THEY’RE SET NOW. CARL LEWIS IN LANE 3. LINFORD CHRISTIE IN LANE 4. CALVIN SMITH, LANE 5, AND BEN JOHNSON, THE WORLD-RECORD HOLDER, IN LANE 6. THOSE ARE THE ONES TO WATCH. THE BEST FIELD EVER ASSEMBLED. THE OLYMPICS. THE CROWD IS HUSHED. AND . . . THE . . . GUN. . . .
SEOUL, South Korea — It began as the race everybody wanted and ended as the race that no one could have anticipated. Was that really Ben Johnson Friday night, leaving earth in a godly burst of speed? Was that really 9.79 seconds on the clock as he took his victory lap, a world record in the 100 meters, the fastest race of the fastest men on the planet? “BEN! BEN! BEN!” the crowd roared when it was all over, and he smiled finally — finally! — because the glory now belonged to him and him alone.
“I could have gone faster if I didn’t raise my hand at the end,” Johnson would say hours after this was over — and jaws would drop. He what? HE WHAT? But Johnson shrugged because time was not what he coveted most on this historic evening. Nor was the gold medal that sat at the end of this sprinters’ rainbow.
“I wanted to beat Carl,” Ben Johnson would say, without apology. This was more than an Olympic final, this was a showdown for bragging rights, for history, it was, and forever will be, Carl Lewis vs. Ben Johnson.
And it was all Johnson. What goes into a destruction? How did this 26-year-old, Jamaican-born Canadian do what he did — so fast, so lethal, so mean? The answer lies not in what took place Friday in the Olympic stadium, but what took place one year earlier, on a sticky warm evening in Rome. It was there in the world championships that Johnson first set the world record
(9.83) and beat Lewis in a single sprint explosion. “Rome,” Johnson would whisper to himself all week at these Olympics. “Just do like Rome. . . . “
And the difference in Friday’s race — a race they are calling the greatest Olympic 100 ever — was that, thanks to Rome, Johnson had done this all before, and Lewis had only dreamed about it.
JOHNSON EXPLODES OUT OF THE BLOCKS! AN EXCELLENT START. HE’S AHEAD AT 10 METERS, CHRISTIE AND SMITH RIGHT BEHIND, LEWIS A HALF-STEP OFF. TWENTY METERS, THIRTY METERS. . . .
Remember that in an Olympic final, with the whole world watching, nerves and pressure play a huge role. Carl Lewis has always based his success in the 100 meters on his ability to relax from start to finish. When other runners tighten up down the stretch, Lewis maintains his form and actually appears to be accelerating to the finish. To do this requires extraordinary calm, something he always specialized in. But then, he usually didn’t have to worry about the opposition. In Los Angeles, 1984, Lewis was clearly the favorite in the 100. Nobody would catch him. He zipped to the gold medal with what seemed barely an extra breath. Relaxed. Calm. Easy.
“I should have been more relaxed down my stretch here,” he would say after Friday’s race was over. Indeed. But here was the difference: Johnson was still ahead. If you watch the replay of the race you see Lewis looking to his right at Johnson not once, not twice but three separate times.
“All I have to do is run my race and concentrate on my lane,” Lewis had said over and over during the week. “I’m not even thinking about anybody else.”
Oh yes he was.
And that would be his downfall.
LOOK AT HOW FAR AHEAD JOHNSON IS! FORTY METERS. FIFTY METERS. THIS IS WHERE LEWIS MAKES HIS MOVE! IS HE COMING? IS HE COMING? . . .
Ben Johnson, a once-scraggly 98-pound teenager who came to Toronto’s Charlie Francis because he wanted to be a runner like his older brother, had spent years developing his upper body strength. And strength, in the sprints, helps most in the starting blocks.
“What he does better than anyone else is keep his back foot down longer as he pulls his body up,” said Francis, his coach. That gives Johnson the explosive start without fouling. You need enormous strength to whip your torso up like that. Then again, have you ever seen Ben Johnson’s torso?
The start was what worried Lewis the most. Contrary to Johnson, Lewis is weakest coming out of the blocks. He knew Johnson would be ahead at the beginning. But by how much? The Canadian had not shown impressive times in the qualifying heats — running in the 10s while Carl had posted a 9.99 and 9.97. But that, it would turn out, was part of the strategy.
“I did the same thing at Rome during the heats,” Johnson said. “I ran easy, and had plenty left for the final. I don’t care about running fast in the qualifying. That stuff doesn’t matter.”
Remember that Johnson had already set a world record, he owned it; in his mind, if he said to himself, “It will take a 9.83 to win this thing,” he was soothed by the knowledge that he had already run a 9.83. It was within him.
“Just do like Rome,” he said over and over.
Lewis, however, for all his famous posturing, has never set an individual world record in any of his events. This would be new territory. If he said to himself, “I need a 9.83 to win,” he would also have to ask himself, “Can I go that fast?”
“According to all our observations of him,” said Francis, matter-of-factly,
“we didn’t think he could run below a 9.9.”
IT’S JOHNSON WAY AHEAD IN LANE 6! LEWIS IS NOT GOING TO CATCH HIM! LEWIS, CHRISTIE, SMITH, ALL IN THE SECOND PACK! SIXTY METERS! SEVENTY METERS! LEWIS LOOKS OVER AND SEES HE HAS NO CHANCE. BEN JOHNSON! BEN JOHNSON! . . .
Nothing motivates like anger. Johnson, a quiet man because of both a speech impediment and just a natural preference for action over words, nonetheless had burned inside for years over Carl Lewis. He was envious of all the attention Lewis received following the 1984 Olympics (in which Johnson took the bronze in the 100 and left the stadium virtually unnoticed). But worse than that, when Johnson began to beat Lewis, Carl would constantly shrug off the defeats. Each one seemed to have an explanation. The 1985 Bruce Jenner Classic (Johnson 10.01, Lewis 10.18) was dismissed by Lewis as “a minor event.” The Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986 (Johnson 9.95, Lewis 10.06), Lewis blamed on the fatigue of traveling. In Zurich that same year, where Lewis had predicted a victory, he lost (Johnson 10.03, Lewis 10.25) and refused to attend the post-meet press conference. Johnson did not like being snubbed. He knew, until he beat Lewis in front of the whole world, where there could be no excuses, no ducking out, he would never be given his due.
“When I stood on the stand in 1984 and took that bronze medal, I told myself, my time will come,” Johnson said.
The time was Seoul.
The answer was the perfect race.
IT’S ALL BEN JOHNSON. EIGHTY METERS, NINETY METERS, LEWIS WILL NOT CATCH HIM! JOHNSON LOOKS OVER AT LEWIS AND RAISES A FIST, HE’S GOING TO WIN IT! HE’S GOING TO WIN IT! . . .
That moment of celebration, that brief but glorious second of Ben Johnson gloat, was a farewell to Carl Lewis’ best tactic — relaxation. In his best races, Lewis maintains his form down the stretch. But who could maintain form against a hurricane?
“I didn’t relax the way I should have,” Lewis would admit. In fact, he looked at Johnson and fell victim to the most human of all emotions: panic. His arms began to tighten, his legs were burning, looking for more effort. He would run his best legal time ever (9.92) and it wouldn’t be close — but it might have been faster if he had done what he always had done when running from ahead. Ben Johnson had finally succeeded in shaking Carl Lewis’ confidence. And he did it at the biggest moment of the biggest race of their lives.
When the race had ended, Lewis was mystified (if you watch the slow-motion replay you can see his face almost collapse in agony at the 90-meter mark). When the NBC cameras grabbed him no more than 60 seconds after the finish, he appeared confused, and launched into what seemed to be a victory speech. “All I can say is . . . my mother told me two days ago . . . that she had a dream . . . and she spoke to my (deceased) father . . . and . . . he said everything would be all right . . . and. . . . “
Was this something he had planned to say after winning? Remember, Lewis had buried his 1984 100-meter gold medal with his father. The dash was Bill Lewis’ favorite event.
“What did you think of Ben’s running?” Lewis was asked, over and over, by the world’s media.
“I didn’t really see his race,” he said, over and over. “I have three other events, and that’s what I’m concentrating on now.”
In a strange way, this defeat may help Lewis — at least in the long jump. Of all his events, only the jump seems to be strengthened by emotion. He hasn’t lost in years, and whenever he has come close, he has managed to bear down and pull out a dandy. And if, as many suggest, Carl really thinks in terms of future earnings potential, then you can bet his agent is saying right now: “I don’t care what happens. You take all six leaps and you go for the world record every time.” Nobody in America remembers who won the 200 meters, or who anchored a relay. The ghost of Bob Beamon looms even larger for Lewis now, because it is dangling the last slice of Carl’s immortality.
And what of Johnson, the mysterious fastest man in the world — who as a teenager ran one lap of the track, sat down, and said, “I’m tired.” Could it be that Johnson, body-builder torso and all, is simply a better mousetrap? Will anyone duplicate his start? Is it Francis’ unorthodox coaching methods?
“I don’t know,” Francis said, when asked how much faster his student could go. “How many more races can you put together like this?”
And that is the point. Here was a classic affair in which two runners knew, before the starter’s pistol, that they would have to go out over the cliff and face the deep below of their potential. Johnson had done it before; he simply did it again. Lewis is still trying.
“How long will your record last, Ben?” Johnson was asked by a mob of reporters.
“I think it will last for 50 to 100 years,” he said.
Then he grinned and snorted.
“I will break it next season.”‘
IT’S JOHNSON! A WORLD RECORD! THIS IS UNBELIEVABLE, JUST UNBELIEVABLE! . .