Low-profile champs Allen Johnson and Charles Austin keep winning
U.S. Olympians Allen Johnson and Charles Austin are accustomed to
winning quietly, their achievements largely unnoticed in the
hubbub surrounding other track and field athletes. They won gold
medals on consecutive nights at the 1996 Games but were eclipsed
on the second evening by Carl Lewis, who won his fourth Olympic
long jump gold, and by Michael Johnson, who won the first leg of
his 400- and 200-meter double. "I remember thinking, Hey, what
about me, folks?" said Allen Johnson about his Olympic victory.
Four years later, little has changed.
Last Friday a sellout crowd of more than 24,000 packed Zurich's
Letzigrund Stadium to witness the prestigious Weltklasse, the
best--and, with a budget of nearly $3.5 million, the
richest--one-day track meet in the world. The fans saved their
fullest throat for Swiss 800-meter runner Andre Bucher's victory,
U.S. 100-meter man Maurice Greene's win (9.94 seconds into the
wind), a hard-earned 100-long jump double by Marion Jones and
distance victories by Romania's Gabriela Szabo and Ethiopia's
Haile Gebrselassie. Oh, and Johnson won his specialty, the
110-meter hurdles, and Austin prevailed in his, the high jump.
All Johnson has done, in addition to taking an Olympic gold, is
win two world titles, in 1995 and '97, and run eight of
history's 17 fastest times. His 12.92 in the '96 trials was only
.01 off Briton Colin Jackson's world record, set in '93. After
missing much of '99 with a calf injury, Johnson won the Olympic
trials last month in 12.97. In the event in which the U.S. has
had--historically and currently--the greatest depth, Johnson is
a solid contender for best ever.
In a way the lack of celebrity has helped Johnson, who ran a
13.17 at the Weltklasse. "It's made him more professional in his
approach to his sport," says his longtime coach, Curtis Frye.
"He's not running off here and there for photo shoots or
commercials. He's at the track working every day." Johnson
agrees, with a qualifier. "I see the benefit," he said in
Zurich, "but there are times when I wouldn't mind being famous."
Austin won't go even that far. "All I ever wanted was to make a
living high-jumping," he said before winning in the Weltklasse
with a leap of 7'7 1/4". "I'm doing that, and I'm thankful every
day." Austin set the American record of 7'10 1/2" in Zurich nine
years ago, went 7'10" to win in Atlanta and has taken the past
six U.S. titles, building, like Johnson, an enduring legacy.
Also like Johnson, he doesn't budge the needle on the
In Sydney, Johnson will be favored over Anier Garcia of Cuba,
while Austin will be among a handful of jumpers challenging
favored Vyacheslav Voronin of Russia. Of course, even if Johnson
and/or Austin wins, the spotlight will find somebody else.
Old Man Down The Road
It seems odd to say that 27-year-old Haile Gebrselassie of
Ethiopia, who holds the world records at 5,000 and 10,000 meters
and just might be the best distance runner in history, looks old,
but he does. In Zurich, Gebrselassie won the 5,000 in 12:57.95, a
pedestrian time by his lofty standards. (His world mark, set in
1998, is 12:39.36.) He used a withering final 200 meters to seal
the victory but at the end was gritting his teeth to hold off
Kenya's Paul Tergat. Later, Gebrselassie said not only that he's
planning to run just the 10,000 in Sydney but also that the
Zurich race was probably his last 5,000. "My body is getting
older and slower," he said.
Gebrselassie, who pounds his tiny, 117-pound frame with a long,
miler's stride, missed three months of training last fall with a
sore right Achilles tendon, the first serious injury of his
career. He plans to run a half-marathon shortly after the Games
and a marathon in 2001. It has long been assumed that when
Gebrselassie moved to the marathon, he would be unbeatable. This
no longer seems such a certainty.
Around the Track
A year after choosing to compete for the Cayman Islands instead
of the U.S., former Rice long jumper Kareem Streete-Thompson is
an Olympic medal contender, with a win this summer over Sydney
favorite Ivan Pedroso of Cuba. Streete-Thompson was born in
Ithaca, N.Y., but was raised in the Caymans and competed for
them at the 1992 Games. Eager to compete with the best jumpers,
he switched to U.S. colors that fall. Though highly touted, he
failed to make the Olympic team in '96. Now, having avoided the
pressure-filled process of qualifying for this year's U.S. team,
he's thriving. But there's a downside to his return to the
Cayman team. Says Streete-Thompson, "Other jumpers always ask
me, 'What country is it this week?'" They'll know if he makes
the podium in Sydney.... Marion Jones and Inger Miller put
different spins on Jones's narrow win in the Zurich 100 meters.
Jones, who false-started and got left in the blocks on the
restart, ran 10.95 to Miller's 10.96. "I'm sure I'm in her head
now," said Miller. "Today was her chance," said Jones. "It
doesn't get much worse than that for me."