president and stopped elections in order to keep doctrinaire Muslims out of power. Boulmerka's training suffered. She ran few races. "I had a lot of attention from the media because of the political situation," she said. There were rumors that extremists had threatened to assassinate her if she ran in Barcelona. She hid out at a training camp in Germany and did speed work.
In the 1991 worlds Boulmerka outkicked Lyudmila Rogachova of the Soviet Union to win the 1,500 in 4:02.21. Now, in the Olympic 1,500 final, Rogachova set a brutal, sub-four-minute pace, intending to turn Boulmerka's legs into shashlik by the last lap. Boulmerka hung on in second, but her distress was visible.
Suddenly, swarthy men in the crowd were maniacally waving green flags and singing out encouragement to Boulmerka. Algiers is only 450 miles across the Mediterranean from Barcelona, and Boulmerka might have been a character out of Iberia's Moorish past, a victim of the Inquisition, suffering torture for her beliefs. With 200 meters to run, she rose to her toes like a sprinter and ripped past Rogachova into bedlam.
Boulmerka's carved brows, blazing eyes and formidable teeth combined to create a study in wild abandon. She finished in 3:55.30. Then she became a dervish. Then we saw abandon.
"Algèrie! Algèrie!" she cried, pointing to her country's name on her uniform and pumping her fist in demented celebration. The force of Boulmerka's emotion simply overpowered her fatigue. Considering the social divide she was trying to bridge at home, it was almost reassuring to sec all that fury. She's going to need it.
"One cannot hold back one's emotions easily," she said after she had cooled down a bit. "We want Algeria to win. We want a courageous Algeria. The Algerians will understand this message."
In sending her message, Boulmerka compressed her whole season into one driven race. She would win no more in 1992. But as she took her lap of honor—once covering her streaming eyes with her Hag as if it were a silken green veil—the shouts of the knowing congregation deafened her and wound the nerves of the waiting 1,500-meter men one nauseating notch tighter. Later, Boulmerka's race would seem to have been the moment when the crowd sensed its full power. From then on, this throng would not simply witness and marvel; it would seize and ignite.
But after the hard, clean swiftness of the women's race, it was confounding to see the men begin their 1,500 with slow laps of disorderly jostling. "It looked like one of Spain's national pastimes," Cordner Nelson of Track & Field News would write with asperity. "Milling about."
There was a plot afoot, aimed at world champion Noureddine Morceli, who was the favorite because of his ability to do just what his fellow Algerian Boulmerka had done: kick well off a fast pace. To neutralize him Joseph Chesire of Kenya led at a speed slower than what the women had run, and his Kenyan teammate, David Kibet, stationed himself off Morceli's right elbow, boxing him in. Morceli didn't sense the trap. He patiently waited for an opening.
None came. With a lap to go, eight milers found themselves very fresh and frantically hunting for room to sprint. Kibet stayed where he was, sacrificing his own chance to win in order to keep Morecli locked inside. Spain's Fermín Cacho, for whom the crowd called with yearning but not much hope, was in third but on the rail, scaled there by Chesire and Jens-Peter Herold of Germany. He knew he had to move. He looked distractedly around, seeming on the verge of panic.
Then Chesire, inexplicably and wrongly and astoundingly, edged wide. "It opened," Cacho would say, "like a miracle."
Cacho is not a man to debate whether to accept salvation. Instantly he forced himself inside Chesire and into the lead. The sound from the crowd then was atavistic—a great roar echoing out of an earlier time, a battle rage. Cacho was hurled through the last 100 meters almost as if control of his body had passed to his people and his king. He looked back six times in the homestretch, fearful that his impossible gift might be snatched away, and won by three meters over Rachid El Basir of Morocco and Mohamed Suleiman of Qatar. Cache's face at the line was so wrought with passion that it might have been molded by El Greco.
The man running behind Cacho until just before he made his move was Morceli. Had he waited and followed Cacho through to the stretch, things might have been different. But on the last back-stretch Morceli dropped far back in order to claw his way outside to freedom, and he was never able to threaten. He finished seventh. Now, amid the hysteria for Cacho, the stunned Morceli put his hands to his ears and took refuge in a stadium tunnel.
Morceli is a proud man. Four weeks later, in Rieti, Italy, he would run 1,500 meters in 3:28.86, breaking the seven-year-old world record of Morocco's Sa‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤d Aouita. He was propelled, surely even then, by that unstoppable Olympic cacophony.
Which of course was a sublime serenade to Cacho, who went to the well-guarded box above the homestretch and was embraced by King Juan Carlos and the whole royal family. The king kept asking him how he could keep going in the stretch. "How could I not?" Cacho told him. "It felt easy." His reward, beyond medal and herbs and being forever embossed upon his nation's imagination, will be a $1 million trust fund, which he can start collecting at age 50, when he may have calmed down.
Through the ecstasy and tears for Cacho, almost unnoticed at first, ran the 5,000-meter runners. At 3,000, six men were in contention. Five were Africans. Africans had won every Olympic men's distance race save the 1,500. "It is obvious that there is an African dominance," Germany's Dieter Baumann, the lone European still hanging on in the 5,000, said after the race. "But if you get preoccupied with it, it's harder to beat them."
The 5,000 was part of a burst of track and field's circuslike multiplicity, with Jan Zelezny of Czechoslovakia launching his javelin to an Olympic-record 294'2" and Germany's Heike Henkel jumping ever better as the bar went higher. But before she tried 6'7½", the height that would make her the Olympic champion. Henkel sat on the outside of the track and groaned for her countryman Baumann as he came by with 300 meters to run.
That was because Baumann was horribly boxed in by world champion Yobes Ondieki and Paul Bitok of Kenya, Fita Bayissa of Ethiopia and 1988 Olympic 10,000 champion Brahim Bouta‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤b of Morocco. All four reached the homestretch and were sprinting all out before Baumann found room to move. Then the crowd came up shrieking at the greatest recovery of the Games. Baumann went wide past Ondieki and set off after the three others, who were fanned out ahead. He took Bouta‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤b and then Bayissa on the inside, and then he had to cut sharply out again. He caught Bitok 12 meters from the end and won by a meter and a half.
Immediately Henkel got up, ran at the bar and sailed over by two inches, completing a bright golden flare of German success. Her wave as she stood happily on the foam pit was incongruously mild, as if it was good to win, but a nap would be nice too. Later it would seem that Henkel's composure and the next race, the women's 4 X 400 relay, constituted dramatic pauses before a surpassing climax.
In the relay Torrence, returning to run the second leg for the U.S., ripped her 400 in 49.8 to take the lead from a strong Unified Team, and Jearl Miles held it with a 49.5, but 1988 Olympic 400 champion Olga Bryzgina was too strong for Rochelle Stevens. The Unified Team won 3:20.20 to 3:20.92. "It would have been nice to anchor," said Torrence. "I'd have loved to do another walking down. But I never asked. Hey, I was honored just to be running four events."
Not every U.S. male quarter-miler was so uncomplicated. The maneuvering before the men's 4 X 400 had taken a full cantankerous year. It was sparked by a U.S. loss in the 1991 world championships when Great Britain's 400-meter hurdler Kriss Akabusi overhauled world 400 champion Antonio Pettigrew in the stretch of the anchor leg.
"The English kids just ran out of their minds," says Rosen. "It was one of those things. But when I got home, here was that relay stuck in everyone's craw. I thought, Well, I guess we have to win the Olympic 4 x 400 relay. I guess we gotta run Michael Johnson."
The U.S. rules in effect at the time required the relay team to be made up only from the top finishers in the 400 in the trials. Johnson, although ranked No. 1 in the world in the 400 for two straight years, had run only the 200 in the qualifying meet for the worlds and planned to do the same at the Olympic trials. In December 1991, TAC's international-competition committee empowered the coach to include in the relay qualified athletes who had not run the individual 400 trials. Johnson duly ran pre-Olympic 400s of 44.23 and 43.98. "After that," says Rosen, "I said he'd be considered for the relay. But still we wouldn't make up our minds until we saw the individual Olympic races."
At the Olympic trials in New Orleans, Johnson won the 200 in near-world-record time. Danny Everett and Steve Lewis (no relation to Carl) of the Santa Monica Track Club went one-two in the 400 and immediately began voicing displeasure with Rosen's selection policy.
"I believe it was insulting to the rest of the 400 men," says Everett now, "to imply that we could-not win without Michael Johnson and weren't intelligent enough to sec that this 'policy' was for Michael Johnson alone, Steve and I were supporting other people on the team,, specifically the guy on the bubble, Andrew Valmon. It was unfair for him to place fourth in the trials and not be assured of a spot."
Rosen, like many U.S. coaches before him, naturally wanted to select the strongest team available at the time of the Olympic relay. The 400-meter men naturally wanted to get the team set as early as possible, and by head-to-head racing, not by a coach's nod.
"It's funny," said Rosen. "They know the policy, but still they fight it. Andrew Valmon knew from day one that he almost surely wasn't going to run in the finals of the relay. The idea that they were fighting for Valmon's rights—I don't buy it."
Johnson had known that his participation would be opposed. "Ever since I got out of school," he said, "the Santa Monica people have shown this animosity toward me. They so prize their dominance in the sprints that when someone threatens it, they try to have him join them." Johnson says Santa Monica invited him to join after he graduated from Baylor. (The club denies this.) When he said he preferred to train alone, the current state of mutual abrasion began.
Both camps are hard and competitive, so there were sparks at relay meetings. Carl Lewis recalls one: "Michael turned to Danny and said, "You mean to tell me I'm not the best 400 man in the world?'
" 'That's irrelevant," said Danny.
" 'I didn't think you could fix your mouth to say that." said Michael. His attitude came across so strongly that feelings ran deep.""
Nevertheless, assistant coach Bill Moultrie of Howard University, a man of immense civility, managed to keep the chemistry positive. The situation destabilized no one, especially not young Quincy Watts, the NCAA 400-meter champion. Watts was coached by UCLA's John Smith, whose instructions were, "Come in like a breath of fresh air and say, I am the elixir.... I am the answer to your every question.' "
Watts was all of that when he won the Olympic 400 from Steve Lewis in a near-world-record 43.50. But the relay team was taking hits. Everett's chronic Achilles tendinitis flared up and kept him out of the 400 final. And Johnson, weakened by food poisoning, didn't make the final of the 200. "After that." says Carl Lewis, Johnson's "attitude was much more mellow. Life teaches us all that anything can happen."
Suddenly life was making Rosen's decisions for him. Watts and Steve Lewis were sound, and Valmon could take over for Everett, his patron. But did Johnson retain any of his 400-meter form? Rosen tested him with a leg in the semifinals. Johnson ran an encouraging 44.7.
So they went out at last to race. The Olympic crowd, seemingly near an edge, was emitting strange ululant, high-pitched cries. It knew little of the U.S. team's differences. It knew only that there was one race left, and the crowd wanted this day to end with the breaking of track's oldest world record, the 2:56.16 set in the Olympic 4 X 400 in 1968 by Vince Matthews, Ron Freeman. Larry James and Lee Evans and tied in 1988 by a U.S. team anchored by world-record holder Butch Reynolds.
Mists were racing across a three-quarter moon when Valmon settled into the blocks. A year earlier he had been whipped by Great Britain's Roger Black on the first leg o( the relay at the world championships. Now the same two men dueled again. And Valmon smoothly built a four-meter lead in the stretch, running 44.5 to Black's 44.9. "The unsung hero," Moultrie would call Valmon. "The foundation."
Watts ran the second leg. in which teams leave their lanes and cut for the pole. I le expected traffic but found none because Valmon had put him so far ahead. Watts ran through only the crowd's involuntary gasps at his power, and he extended the U.S. lead to 20 meters. He handed off to Johnson after running 43.1, the fastest relay 400 ever. The U.S. runners were ahead of record pace. The crowd knew it and sent waxes of noise over them, great rumbling combers of sound.
Johnson runs with remarkably little knee lift. With him alone in front, it was hard to tell how fast he was going. "I knew I still wasn't 100 percent." he says. "I wasn't good at all, because it wasn't me out there."
Even as a pale shadow of himself, he ran 44.7 and added two meters to the U.S. lead. But the team was only even with record pace. The last man would decide it.
The last man was Steve Lewis, who had won the 1988 Olympic 400 when only a UCLA freshman and had endured seasons of illness and injury ever since. "Steve Lewis is my thermostat, my guarantee that the temperature won't drop," said Moultrie. "If you give him a lead, he'll either tack on to it or hold even."
He was flying. "Steve's out too fast!" Joe Douglas, the Santa Monica Track Club team manager, yelled at Carl Lewis. "Can he hold on?"
Carl caught a glimpse of Steve's face in a close-up on the scoreboard TV screen. Yes, he said to himself.
"I wanted it more than anything," Steve Lewis would say afterward. His head never bobbed, his arms never grew jerky. But his legs seemed to claw, pantherlike, at the track in the stretch as the crowd filled his head with thunder and drove him home. Steve Lewis seemed then to be running to finish what Gwen Torrence, Carl Lewis, Hassiba Boulmerka, Fermín Cacho and Dieter Baumann had started. He hit the line in 2:55.74, breaking the record by .42 of a second. His remarkable deciding leg was 43.4.
The U.S. victory lap was a vision of delirious concord. "Isn't this good?" cried Steve Lewis as he was mobbed by the guys. "Isn't this good?"
"Everyone was great when it counted," says Johnson now. "Everyone worked together. Mel Rosen kept saying all summer, 'Everything will come out in the wash.' It did. It did."
Alas, their transcendence was fleeting. "The job is doing the best you can entirely apart from your personal feelings," says Johnson. "'When it's over, it's your right to resume those feelings."
Many in the stadium didn't know quite what to feel when the racing suddenly stopped. Some sat, wrung out, and gently rocked. "After that 4 X 400," said Jon Hendershott, a seasoned observer and the associate editor of Track & Field News, "I had a huge, awestruck adrenaline rush and then—boom—cold turkey. I felt cheated, left in space. I wanted it to go on and on. I lay wildly awake afterward, trying to remember it all, to store it all up."
The only day at an Olympic track comparable to this one was Oct. 18, 1968, when Lee Evans became the first man to break 44 seconds in the 400, with 43.86, some dozen minutes after Bob Beamon's prodigious record long jump of 29'2½". Those historic records would not be threatened for 20 years. But a violent thunderstorm washed out the rest of that day in Mexico City and left spectators feeling that they had witnessed only some kind of eerie suspension of the laws of physics. They departed in chilled, uncomfortable quiet, to be nagged down the decades by the faint suspicion that what they had seen was unreal.
But in Barcelona, events and character drew the crowd into communion with the athletes. By the end this crowd knew itself to be in part responsible for the performances. So when this day was over, the feeling was less disorienting, sweeter, harder to relinquish. This was real.
"It was the most profound common involvement of athletes with crowd I've ever felt," said Hendershott. "More than with Beamon, more than Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10. It was a priceless experience."
It is an experience as difficult to preserve in record books or in an essay as a sprig of fresh rosemary. We have extraordinary photographs. We have videotape. But even so aided, we cannot feel more than a trace of that supercharged connection, that rare unity that was the real elixir, the real answer. All we can do is rejoice at having felt it once, and remind each other, over many platters of paella, over many winters, that if it happened once, it could happen again.