With each pass of glistening metal batons, the roar in the well
of Olympic Stadium became more impassioned. A 4x100-meter relay
is chaos, a one-lap flurry of sticks and spikes, often
indecipherable until the final exchange leaves only anchormen
and straightaway to sort out the riddle. Most of this audience
had come to see a coronation last Saturday night, if not of Carl
Lewis as the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, then of
four other U.S. sprinters as, by god, good enough to win a gold
medal without him. So the crowd wished the baton around the
track in full throat, blissfully unaware of the unfolding doom.
Leaving the final turn, Canada's Bruny Surin smacked the black
stick into the palm of teammate Donovan Bailey, and then it was
clear that the Canadians had at least a one-meter lead on the
U.S. and its anchor, Dennis Mitchell. "Even if you're ahead of
me, you'd better be saying your prayers," Bailey would say after
the race. In five short, crushing strides, Bailey, who had set a
world record of 9.84 seconds in winning the 100 meters seven
days earlier, tore loose from Mitchell. The noise became a gasp,
which dissolved into a gentle buzz, anticipation killed by
But then slowly, ever so slowly, the applause built again.
Bailey, Surin, Glenroy Gilbert and Robert Esmie, four
transplanted Caribbeans wearing the singlet of Canada, found one
another and danced in a small circle, wrapped in their nation's
red-and-white flag. They jogged in celebration, circling the
track, drinking in their triumph in long, slow gulps. Gradually
the crowd began to take small sips as well. Two of the U.S.
sprinters, Mitchell and Jon Drummond, made silver medal laps of
The relays that unfold on the final full day of Olympic track
and field are often the crowning events of the meet, curtain
calls for superstars already validated by individual events.
Jesse Owens's fourth gold medal in 1936 was in the relay, as was
the last of Lewis's four in 1984. But Saturday's 4x100 had been
sullied by five days of unseemly debate over the possibility
that Lewis might run for his record 10th gold medal in the
event, which he did not. Bailey and his teammates, defending
world champions, wiped away that stain and offered a lesson:
Celebrity and controversy can distort the Olympic Games, but
performance defines them.
August 11, 1996
They weren't alone in preaching the message. Michael Johnson
torched 200 meters in a world-record 19.32 seconds to complete
his promised 200-400 double, and among the women there were a
pair of doubles and a single courageous leap. The sublime
Marie-Jose Perec of France nailed down the same 200-400
combination as Johnson, minutes before him. And 28-year-old
Svetlana Masterkova of Russia returned from a three-year layoff
to win the women's 800 and 1,500 meters. Like Perec, she was the
second woman in history to achieve her particular double; unlike
Perec, she loosed her emotions in gleeful displays at the finish
of both races. Jackie Joyner-Kersee became, at 34, the most
decorated woman in U.S. Olympic track and field history with her
sixth medal, a bronze in the long jump. She took the medal on
her sixth jump, which was five more than she had hoped to take
on a right hamstring so badly injured that she doddered down the
runway looking more like a grandmother than an Olympian. "I said
to myself, This is it, Jackie, this is it," she said later.
"This isn't the way you wanted it to be, but this is your last
shot. If the leg is going to pull, it's going to pull." She
pounded hard off the takeoff board and hit the sand 22'11 3/4"
away, a bronze medalist by one inch.
Decathlete Dan O'Brien, so long dominant, was pushed to the
final event, the 1,500 meters that he so dislikes, by
21-year-old Frank Busemann of Germany. Needing to come within 32
seconds of Busemann, who was eighth in 4:31.41, O'Brien ran
4:45.89, his fastest time in four years, and at the finish
stopped and wept.
Olympic Stadium was a revelatory celebration of track and field
in the United States. Morning sessions with nothing more than
preliminary rounds drew crowds approaching 80,000. "I was always
told Americans weren't interested in track and field," said
Roger Black of Britain, silver medalist in the 400 meters behind
Johnson. "Then I go out and see 80,000 people in the morning."
Into this atmosphere of good cheer came Relaygate, starring
Lewis. On July 29, Lewis had won his ninth gold medal and fourth
consecutive long jump title in a moment of high drama. It was an
ideal farewell--except that Lewis wasn't ready to leave, not
with a 10th gold potentially available in the 4x100, an event
the U.S. had won in each of the 14 Olympics in which it had
successfully gotten the baton around the track. "Everybody wants
to run the four-by-one," Mitchell said early in the final week.
"They see a gold medal out there." And despite an eighth-place
finish at the U.S. Olympic trials in mid-June, Lewis has never
lost faith in his sprint speed. "I will run some very fast 100s
this year," he said at the trials. "I'm in the best shape of my
On one side of the issue was Lewis, who began campaigning for
the anchor spot the morning after his long jump victory, at a
press conference called by his shoe company, Nike. "The pressure
is on because people want me to run the relay," Lewis said.
"People feel I have the right to run. That's where the pressure
is. It's not coming from me." Later that day he appeared on CNN
and, when asked what people could do to get him on the relay
team, said, "Call the Olympic people."
Lewis and his longtime manager, Joe Douglas, insist Lewis wasn't
lobbying for a spot, that he was responding to questions. "We
went on 16 shows," Douglas said. "Five of them asked about the
relay. It's the media that did this, trying to ruin Carl's life
after the biggest moment of his life. Why, he was crying in the
car the night of the long jump. He said, 'Joe, there was so much
support for me out there.'"
There truly was support for Lewis to run the anchor. It was a
potentially riveting moment: The greatest track and field
athlete in U.S. history bringing home the stick on U.S. soil.
But there was the matter of team rules and fitness, and the
keeper of those flames, U.S. track coach Erv Hunt, had selected
his relay team--Jon Drummond, Leroy Burrell, Mike Marsh and
Mitchell--in early July and offered Lewis a position as one of
the three alternates, on the condition that he attend a
three-day relay camp beginning July 9 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Lewis, who finished last in the 100 at the trials, declined. In
Hunt's mind the issue ended there. "Somebody would have to get
hurt [for Lewis to run the relay]," Hunt said early in the
Games. "Probably five or six guys."
But four days before the race Hunt waffled, saying he would
consider Lewis if a runner was injured. This prompted press
speculation as to what deals might be struck between Lewis and
his Santa Monica Track Club teammates, Burrell and Marsh, that
would induce one of them to feign injury and step aside. On
Wednesday came a news release that Burrell, who had been
troubled all spring by a sore right hamstring, was suffering
from acute tendinitis, throwing gasoline on that particular
fire. Burrell met with three reporters that night in Olympic
Stadium. Asked if he was faking his injury for Lewis's benefit,
Burrell bored holes in a writer with honest, angry eyes. "Would
you give up a Pulitzer Prize?" he asked.
"Would you give up a gold medal so Carl could win his 10th?"
asked the reporter.
"No," snapped Burrell. "That's ridiculous."
Through all this madness, the U.S. relay team survived heats and
semifinals on Friday with Tim Harden and Tim Montgomery
replacing Marsh, who was recovering from the 200 meters, in
which he finished a flat eighth in 20.48, and the injured
Burrell. Mitchell, the team captain, spoke most eloquently on
Friday morning, dampening his anger but letting his feelings
out. "Carl wants to get out there and let us give him a gold
medal," Mitchell said, and it was the presumption in that phrase
that would motivate the Canadians. "All we heard all week was
that Carl was going to win his 10th gold medal," said Bailey.
Late Friday night Hunt said that if any of the top four U.S.
sprinters was unable to run, there was "a good chance" Lewis
would replace him. "Erv told me, 'If somebody goes down, we're
going to use Carl,'" said Douglas.
The next day Burrell was declared out. At about 1:30 Saturday
afternoon, Charlie Greene, the assistant coach, called Douglas
and asked him to bring Lewis to the warmup track near Olympic
Stadium later that afternoon, that he might be needed. At 3:30
team manager Al Baeta called Douglas with a different message:
Lewis wasn't going to run, but the team would like him to visit
the warmup track just the same, for support. That Lewis did, to
the accompaniment of many notebooks, microphones and minicams.
"Even when he was there, the coaches never said one word to
him," said Douglas. Said Hunt, "If the team had said they wanted
Carl, I probably would have given in. But I would have asked
why." It is clear that Hunt and the team members felt that Lewis
was neither fast enough nor committed enough to take a spot.
Lewis left the warmup area in sweatpants and a golf shirt, his
Olympic career finished.
The relay was never in doubt. Drummond ran barely ahead of Esmie
through the opening leg, but even that was not a good sign.
Gilbert scorched the second leg in 9.02, .34 faster than the
22-year-old Harden, who had never run a major international
final. "Not having Burrell on that second leg hurt a lot more
than not having Carl," said Hunt. Marsh gained nothing on Surin,
and Bailey ran away from Mitchell, as he would have from any
sprinter in the world over 100 meters, including Michael Johnson.
If Bailey and Johnson are power, Perec is grace afoot. She is
5'11" with a stride that is more than eight feet long and a
feline economy of movement. She toyed with the 400-meter field,
running 48.25, the third-fastest time in history. In the 200 she
overhauled Jamaica's Merlene Ottey about 40 meters from the
finish and cruised away to win in 22.12, the first woman since
Valerie Brisco-Hooks in 1984 to complete the 200-400 double. "I
don't think I have used up my potential yet," she said. "I think
I can do the 800 in four years." This after earlier announcing
plans to attack the world record in the 400 meter hurdles later
Perec is a national icon in France, both loved and criticized.
Loved for the climb she took to stardom--from Guadeloupe, where
she was raised by her grandmother after her parents divorced, to
Paris, to train under coach Jacques Piasenta. Criticized for
leaving France in 1994 to advance that training in Los Angeles,
under former Olympic 400-meter runner John Smith. In that same
year Perec failed to make a scheduled appearance at an indoor
meet in Paris. "The public was very angry," says journalist
Francoise Inizan of L'Equipe. "People said, 'She is a diva. She
should have been there for us; we came to see her.'"
But the move to Los Angeles clearly benefited her, offering
welcome privacy--at Perec's UCLA workouts, Smith's other
athletes call her Mary-Jo, an Americanization if ever there was
one. She brings style, even glamour, to the sport, but also
heaps of the customary qualities. "She and Gwen [Torrence] have
the same personality," says Smith. "Mary is a fighter. She will
fight you, scratch you, tooth and nail."
Masterkova's double, meanwhile, was unexpected. She had taken
three years off, giving birth to a daughter, Anastasia, in 1995,
and giving in to injuries and self-described "laziness" before
that; beyond that, each of her two events had solid favorites,
Maria Mutola of Mozambique in the 800 and both Sonia O'Sullivan
of Ireland and Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria in the 1,500. But
Masterkova controlled the 800 from the front before outkicking
Mutola and caught a break when neither O'Sullivan (ill) nor
Boulmerka (who stumbled in the semis) made the 1,500 final.
Without them, said Masterkova, "this was not quite the Olympic
final." She sat behind Kelly Holmes of Great Britain, then
outkicked 20-year-old Romanian Gabriela Szabo at the end for the
Masterkova has benefited from training in Spain, where she lives
with her husband, professional cyclist Asiat Saitov. "After the
birth of my daughter, I gave everything I had," said Masterkova.
"I trained to the hilt."
Masterkova had won Saturday in the same dying daylight in which
26-year-old Algerian Noureddine Morceli had righted a
four-year-old wrong by winning a gold medal in the men's 1,500.
In Barcelona, Morceli, the clear favorite, had been boxed in by
two Kenyans and finished a desultory seventh. Through the
Olympiad he remained the world's prepotent middle-distance
runner, setting world records at 1,500 meters, one mile, 2,000
meters and 3,000 meters, ultimately chasing the gifted
22-year-old Venuste Niyongabo of Burundi up to an occasional
5,000, an event in which Niyongabo would win gold in Atlanta.
"As long as Morceli is in the race, it is always second place,"
Niyongabo said before the Games. Through two laps Morceli fought
outside from potential traps, but at the bell he was spiked in
the right Achilles tendon by a falling Hicham El Guerroudj of
Morocco. Bleeding, Morceli ran a 52-second final 400 meters to
his overdue gold.
Early the next morning 5'2", 99-pound Josia Thugwane of South
Africa won the closest marathon in Olympic history, three
seconds in front of South Korea's Bong Ju Lee, who was just five
seconds ahead of Kenya's Eric Wainaina. It was the first gold by
a black South African. When Thugwane was asked what the victory
meant to him, he responded, "It means the problems in our
country are over. We are free to run."
There is a simplicity to his words that recalled the previous
night, when the lights on the roof of the stadium illuminated
track and field for the final time. Freedom comes both large,
like the victory by Thugwane, and small. Torrence, finally free
from the burden of expectation, anchored the U.S. women's
4x100-meter relay to a gold medal. High jumper Stefka
Kostadinova of Bulgaria, finally free from the yoke of being the
greatest women's high jumper in history without a gold medal,
stood on the victory stand and wiped away tear after tear, never
letting a droplet hit the grass. Jearl Miles brought home the
U.S. women's 4x400-meter relay, dragging her spent body through
the finish only to satisfy the crowd whose roar carried her. "I
didn't want to let them down," she said. Even at the end, the
noise would not die, celebrating not who was absent but who was