Butch Reynolds, the world-record holder at 400 meters, has assumed many roles in the course of his more than two-year battle with his sport's governing body, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF). He has been a martyr and an outcast, a spokesman for athletes' rights, even a plaintiff before the U.S. Supreme Court. Last Friday night, at the Chemical Bank Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden, he got to be himself again, a magnificent sprinter, pure and simple. As he awaited the start of the 400, Reynolds gratefully surrendered to the sprinter's deepest instinct. "Get out fast," he told himself.
That he did. Running in Lane 2, Reynolds gobbled up the stagger around the first turn. Outside him, in Lane 3, was Kevin Young, the world-record holder in the 400 hurdles. The crowd of 18,176 held its breath. In all of indoor track there is no moment so loaded with potential violence as when quarter-milers break for the pole. This is especially true when they are built like Reynolds, who stands a muscular 6'3", and Young, who is 6'4". The two big men banged forearms, but Reynolds held his position. Once in the lead, he was never headed. Reynolds burst through the tape in 47.16, nearly four seconds off his record 43.29 but .97 ahead of Young.
"I think I was trying a little too hard," said a breathless Reynolds moments after his race. "I just wanted a win. Tonight that was as good as a world record."
That Reynolds has been running and winning again since last summer must come as bitter news to the IAAF, his nemesis in what seems like track's Hundred Years' War. In 1990 the federation suspended Reynolds through the 1992 Olympics after a urine test showed traces of the banned anabolic steroid nandrolone. Back then, no one imagined how doggedly Reynolds would fight the sanction. Claiming procedural errors in the way his test sample had been handled, Reynolds eventually took his complaint to the U.S. courts, where he found sympathy at several levels. Last June the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a district-court ruling that Reynolds had been denied due process by the IAAF, thus giving him the go-ahead to run in the U.S. Olympic Trials. Reynolds qualified for the 4 x 400 relay team at the trials but didn't go to Barcelona because it was clear that the IAAF had no intention of lifting its ban.
"We will never accept a decision of any court in the world against our rules," says IAAF president Primo Nebiolo of Italy. This apparently applies to decisions made against the federation's pocketbook as well. On Dec. 3 U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Kinneary ordered the IAAF to pay Reynolds $27.3 million, most of it in punitive damages, for having "purposefully avoided the truth" in investigating Reynolds's claims. Reynolds has seen none of that money yet, but his attorneys are filing papers to attach sponsorship fees owed to the IAAF by such U.S.-based companies as Coca-Cola, Mobil and VISA.
Meanwhile, at its council meeting in Jakarta last month, the IAAF issued what it termed a "declaration," threatening Reynolds with further punishment—his suspension officially ended Jan. 1—if he didn't issue a formal apology for calling the federation's arbitration process "a fraud and a sham." Never mind that those were not Reynolds's words but Judge Kinneary's; Reynolds has until Feb. 23 to apologize for them. This he adamantly refuses to do. "Read my lips," he says. "No!"
Reynolds's crusade has become a man-to-man battle of wills with the 69-year-old Nebiolo. Gravel-voiced and imperious—he apparently takes his first name, Primo, quite seriously—Nebiolo has ruled track and field with an iron fist since he was elected IAAF president in 1981. "The Olympics don't go on without me," he once boasted.
Nebiolo has dug in his heels every bit as firmly as Reynolds has, and how the tug-of-war will end is anyone's guess. Some speculate that if the IAAF doesn't relent, the Reynolds feud will be Nebiolo's Waterloo. It may happen, too, that the federation president will soon be bloodied by another revolt. Last April, Nebiolo sold the European TV rights to IAAF events over the next four years to the European Broadcasting Union for $91 million. The International Association of Athletes Representatives, a group of some three dozen agents, is demanding that a portion of that revenue be shared with the athletes in the form of prize money at the outdoor world championships in Stuttgart this August. The IAAF's refusal to even consider the plan has agents and athletes discussing a boycott. "We need to band together like the tennis players and golfers," says Young.
Whether or not his colleagues join him in battling the federation's hierarchy, Reynolds will fight on. "Butch is not the same guy I knew before all this happened," says training partner Andrew Valmon. "It's made him a wiser man." Reynolds has come to place his struggle in a broader historical context. He has covered the walls of his apartment in Atascadero, Calif., with posters of Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.—men whose crusades for justice were dangerous and often lonely. He sees himself as an heir to both Curt Flood and Muhammad Ali. "Those are my heroes," he says. "Because of what he said about the Vietnam War, Ali's best years were taken from him."
It remains to be seen whether Reynolds has suffered that fate. Although 4½ years have passed since he ran his 43.29, Reynolds is far from over-the-hill at 28. "I feel like I'm 23 again," he says, "ready to kick butt." Pressed to be more specific about his goals, he mentions clocking 42-something for the 400 and winning that event at the world championships. Just thinking about winning at the worlds brings a gleam to his eyes: Nebiolo traditionally presents the medals for the premier events.
Of course, Reynolds would love to get his hands on that $27 million, too. But, he says, "all that is negotiable. What we have to have, though, is rights. [The IAAF] makes rules, and we have no idea what they're doing. Hopefully, I can articulate that, so the athletes from around the world will come together and stick together."