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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Still The King

Track and field: Johnson gets his gold medal in 400, then is upstaged in long jump when Lewis dramatically earns his ninth.

July 30, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Has there ever been an athlete with Carl Lewis' sense of the moment? Flawed enough to put himself into athletic peril and great enough to dramatically escape, Lewis, in defeat and in triumph has for 16 years never failed to entertain.

How fitting that on sports' biggest stage, Lewis managed to outshine such stars on their biggest nights: Michael Johnson blowing away the field in the 400 meters and setting an Olympic record, defending champion Marie-Jose Perec of France winning the women's 400 in the fastest time in 10 years, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, the athlete of the year in 1995, gliding to the gold medal in the 10,000 meters, and Americans Allen Johnson and Mark Crear going 1-2 in the 110-meter hurdles.

Something about Lewis manages to wrest the spotlight from whomever else is around. Monday night at Centennial Olympic Stadium before 82,773 fans, Lewis did what he does best, entertain. At 35, he won the dramatic long jump competition that included a bronze medal for Joe Greene of Dayton, Ohio, and an injury to world-record holder Mike Powell.

For Lewis, it was a night of records: It was the fourth consecutive time he has won the Olympic long jump. That tied Al Oerter's Olympic record of four consecutive golds in the same track and field event. Lewis, a five-time Olympian, has now won nine gold medals, tying him with Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi for most ever.

Johnson's victory was less dramatic but no less impressive. His winning time of 43.49 seconds was an Olympic record and his margin of victory (.92 seconds) was the largest since 1896. Johnson did what great athletes do, he made a quarter-mile full-out sprint look relaxed and easy. Johnson is so dominant that winning was not enough for some, only a world record would verify his achievement, and that didn't happen.

The Dallas native might have been conserving energy so that he might successfully reach a difficult double goal--winning the 400 and 200 meters in the same Olympics, something no man has done. The 200 qualifying begins Wednesday.

"I went after it," Johnson said. "Everything went according to plan. There were no surprises. I'm not disappointed I didn't get the world record. There will be other world-record opportunities. Now I'm going to move on to the 200. I have about 48 hours to get ready. I only need two hours."

Johnson, who was ranked No. 1 in the world in both events in 1992, was eliminated in the semifinals of the 200 and never made it to the heats of the 400 in the Barcelona Games. Though he later helped the U.S. 1,600-meter relay team win gold and set an Olympic record, the next four years became Johnson's grand obsession.

"Over the past three years, everyone has asked, 'Does this make up for '92,' " Johnson said. "Going out today and winning the gold medal does make up for '92. It's a great feeling to be able to say I'm an individual gold medal winner."

Perec, who trains in Westwood under UCLA assistant coach John Smith, pulled the 400 field along with her on a scorching pace. It was the first time that six women have run under 50 seconds in the same race. Her winning time was 48.25. Like Johnson, Perec will also run the 200.

"It was much harder here than it was in Barcelona," she said after becoming the first man or woman to repeat in the 400. "After 300 meters, making my last surge, I just felt like I was flying."

Gebrselassie's victory was a tribute to his patience, his tactical sense and his speed.

The distance races customarily are packed with talented Kenyan runners and their strength is their willingness to sacrifice personal achievement for the advancement of the team. Sunday night, the three Kenyan runners met to determine which of them felt the least strong.

Paul Koech drew rabbit duty and raced recklessly Monday night, then dropped back to let countryman Paul Tergat take over. Gebrselassie, waiting while everyone sorted himself out, then placed himself off Tergat's shoulder. The Ethiopian surged around Tergat at the bell lap and sprinted home.

His winning time of 27 minutes 7.34 seconds was an Olympic record. The remarkable aspect to the race was its last half. Gebrselassie was timed in 13:11.6 for the final 5,000 meters, a time that would have won all but one of the Olympic 5,000-meter races. He will also run the 5,000 later this week.

Allen Johnson of Washington, D.C., won the 110-meter hurdles in 12.95, an Olympic record, and USC's Crear won the silver. Crear who had broken his arm two weeks ago and not told anyone, removed the cast before he got here, and ran anyway.

The long jump competition was sandwiched in among the night's other attractions, but it rewarded those who watched.

Lewis had already quickened the hearts of his fans when he advanced out of qualifying on his final jump Sunday night. There were echoes of that Monday. Lewis ran through his first jump. Then, well behind the take-off board, he jumped 26-8 1/2, which put him momentarily in second place.

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