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A Sprint Crisis : Track Aficionados Are Analyzing Problems That Americans Are Having in the 100, and Asking if the U.S. Will Be Left in the Blocks


The 100-meter men from the United States swept over the rest of the world like a tidal wave in 1991. So overwhelming were they that a frustrated Linford Christie of Great Britain, declaring that he was tired of chasing them, retired--albeit temporarily.

That was the year Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell set world records, the year Lewis, Burrell and Dennis Mitchell finished 1-2-3 in the world championships in Tokyo, the year Track & Field News, the self-proclaimed "Bible of the Sport since 1948," ranked four Americans in its top five.

Yet, five months into 1992, the gospel according to that magazine was that there was a sprint crisis in the United States. A cover story asked, "Is America's Dash Future Bankrupt?"

In the article, the author acknowledged that the timing of the question was strange. But he wrote that interviews with sprint experts and other evidence led him to conclude that almost a century of U.S. domination in the 100--14 gold medals in 21 Summer Olympics since 1896, more than one medal in 11 of them--had come to an end.

Four years later, the magazine's managing editor, Sieg Lindstrom, said, "In an Olympic year, we're trying to be more positive, but, obviously, we were on to something."

Although the United States failed to win gold medals in the 100 in the next two major international championships, with the unretired Christie finishing first in the 1992 Summer Olympics and the 1993 world championships, most of the track and field media did not catch on until last year. Now, it seems as if everyone who follows the sport is asking about the problems of the Americans in the 100. Or, as Track & Field News put it so cleverly in 1992, "Why Can't Johnny Sprint?"

He obviously still can in the 200. Or at least two-time world champion Michael Johnson can, having been ranked No. 1 in the world four of the last five years. Jeff Williams, who finished third in last year's world championships, also appears to be a force in the event, becoming the ninth-fastest performer ever last weekend with a time of 19.87 seconds.

The United States, however, might soon find itself left in the starting blocks in the 100. In today's 100- and 200-meter races at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays in Walnut, the marquee names are those of U.S. Olympic champions Lewis and Mike Marsh. But the two sprinters who bring superior credentials from 1995 to the races are Canada's Bruny Surin and Trinidad's Ato Boldon.

They finished second and third, respectively, in the 100 in last summer's world championships in Goteborg, Sweden, behind Canadian Donovan Bailey. In the poorest performance ever for the Americans in the event in a major international meet, the only U.S. sprinter to even advance to the final was Marsh. He finished fifth. Adding to the Americans' sprint embarrassment, they did not make the final in the 400-meter relay after dropping the baton in the first round. Led by Bailey and Surin, Canada won.

At the end of the year, Track & Field News ranked only three Americans among the top 10 in the 100--Jon Drummond fourth, Marsh eighth and Mitchell ninth. Only once before, in 1976, did an American not finish among the top three.

Many within the sport believe the U.S. sprinters will rebound in time for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. John Smith, who coaches Drummond and Boldon in Westwood, said the world championships "served as a wake-up call." Even Boldon predicted the United States will win the sprint relay in Atlanta--"It's a simple question of math"--and send at least one man to the medal stand in the 100.

"There's something about having the Olympics in your home country that gets the adrenaline flowing," said Jim Bush, the former coach at UCLA and USC who now has his own track club.

But hardly anyone is optimistic about the United States' sprint prospects beyond Atlanta.

"To put it bluntly, I think last year was a sign of things to come," said Marsh, a former Hawthorne High and UCLA sprinter.

Marsh, who now trains with Lewis and Burrell in Houston, said that as he looks toward the Olympic trials in Atlanta in June, he sees most of the same sprinters who contended for places on the last two Olympic teams. Lewis is 34, Mitchell 30, Burrell 29 and Marsh 28.

Drummond often is spoken of as one of the new breed. He is 27.

"A lot of these guys aren't going to be around in four years," Marsh said. "By 2004, we could be devastated. We don't have many young sprinters."

A couple emerged last year. Maurice Greene, 21, was second in the national championships, and Tim Harden, 22, won the NCAA championship. Jeff Laynes, 25, formerly of USC, has shown promise this year with a 10.01 two weeks ago in Tempe, Ariz. Williams, 21, might also develop in the 100. Another Williams, Keith, came out of nowhere--St. Cloud State in Minnesota, actually--to finish second in the U.S. indoor championships last winter.

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