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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | TRACK AND FIELD : COMMENTARY

Let Him Run for Gold Times' Sake

August 03, 1996

ATLANTA — The U.S. runner on the penultimate leg in the final of the men's 400-meter relay tonight in Centennial Olympic Stadium will round the final curve and hand off to . . . Muhammad Ali.

From hints dropped here Friday night, it could happen. We are being told that the anchorman for the heavily favored U.S. team could be an athlete who used to be the greatest, would like nothing more than to win one more gold medal and, leadoff man Jon Drummond said, will be a big surprise.

Then again, it could be Carl Lewis.

To hear some talk, there are almost as many reasons to keep Lewis off the sprint relay team as Ali. Foremost among them is that Lewis is no longer one of the four fastest sprinters in the United States--he is only the eighth-- and he rejected an invitation five weeks ago to join the team at a North Carolina training camp.

Logical.

But dumb.

Forget that international track and field officials want to draw more attention to their sport in this country, a certain shoe company that sponsors Lewis and the great peacock, NBC, would like to see him carry the baton for the United States and win a historic 10th Olympic gold medal. Their interests are secondary.

There are valid athletic reasons for naming Lewis to the team. Because of the unpredictable nature of the sprint relay, the United States needs a steady anchor. There is none steadier than Lewis. Michael Johnson is no friend of Lewis', but even Johnson said that he would not think twice about giving the assignment to Lewis.

"Carl has more experience than all four guys out there put together," Johnson said of the original lineup of Drummond, Michael Marsh, Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell.

While that is not literally true, Johnson makes an important point. Lewis, 35, has been the anchor for 12 of the 20 fastest sprint relay teams of all time, including two Olympic gold medalists. As long as Lewis can still run almost as fast as anyone else in the world, his history in the event is more important than a few hundredths of a second of speed.

If you don't believe that, ask the Canadians. They would substitute Lewis for their anchor, Donovan Bailey, in a moment if their citizenship rules worked that fast, and all Bailey has done in the 100 meters within the last week is break the world record.

It appeared Friday morning that the U.S. team would come to its senses and take advantage of Lewis. After Burrell announced the day before that he was withdrawing because of pain in his Achilles' tendon, Mitchell, the relay team's captain, volunteered to relinquish his anchor role to Lewis and run a different leg.

But then Burrell, angered by speculation that he invented the injury because of pressure from international track and field officials, that certain shoe company and NBC in deference to his more famous Santa Monica Track Club teammate, returned to practice and reported that he felt no pain.

"Of course he didn't," said Joe Douglas, manager of the Santa Monica Track Club, revealing that Burrell had received a pain-killing shot. "I'm worried about him. I think he's risking serious injury."

Virtually everything that occurred after that was bewildering. The U.S. coach, Erv Hunt of the University of California, acknowledged that the suddenly sound Burrell was back in his plans but said that Marsh might have been injured in his seventh-place finish in Thursday night's 200 final. Douglas, who also represents Marsh, said the sprinter from Los Angeles is perfectly healthy.

Then Lewis showed up at the practice track for a workout, leading to speculation that he might run in Friday night's semifinal. He didn't, and the U.S. team of Drummond, Tim Harden, Tim Montgomery and Mitchell won its heat easily in an excellent time of 37.96.

Rather cryptically, Drummond said afterward: "We've got a big surprise for y'all. The only thing I can say is that dreams come true."

Asked to elaborate, Drummond laughed and said: "I have the answer, but I'm not telling. It's the first time I've been in control of the press."

That is one more time than Lewis this week. Since he said after his long-jump victory Monday night that he would be available for the relay if needed, there have been negative comments made about him in the press.

He has not been popular with much of the media since 1984, when his manager, Douglas, said that Lewis would be more popular after the L.A. Olympics than Michael Jackson. That is probably true today, although the standard has lowered considerably in the last 12 years.

Also in the last 12 years, Douglas has apologized for that remark, saying that it came from the mouth of a babe in dealing with the media, and Lewis has been accessible, quotable and outspoken. You would think reporters would be behind him 100%. But many of them continue to label him as arrogant, as if modesty were among the criteria for selecting a relay team.

The only criterion is whether Lewis would help the team. Not even sentiment among those who want to see him win an unprecedented 10th gold medal counts. The team might very well win without him. But it would be a more sure thing with him.

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