Inside Track And Field

July 27, 1998
July 27, 1998

Table of Contents
July 27, 1998

Rattlers [bonus Piece]

Inside Track And Field

Dan O'Brien turned back time, and Chris Huffins, at the Goodwill

This is an article from the July 27, 1998 issue

Together Dan O'Brien and the decathlon have shared a gold medal
(at the 1996 Olympics), three world championships and a
six-year-old world record that still stands. Yet they have never
been good friends. "Every competition has scared me to death,"
says O'Brien. "I love training, but competing is another thing
altogether." He won the unofficial title of world's greatest
athlete in Atlanta, but a year later he was dumped by his shoe
sponsor, Nike, whose representatives told him that the company
that invented creative athletic packaging couldn't figure out
how to market the greatest decathlete in history. In all,
O'Brien's career has been fabulously successful--but a little
less than fulfilling.

O'Brien's performance at this week's Goodwill Games in New York,
however, was one of the major surprises of the season. After
missing all of 1997 with assorted injuries and evoking suspicion
that he was finished, he scored 8,755 points, his sixth-best
total ever, to win the first decathlon that he has entered since

Although at 32 O'Brien may be near the end of his career, he's
clearly not packing up. "I'm going to stick around until they
throw me out," he says. "I want another world championship and I
want another Olympic gold medal."

He might just get it, and join Bob Mathias (1948, '52) and Daley
Thompson ('80, '84) as the only repeat Olympic decathlon
winners. In oppressive heat and blustery winds at the Goodwill
Games on Monday, O'Brien overhauled 28-year-old U.S. champion
Chris Huffins with a spectacular second day in which he set a
decathlon personal best in the 110-meter hurdles (13.67 seconds)
and equaled his best in the pole vault (17' 3/4"). His score
through nine events, 8,245 points, was the best in history.

Huffins scored a respectable 8,576 points. Like O'Brien, the
6'2", 190-pound Huffins is fast and explosive. He is such a
gifted athlete that the Oakland Raiders have invited him for a
tryout five times. He has declined, saying, "Football isn't a
good sport to play if your heart isn't in it." Besides, he has a
rivalry to deal with, the decathlon's first since Dan and Dave
in '92.

Getting on Track

The World's Fastest Human competition between Donovan Bailey and
Michael Johnson in June 1997 was an artistic and financial
fiasco that did lasting damage to track and field. It also seems
that the 150-meter match race at Toronto's SkyDome did little
more for its participants than add to their already considerable
wealth; neither has been the same athlete since. The two men
arrived at the Goodwill Games struggling to regain the form that
brought Bailey the '96 Olympic 100-meter gold medal and the
world record of 9.84 seconds and carried Johnson to an
unprecedented sweep of the Olympic 200 and 400 and a stunning
world record of 19.32 in the 200.

Going into Tuesday's Goodwill 100 meters, Bailey had broken 10
seconds in the 100 just five times (in 22 tries) since the
Toronto race--in which Johnson pulled up with a quadriceps
injury--and not at all since last August. As he has struggled,
Bailey has adopted the surly persona that he affected in
promoting the match race. He has made thinly veiled and
unsupported charges that 100-meter world champion Maurice Greene
and his training partner Ato Boldon use performance-enhancing
drugs. Bailey also refuses to run against the two.

When he burst onto the international scene by winning the 100 at
the 1995 worlds, Bailey was a delight, a former stockbroker with
a sense of humor and just a touch of arrogance. Now he has become
more like 1992 Olympic 100 champion Linford Christie of Great
Britain, a humorless egomaniac. At least Christie ran fast almost
to the end of his career.

As for Johnson, cynics suspected that he faked the injury in the
Toronto race. If that was the case, he has kept up the ruse for
14 months. Johnson has in fact suffered injuries to his left
Achilles tendon and both hamstrings. Going into Tuesday's
Goodwill 400, he hadn't broken 44 seconds at that distance since
April 1997 and hadn't cracked 20 seconds in the 200 since the
'96 Games.

He says his problems began not in Toronto but in Atlanta. In the
200 that cemented his place in history, Johnson says, he
strained his sacroiliac as the result of the immense torque
applied to his torso as he blazed through the turn. "Every
injury has come from the 19.32 race," he says.

Johnson is healthy now and hopes to dip under 44 flat soon, but
injuries have made him beatable. Greene crushed him in a 200 in
June, and Mark Richardson and Iwan Thomas of Britain beat him in
a 400 in Oslo on July 9. (Johnson won the 400 at 1997's worlds
on will alone.) A track nut who relishes competition, Johnson
can take the losses. It's the sympathy that drives him nuts.
"The worst thing about being injured," he says, "is people are
always asking, 'How are you feeling?' I hate that. You just want
to say, 'I'm fine, O.K.?'"

Building the Field

The Toronto 150 was conceived as a creative means to pump life
into the sport. The Goodwill Games, for their part, have
attempted to use prize money (not principally appearance fees)
to stage a world-class meet. A small group of
athletes--including Johnson, O'Brien, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and
Marion Jones--were paid promotional fees to work for the meet
and compete in it. Almost everybody else is running for prize
money: from $40,000 for first place in five marquee events (not
accidentally, Johnson's, O'Brien's, Joyner-Kersee's and Jones's,
plus the men's 100) to $6,000 in low-profile events.

Incomes of track and field athletes are generally a mysterious
mix of shoe-contract money and appearance fees, which for top
performers can total far more than $1 million a year. Yet in a
marketplace in which celebrity is often measured by salary,
these invisible riches have no promotional value. Many people
know that Johnson is fast; few appreciate how wealthy his speed
has made him. "Visible prize money is the only way to save the
sport," says agent Brad Hunt, who represents Johnson, among
others. "But every time the European agents get together, their
top priority is to avoid meets with prize money."

Largely because of the Goodwill Games' reliance on prize money,
the meet lacked three of the sport's hottest names. Sprinter
Frankie Fredericks of Namibia didn't come because, he said,
"they made me an insulting offer." Said David Raith, the
Goodwill Games sports vice president who put the field together:
"His offer was at least as good as the one we made Greene and
Boldon." Translation: Fredericks wanted a big, Johnson-scale
appearance fee. Also missing were miler Hicham El Guerrouj of
Morocco, who negotiated with Raith until three days before the
games, then elected to stay in Europe (and avoid the windy
Mitchel Athletic Complex track in Uniondale, N.Y.), and distance
runner Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, who never considered
veering from his European schedule.

But runners Noureddine Morceli of Algeria, Daniel Komen of Kenya
and Merlene Ottey of Jamaica (among others) came to New York for
nominal or no appearance money, airfare, lodging, meals and a
chance to win cash. Considering that only 10,000 spectators
rattled around the 80,000-seat Rome Olympic Stadium to watch El
Guerrouj set the 1,500-meter world record on July 14 in an
old-fashioned, prize-money-free meet, the Goodwill Games'
experiment seems to have been worth conducting.

Clearing a Hurdle

Though it has been overshadowed by the rapid ascension of Marion
Jones and Maurice Greene in the sprints, Bryan Bronson's rise in
the 400-meter hurdles has been equally sudden. A 25-year-old
native of Jasper, Texas, who learned to hurdle at a high school
that owned only three hurdles and had a 450-yard dirt track with
an uphill straightaway, Bronson is just .01 of a second off
Edwin Moses's career best of 47.02 seconds and is within
striking distance of Kevin Young's world record of 46.78. In
keeping with his unorthodox resume, Bronson (who won the
Goodwill 400 hurdles in 47.15 on Sunday) is coached by
40-year-old Houston marathoner Ken Wrinkle, who

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Up, up O'Brien (high jumping) flirted with a world record in his first decathlon since '96. [Dan O'Brien high jumping]COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Star-crossed The injury-plagued Johnson doesn't want to be pitied. [Michael Johnson]