For nearly three years Gwen Torrence has tried to ignore
Atlanta's Olympic Stadium as it rose from a hole in the earth
alongside I-75/85. She would drive by it on her frequent trips
to and from the airport and avert her gaze as she passed. "I
would try to avoid looking at it," she says, as if it were
roadkill. A construction site grew into a skeleton, which grew
into a coliseum in which Torrence hopes to win at least three
gold medals at this summer's Games. And still she would not look.
Hers is a survivalist approach. When you're in the vise of
Olympic-year pressure, it's wise to keep the Games in the
distance. Do not contest them every day.
It is, among track and field athletes, a common approach. In
advance of the Grand Prix meet that christened Olympic Stadium
last Saturday, participants kept trying to discount the
significance of a major meet in the new stadium less than a
month before the U.S. trials, which will be held in the same
place, and scarcely two months before the opening of the
centennial Games. Don't mention the Olympics, please. "It'll be
nice to see what the place is like, but I've got too much work
to do to think as far ahead as the Games," said U.S. shot-putter
John Godina, who won his event Saturday with a throw of 69'3 1/4".
With the knowing calm that comes from 18 years of international
experience and competing in three Games, Carl Lewis listened to
his fellow athletes talk--and all but shook his head. "People
can discount this meet all they want," he said last Friday. "I
remember the first time I walked into the [Los Angeles] Coliseum
before the Olympics in '84. It was a very special feeling.
Everybody knows what the stadium means."
But as the athletes hid behind their calendars, Saturday's meet
spoke the truth, as seven 1996 world bests were established.
Among them were the fastest outdoor mile time (3:50.86 by
world-record holder Noureddine Morceli of Algeria) and highest
pole vault (19'9" by world-record holder Sergey Bubka of
Ukraine) turned in on American soil. There were three remarkable
sprints--one that showcased greatness unfolding (Torrence's),
another that celebrated rebirth (of Lewis and of U.S. men's
sprinting) and a third that promised an intriguing rivalry
(Michael Johnson versus Mike Marsh).
All of Saturday's races were contested on a $6 million,
Italian-made track that can be called fast with the same
understatement that Bill Gates can be called affluent. The first
of the sprints was the women's 100 meters, in which Torrence
faced Gail Devers, gold medalist in the 100 at the 1992 Olympics
and '93 world championships. There had been steady rumors in the
week leading up to the race that Torrence would skip the 100 in
favor of the 400 because she has long sought to challenge
defending Olympic and world champion Marie-Jose Perec of France.
"I wanted to run the 400," said Torrence, who will compete in
the 100 and 200 at the trials. But there were equally persistent
rumors that if Torrence had entered the 400, Perec would have
withdrawn, a prospect that forced Torrence's hand and left her
angry at the politics. "Nobody owns no race," she snapped.
Au contraire. Torrence owned Saturday's 100, blasting off
cleanly at the gun and winning in 10.85 seconds. Her time was
just .03 slower than her personal best, set in '94, and
breathtakingly fast for the third weekend in May. Devers
struggled home sixth in 11.20 seconds, her customarily quick
feet looking slow and heavy. Devers still plans to run the 100
and the 100 hurdles at the trials. "I'm sure she'll be ready
when it counts," said Torrence.
Not long ago it seemed that Lewis, Dennis Mitchell and the other
once-dominant U.S. sprinters might never be an Olympic threat
again. In 1995 no U.S. sprinter broke 10 seconds in the 100, and
Jon Drummond's No. 4 world ranking was the lowest ever for the
top American. "Everybody jumped on us about having one bad year,
forgot about us," Mitchell said before the start of the outdoor
season this spring. "I'm saying Americans are still the best
sprinters in the world, don't count us out." Still, the addition
of world champion Donovan Bailey to the 100 field on Thursday
only seemed to ensure an embarrassment for U.S. sprinters.
"Should be fun," was Lewis's coy assessment on Friday.
It was more fun than anyone could have expected. Mitchell shot
out of the blocks, ate up Drummond at 40 meters and tore home in
9.93 seconds, barely holding off the 34-year-old Lewis, who
closed as if in his prime to finish in 9.94. Mitchell, always
demonstrative, squatted and clapped his hands hard at the finish
and then jogged a victory lap with Lewis.
Because the wind was 2.1 meters per second (0.1 mps more than is
acceptable), the times were ever-so-slightly wind-aided. Still,
neither Lewis nor Mitchell had run faster since the epochal 1991
world championship 100 in Tokyo, in which Lewis set a
since-broken world record of 9.86, Mitchell ran a 9.91 and four
other runners also broke 10 seconds. With Bailey third in 9.97
and Drummond fourth in 9.98, last Saturday's race was the
fastest since the one in Tokyo.
It also represented a huge leap for Lewis, who had run a
wind-aided 10.10 to win the Texas Relays on April 13 but was
still not expected to make the U.S. team in the 100. Suddenly he
became a gold medal contender. "Bottom line, he proved he's
still good," said Drummond. The 30-year-old Mitchell's
performance quieted doubts about him, too. Last year his best
non-wind-aided time was only 10.12, but in September he split
with coach John Smith and returned from Los Angeles to
Gainesville, Fla., where he had trained during his most
Bailey, meanwhile, took no pleasure in having broken 10 seconds
in a losing effort. As Lewis bounded through a staging area at
one corner of the stadium, Bailey brooded nearby, seething at
having been invited to the meet so late, after he'd put in a
hard week of training. "I only make mistakes one time," Bailey
said. "This will not happen again. I'm going to light these guys
Such talk is the sweet music of rivalry, the magic that track
desperately needs. In the 100 there is now the promise of a
nasty sub-10 fight at the U.S. trials for three Olympic spots
and a riveting Games final among Bailey, Linford Christie of
Great Britain, Bruny Surin of Canada, UCLA senior Ato Boldon of
Trinidad, Frankie Fredericks of Namibia and whichever three
Americans make the team. "Mind-boggling," said Mitchell.
Meanwhile, Michael Johnson has been without rivals or peers.
Since he embarked on his personal quest to become the first
athlete to win gold medals in the 200 and 400 at the same
Olympics, he has competed in a vacuum. Michael versus the
schedule. Michael versus his training. Michael versus world
records. He has won 52 consecutive 400s and 19 consecutive 200s.
Now there is the previously unexamined possibility of defeat,
which only heightens the appeal of his attempt.
In Saturday's 200, Johnson caught Marsh, one of Lewis's Santa
Monica Track Club teammates and--this has been largely
forgotten--the defending Olympic 200-meter champion, only in the
final 10 meters. Johnson won in a 1996 world best of 19.83
seconds to Marsh's eased-up 19.88. Marsh was unbowed by the
loss, saying that a twinge in his right leg gave him pause as he
came off the turn, with Johnson chasing him. "I don't believe
anybody will catch me again if I come off the turn in front,"
Marsh said, failing to name the obvious name.
There's also the prospect of challenge in the Olympic 400. On
Saturday, Butch Reynolds won that event in the year's fastest
time, 44.33 seconds. That was far off his 1988 world record of
43.29 and also far off Johnson's 43.39 at last year's world
championships, but it was quick enough to suggest that in
contrast to what has happened in their recent matchups, Johnson
won't swallow up Reynolds in the third 100 meters when they meet
Afterward Reynolds was talking, as was Morceli, of finding a
place in the Southern heat to train for the Games. It was 92
[degrees] on Saturday, uncommon for May in Atlanta, but ordinary
for July and August. "I will have to try to work out in a warm,
humid place," said Morceli.
The new stadium took some heat of its own. Upon viewing it last
week, IAAF president Primo Nebiolo, who months ago had voiced
concerns that it too resembled the ballpark that it will
eventually become, said, "Now it will be a nice Olympic Stadium
...[but] it is still a little bit baseball stadium." He is
right. There is a grassy triangle beyond the finish line, where
home plate will someday sit. There is a concrete trench where
the first base dugout will be. There is, in general, nothing
particularly Olympian about the structure, except that the
Olympics will take place there.
But as Saturday's meet proved, that quality alone will make the