SACRAMENTO — If "TRACK IS BACK," as boldly claimed on T-shirts distributed here Saturday by USA Track and Field, today could be presented as defense exhibit A.
On the final day of the USA Mobil Outdoor Track and Field Championships, in front of a network television audience and an anticipated crowd of more than 16,000 at Hughes Stadium, much-awaited matchups such as Michael Johnson vs. Mike Marsh in the 200 meters and Mike Powell vs. Carl Lewis in the long jump will be featured, along with command performances by some lingering stars--Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Gail Devers, Roger Kingdom and Gwen Torrence--and some rising ones--John Godina, Kareem Streete-Thompson and Allen Johnson.
All of that should give USATF's embattled executive director, Ollan Cassell, a rare chance to stress the positive without having to dodge many smirks from the usually skeptical media as he delivers his annual state of the sport address.
Still on a high from Friday, when Marsh and Torrence won exciting 100s and Johnson ran the fastest 400 time ever--43.66 seconds--in the United States, the crowd of 15,597 Saturday did not seem too bothered by the television-inspired scheduling that stacked 14 finals for today.
Highlights from Saturday's finals included:
--Kim Batten, two months after undergoing an appendectomy, winning the women's 400-meter intermediate hurdles in 54.74.
--UCLA sophomore Amy Acuff adding to her recent NCAA high jump championship with a victory at 6 feet 4 3/4.
--Mike Conley coming from behind on his last chance to win the triple jump at 56-4 1/2.
--Mark Croghan setting a meet record of 8:17.54 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
But those were merely hors d'ouevres for today's main course, which, in recent years, would have been the duel between long jumpers Powell and Lewis. Since their epic showdown at the World Championships in Tokyo four years ago, when Powell broke Bob Beamon's 23-year-old world record, they have met only three times, once since 1992.
Neither, however, seems particularly fit, leading to the possibility of an upset by Rice's NCAA champion, Streete-Thompson. And, besides, Powell against Lewis figures to be overshadowed by Michael Johnson and Marsh in the 200 meters.
Johnson, trying to become the first man in the U.S. championships since 1899 to win both the 200 and 400, came back less than 24 hours after winning the quarter-mile to run two rounds of the 200 Saturday. If he was tired, it was not apparent as he ran 20.21 in the first round and 20.04 in the semifinals. Kevin Little, in another heat, ran 19.94 in the semifinals, but his time was wind-aided, so Johnson's best stands as this year's world leader.
If the wind cooperates, that does not figure to last beyond today. Johnson and Marsh said they are ready to run legal times in the 19s--perhaps even as fast as the longest-standing individual world record, Italian Pietro Mennea's 19.72, set in 1979.
"With myself in there and Michael Johnson in there, it's going to take an under-20 race," Marsh said. "Everybody is going to go for it, so the world record could easily go."
Marsh, also chasing a double after winning the 100 Friday, was not as impressive as Johnson on Saturday, running 20.42 in the first round and 20.19 in the semifinals. The latter came in his second-place finish to Johnson in a heat, but both shut down considerably after their places in the final were assured.
"Once I was sure I had second place," Marsh said, "it was, 'OK, let him have this one.' " Asked if a world-class 100 runner can beat a world-class 400 runner in the 200, Marsh responded with a question of his own: "Any physicists out there?"
When no one in the press corps stepped forward, Marsh added: "Obviously, Michael Johnson has a tremendous amount of strength because he's a quarter-miler. But I'm faster than he is. What will happen at the finish line, I can't say. But, of course, I'm going to show favoritism to myself. Speed is better."