SEOUL, South Korea — He broke out of the blocks and burst into immortality. Ben Johnson was gone so fast that nobody, not Carl Lewis, not Calvin Smith, not all the ghosts of sprinters past could catch him. Churning, burning, ripping down the track, the Canadian cannonball was running alone — Alone? In a 100 meters race? Alone? — and he sped across the finish line and the crowd roared and look at that! A world record! A world record! 9.79 seconds. No questions. No doubts.

No contest.

“I didn’t even see him until 60 or 70 meters,” Lewis said immediately after the race, in which he finished second in 9.92 seconds. “He must have had an unbelievable start. He must have caught a flier.”

A flier? He could have caught an airplane. His start was faster than wind, his middle was power-packed, and before he crossed the line, Johnson had enough time to look over at Lewis, his arch-rival, and raise his right hand triumphantly.

The fastest man in the world.

No contest.

This was more than a race; this was a moment that redefined the outer limits. How fast can we go? Rather, how fast can Ben Johnson go? He was the first man under 9.9 seconds. Now the first under 9.8 (he broke his previous record of 9.83 Friday night). Quiet, strong, he is so mysteriously effective that he is both alluring and frightening at the same time.

On Friday, under a cloudy Korean sky, he was just blazing. He dragged three other men across the finish in under 10 seconds (Britain’s Linford Christie, the bronze medalist, and Smith, fourth), the first time in history that has ever happened.

And it wasn’t even close. What drama had gone into this event! What a buildup! The stadium was packed. Security workers crammed the aisles and stood on each other’s shoulders in the tunnels. There had not been a race like this in the Olympic 100 meters since
— who knows when? Borzov. Hines. Hayes. They were all shoo-ins. But here, in Lewis and Johnson, just three lanes apart, we had the best vs. the best. Not only the fastest men alive. The fastest men ever.

They had refused to acknowledge each other in the weeding-out process. When Lewis ran his semifinal, Johnson kept his head down. When Johnson ran his semifinal, Lewis observed on TV from the privacy of the athletes’ lounge.

They had kept the moment pure. This Olympic confrontation would not be their first (they met in 1984, with Lewis winning gold, Johnson bronze), but it would be their only, at least in the eyes of the sprint world. It was the perfect moment; they were at their peaks.

To say nothing of the drama. Even the qualifying rounds made you shiver. In the semifinal, just 90 minutes before the big race, Lewis was left in the blocks. He might have been the last man to take a step. But nobody accelerates like King Carl from 50 meters on (actually, it’s all the other runners decelerating while he stays steady), and he cruised across first in 9.97 seconds. He was in.

Not to be outdone, Johnson played his own version of thrills and chills. Easily ahead in Thursday’s second heat, he had slowed down so much that he finished third. Only the top two finishers were guaranteed to advance. Johnson’s time was good enough to get him in, but taking it easy almost cost him a shot at history. Then, in Friday’s semifinal, he false-started, a questionable call, and he settled for a 10.03 finish, still never showing his best form. As he trudged off the track, his face was the picture of anger and intensity. Who knew what lay behind that facial curtain? As it turns out, Johnson was just an explosion waiting to happen. Unfazed by his semifinal mishap, he came out of the blocks as if late for God. Nobody has ever seen a start like that. You can watch it on TV replay over and over and still say to yourself: “How did he do it?”

Who knows? Johnson had not shown up to speak with the press an hour after the race. Lewis had come and gone. Christie had come and gone. But that is typical of Johnson, a once-poor Jamaican kid who used to run barefoot and who developed a speech impediment and still prefers silence to conversation. Or to Lewis, who wouldn’t be the first person Ben would invite over for dinner.

Quite frankly, this would have been a good matchup even if Lewis and Johnson were roommates and went to the movies together. The fact that deep down, they honestly don’t like one another, only added to the confrontation. Hold Carl Lewis up to a mirror and he sees stardom, wealth, glory. Hold Ben Johnson to a mirror and he sees Ben Johnson. What could they really have to say to each other?

As it turns out, words were not necessary. Lewis will see Johnson in his sleep now, in his dreams, everywhere. The American had never lost an Olympic event before, and, ironically, he spoke most like an Olympian in defeat. “I don’t think athletes are all disappointed in finishing second. These are the Olympic Games. They’re about doing your best. I did my best.”

When the race had ended, Lewis found Johnson near the stands, touched his shoulder and shook his hand. It was a brief union of two men destined to be apart. “I have other events to run,” said Lewis, who’ll compete in the 200, long jump and 4-by- 100 relay. “My focus has just turned to them.”

The truth is, he had no choice. Ten seconds of glory. A lifetime to remember it. Ben Johnson. The fastest man in the world.

No contest. CUTLINE Ben Johnson knows he is number one, as he set a world record in winning the 100-meter dash. Teammate Desai Williams is in the background.

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