ROME — “ON YOUR MARKS! . . . “

Carl Lewis crouched low in the starting blocks, head down. Ben Johnson crouched next to him, a mirror image.

“SET! . . . “

Their backs arched. Lewis still looked down, awaiting the gun, as did six other sprinters. Only Johnson raised his head and looked toward the finish, as if destiny was cooing his name . . .

This would be the start of something big. For days, this city had buzzed about the “the confrontation” of this World Championship 100 meters, the two fastest men on the planet — Lewis, 26, the big name, the Olympic king, the defending world champ, versus Johnson, 25, the shy Canadian, who grew up running barefoot in his native Jamaica, and who had beaten Lewis several times, but never in a competition this big.

The stadium was packed. Every head was turned. Even the vendors and the teenage volunteers came out from the corridors and lined the steps. Here is what they saw: Seven sprinters, heads down. One sprinter, head up.

“POW!” Fluid and straight ahead

Johnson exploded out of the blocks as if cannon-shot — “It was either the best reaction time of his life, or the slowest jump I’ve ever seen,” Lewis would later remark — but it was ruled clean, no false start, and after the first 20 meters it was evident that this whole race was Johnson and Lewis, and likely in that order. Their bodies grooved quickly into their individual styles: Lewis fluid, straight ahead, no wasted motion; Johnson an earthquake of power, feet slamming the track, arms muscle-tight and churning madly. Is he for real? He looks like he’ll blow up before the tape!

He passed 40 meters easily ahead. Fifty. Sixty. Johnson is the better starter anyhow, while Lewis is famous for motoring past people as they slow towards the finish. But Johnson wasn’t slowing this time, no way, no how, and the crowd began calling his name, first quietly, then quickly, and with each stride: “JOHN-SON!” Seventy. “JOHN-SON!” Eighty. “JOHN-SON!” Ninety. No coming back from this. Lewis pressed the final 10 meters, but it didn’t help, it wasn’t close. . . .

“JOHN-SONNNNN!”

Victory! He eased up, and the whole stadium, perhaps the whole world, did a double-take as the scoreboard clock flashed unbelievable digits: 9.83 — a world record by a tenth of a second!

No wind. No altitude. No asterisks. A world record! A tenth of a second? It

had taken 15 years for the record to drop two- hundredths of a second! Wow! The stadium exploded, and so did Lewis, chasing Johnson halfway around the track in an effort to congratulate him. “He deserves a handshake,” Lewis would say. But the winner, who has taken his fill of Carl Lewis questions and comparisons the last two years, barely acknowledged him. “I didn’t see him coming,” Johnson would say later. There was more to it than that. This was Johnson’s moment. And he wanted it that way.

Lewis slinked back to the tunnel. In the wild applause for the new hero, no one yet realized, not even Lewis himself, that in finishing second, he had run the best time of his life, a 9.93, which would have given him a world record had Johnson not been there. World’s fastest human

“MEEESTER JOHN-STON!” the Italian reporters screamed in the sticky-hot press room afterward. “MEESTER WORLD RAY-CORD!”

Johnson, a 5-10, 180-pound muscle ball, answered their questions briefly, sedately. Whereas Lewis is the ultimate media creature (he habitually fixes his hair before any TV interview), Johnson would rather be anywhere else. He speaks with a stutter he has had since youth, so talking is not his forte. He shied away from waving a flag after his win. On the victory stand, he wore only dark green sweats. “I don’t have any Canadian singlets,” he explained.

And yet, what he had done! Shattered a mark that earned him the title
“World’s Fastest Human.” Shattered? Is that the right word? There are ruins in this city with less damage. You don’t take a tenth of a second off the 100 meter record. Not in one swoop. Do you?

He did. “And I think I can improve it next year,” he said. “It can be done.”

Amazing. Even Lewis had to concede that. And yet, in some way, this was a shining moment for Lewis, too. He showed grace in defeat — the first really big one he has suffered in a while — and it may well have won him more fans than any of his victories. “We are not friends,” he admitted of his relationship with rival Johnson, “but we are competitors. I respect him.”

A new world record. A would-have-been world record. When they analyze this race, they will see that the difference was at the gun, Johnson’s thunderclap of anticipation. What was he thinking when he stared down that track? Velocity? Destiny? Perhaps only that this would be the start of something big.

Oh man, was it ever.

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