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It Should Be a Primo Competition : Track and field: Athletes finally take center stage at World Championships. Lewis may not compete.


GOTEBORG, Sweden — Finally, it is time for track and field's indomitable czar, Primo Nebiolo of Italy, and his colleagues from the International Amateur Athletic Federation Congress to leave the stage after five days of bashing each other, journalists and, some will say, the sport they are here to serve.

For pure entertainment value, theirs is a hard act to follow. But if the fifth IAAF World Championships are anything like the previous four, the 1,959 athletes from 192 countries who will compete during the next nine days are worthy of the challenge.

The most prestigious event of 1995 in world sport began Friday night with an opening ceremony, presided over by King Carl XVI Gustaf. The championships begin for real today with the possibility that he will be joined in the spectators' seats by the other King Carl (Lewis), who might withdraw from competition because of a hamstring injury.

There is so much depth in so many events that he will hardly be missed. Even before the end of the first weekend, the anticipated sellout crowds in the 45,000-seat Ullevi Stadium will already have seen finals in events featuring world champions Linford Christie, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Heike Drechsler and Gail Devers and the opening-round efforts of Michael Johnson, Marie-Jo Perec, Javier Sotomayor and Dan O'Brien.

The meet promises to build from there, even without surprises such as those two years ago at Stuttgart, Germany, where unheralded Chinese women won six of the nine medals--including all three golds--in events from 1,500 to 10,000 meters and turned turtle blood and caterpillar fungus into staples for the health-conscious.

Now that the weather has returned to normal after a week when it was so hot that the fire department had to hose down roofs to cool off volunteers in the meet's air-conditionless headquarters, the people of Goteborg (population 433,000, home of Ingemar Johansson) are expected to embrace the championships unlike any other sporting event here since soccer's 1958 World Cup.

Ullevi Stadium was built for that event, almost brought down by overenthusiastic fans at a 1985 Bruce Springsteen concert and refurbished last year.

If this event has a "Boss," it is probably Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, the world-record holder and the only athlete with a chance to win his fifth World Championships gold medal in the same event. Perhaps because he was only 19 when he won his first in 1983 at Helsinki, he seems ageless.

Maybe he is. Asked Friday how long he will continue to dominate his event, he said: "I prefer to make such results forever."

Other standouts include Algeria's Noureddine Morceli, who vows to hold every world record between 800 and 10,000 meters one day, but plans to concentrate here only on the 1,500; and Johnson, trying to become the first man in a major international championship to win the 200 and 400. He recently became the first man in more than a century to win both races in the U.S. championships.

Or the meet's star could be a woman. France's Perec also is trying an unprecedented double, in the 400 and 400-meter hurdles. She is the 1991 world and 1992 Olympic champion in the open 400 but has developed an affinity for the hurdles since moving last year to Westwood to train under John Smith.

Then there are Joyner-Kersee and Drechsler. Although one is from the West Coast of the United States and the other from the East of Germany, they are friends who seem to become closer each time they compete against each other. If true, they will leave here like sisters after going head to head in the long jump and heptathlon.

Drechsler has entered only two heptathlons, one since 1981, but she is considered a threat to hand Joyner-Kersee her first loss since 1984 in a competition that she has completed.

Because of their presence, the women's long jump competition is more anticipated than the men's, which has experienced as much drama as it can stand in the last week. Cuba's Ivan Pedroso set the world record last Saturday at Sestriere, Italy, but now appears on the verge of losing it because of a technicality--pending a protest from an extremely agitated Cuban track and field federation.

IAAF Vice President Alberto Juantorena of Cuba said the Italian federation, which refused to submit Pedroso's jump for ratification, stole the record not only from Pedroso but all of Cuba.

Pedroso did not seem insulted, merely determined to tighten his grasp on the record by breaking it again here. He does not figure to have much competition because of injuries to his primary challengers, Mike Powell and Lewis. The latter's hamstring is so tender that he is on the verge of withdrawing.

"Based on this morning's workout, I don't feel I'll come around and be able to compete," Lewis said Friday, seven days before the qualifications for the men's long jump.

Lewis, who has won five gold medals in individual events in four World Championships, will definitely miss the 100--which opens with two rounds today and closes with two Sunday--after failing to qualify for the U.S. team.

Even though the United States has 1994 No. 1 Dennis Mitchell, 1992 Olympic 200 champion Mike Marsh and impressive newcomer Maurice Greene in the event, they are intimidating no one.

It is one thing for Great Britain's Christie, the reigning world and Olympic champion, to call them "vulnerable," but even Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey, who has limited credentials, said the rest of the field is giddy about the prospect of shutting the Americans out of the medals for the first time in the event.

Is it too late for Michael Johnson to enter the 100 too?

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