SPRINTERS FIRST RUN THEIR MOUTH, THEN THEIR RACE

SYDNEY, Australia — The moment Ato Boldon finished his quarterfinal run Friday night, Maurice Greene was waiting for him. Maurice pointed to the clock, which showed Ato had won the heat in 10.11 seconds. Maurice had won his heat in 10.10.

They jawed a bit. They laughed and jawed some more. Apparently they’d had a bet. Their bet was who could win his heat with the slowest time.

“You guys are all picking Maurice,” Boldon said to a reporter. “But I don’t care. I don’t think for a second anyone can beat me.”

“Playtime is over,” Greene said, across the way, lecturing another reporter,
“Just remember — I am capable of great things.”

How can we forget? He keeps reminding us.

Tonight, on the Olympic Track, the men’s 100-meter final will finally take place. Many consider this the “real” start of the Olympics. But for fans of track and field, the race will also mark the end of something:

The end of all this incessant, indulgent, self-absorbed talk.

Honest to goodness, when did sprinting become so …wordy? It used to be enough to leave your opponent behind. Now you have to shut him up. Donovan Bailey disses Michael Johnson, Michael Johnson disses Maurice Greene. Maurice Greene disses Ato Boldon. Some Australian you never heard of disses all of them.

Somebody shut these guys up. You thought basketball gym rats were bad? They are amateurs compared to the trash talk on the track these days.

Consider the following sprinters’ quotes — they are but a feather on the pile
— that we’ve had to endure since last Olympics:

Greene: “I want Michael Johnson, and I’m going to get him.”

Johnson: “Since Carl Lewis left the sport, there isn’t an athlete I can get excited about racing.”

Bailey: “Michael Johnson is a chicken.”

Johnson: “Why would I need bragging rights over Donovan Bailey? I have two gold medals.”

Bailey: “I’d like to race Johnson again so I could kick his ass one more time.”

Boldon: “Bailey’s world record is soft.”

Johnson: “I don’t see any excitement about racing Maurice Greene. I’ve already done everything.”

Greene: “After I collect three gold medals in the Olympics, I’m gonna build me a house in California and it will be 10,000 square feet.”

Boldon: “Michael looks at the world as Michael Johnson and Company.”

Johnson: “Having done things no one has ever done before, there’s no athlete out there that’s going to be another feather in my cap.”

Greene: “If Michael Johnson is Superman, I’m kryptonite.”

Had enough?

Greene has WWF swagger

What is it about speed that turns these men into motormouths? It’s as if their feet are in a race with their lips. Perhaps it’s because their events take only 10, 20, or 45 seconds — which leaves plenty of spare time for boasting.

Maybe it’s because, at least in America, nobody cares about the times anymore. Ask the average sports fan what the world record is in the 100 meters, and you’ll get a shrug. And forget about the 200 or the 400.

What this leaves is a need to fill that void with a personality. Which is one reason tonight’s battle for the “fastest man alive” title is so important to these guys — and their agents, shoe companies and corporate sponsors. And it’s why promoters try to set up those ridiculous grudge matches — like the disastrous Bailey vs. Johnson 150-meter run in 1997.

Ego seems to grow with speed. And since men have never been faster, there has never been more noise coming from the starting blocks.

In tonight’s 100, Greene, the favorite and current world record-holder at 9.79 seconds, has done everything but run one of those cable TV scrawls under his chin. He is a self-confessed fan of the World Wrestling Federation (which means, inevitably, one day he will end up appearing in it) and the chest-thumping of those wrestlers is something Greene has embraced.

This explains the TV shirts he wears that read “Pheno-MO-nal” and the black Mercedes 500SL he drives with the license plate “MO GOLD.”

Pretty brassy for a guy who has yet to win an Olympic medal and who crapped out during the trials four years ago. Greene watched the Atlanta Olympics from the stands, sitting with his father, who is a social worker. Reportedly, the younger man cried when they ran the race without him.

You might figure that would teach him a little humility.

Instead, he has been operating from the Hulk Hogan manual. He swaggers on the track in such an exaggerated fashion, one colleague said, “He walks from his shoulders.” He wears silver shoes. He drove to Bondi Beach here last week in a yellow Ferrari convertible, and stopped to let a crowd surround him with admiration.

“I believe I’m going to put on the best show Maurice Greene has ever put on in the Olympic final,” he told Sports Illustrated.

Uh-oh. He’s already talking in the third person.

Success is fleeting, too

But Greene is hardly alone. Boldon, the speedster from Trinidad and Tobago, races with dark sunglasses and tries to maintain an equally Hollywood verbal approach. Jon Drummond, another American expected to be in tonight’s final, is not above dishing the dirt about his comrades and promoting himself with humor and a love for chocolate chip cookies.

Even the Aussies are getting into it. Matt Shirvington, the home country’s best hope, recently smack-talked the American team, saying their relay unit was “soft.”

Greene, naturally, had a retort for that: “If we’re soft, then he’s squidgy.”

Squidgy?

Ah, well. You can always turn the sound down. The 100 meters remains one of the great sports showdowns. A straight line. No turns. Fastest man to the tape wins.

But whoever crosses that line first tonight might want to remember a scene from Friday night before he starts running his trap.

There, in a second-round heat, barely noticed, a last-place finisher jogged across the line in 11.36 seconds. He hung his head. He limped off.

His name is Donovan Bailey, and four years ago he won the gold medal and set a world record in this event. He was as big as you could get then. He talked and talked and talked. He challenged Michael Johnson, he called him “a chicken” he thumped his chest and said, “I am the best.”

Now here he was, a victim of age, injury and a flu.

Gone in the second round.

Speed thrills. But it humbles, too. It would be nice if whoever breaks the tape tonight remembers that, before staining a memorable victory with a bunch of forgettable yak.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). And catch Mitch’s Olympic TV reports on “The Early Show,” 7-9 a.m. weekdays on CBS (Channel 62 in Detroit).

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