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Biggest Stars Are Off and Sprinting

Track and field: Jones (11.20), Greene (10.31) and Johnson (45.25) have no trouble in the first round of their respective events.


SYDNEY, Australia — Will Marion Jones become the first woman track and field athlete to win five gold medals in a single Olympics? Will Michael Johnson become the first man to repeat in the 400 meters? Will Ato Boldon take advantage of his remarkable good fortune in the 200? Will Cathy Freeman succeed in carrying a nation's--and a people's--expectations on her small shoulders? Where is Marie-Jose Perec--and why?

Those are merely a few of the questions that might be answered--Perec information could remain elusive--over the next nine days in Summer Olympic track and field competition.

It began today with three of the sport's marquee names--Maurice Greene, Jones and Johnson--on the track at the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium. All are prohibitive favorites in the events they ran today, especially Jones in the 100 meters because of her withering competition.

Fellow American Inger Miller, second to Jones in the World Championships last year, withdrew from the event Wednesday because of a strained hamstring; two-time defending champion Gail Devers qualified only for the high hurdles and the sprint relay at the U.S. trials; and Jamaica's Merlene Ottey has not reclaimed her form after a one-year exile from the sport because of a drug suspension. Her inclusion in the open 100 almost caused a revolt among other Jamaican sprinters.

Jones, who also will compete here in the 200, long jump and both the 400 and 1,600 relays in an attempt to join Finland's Paavo Nurmi as the only track and field athletes to win five golds in the same Games, had the second-fastest time in the first of four rounds in the 100, winning her heat in 11.20 seconds.

U.S. teammate Chryste Gaines led qualifiers in 11.06. The third American, Tori Edwards, also qualified in 11.34.

Boldon, the former UCLA sprinter who represents his native Trinidad and Tobago, was disappointed when he led qualifiers through the first round of the men's 100 in 10.04 because he had to settle for the fastest time.

He explained that that he and his Westwood-based HSI teammates--the American threesome of Greene, Curtis Johnson and Jon Drummond--had a bet on who would be able to expend the least amount of energy in order to advance to the second round. If time is the indicator, Greene collected because his time was 10.31. Drummond ran 10.20, Johnson 10.30. All advanced.

"No big deal," said Boldon, the favorite in next week's 200 after Greene and Johnson were injured in the event during the U.S. trials and Namibia's Frankie Fredericks withdrew because of an injury.

"I'm going home to sleep."

Defending champion Donovan Bailey of Canada, a questionable starter because of flu, finished third in his heat and qualified in 10.39.

Michael Johnson, wearing his golden spikes, jogged down the stretch in the opening round of the men's 400 and still won his heat easily in 45.25, although he wasn't the fastest qualifier. U.S. teammate Alvin Harrison ran 44.96.

Freeman, the Aboriginal Australian who was the final torchbearer during the opening ceremony, was scheduled to run later in the day in the women's 400, which lost much of its drama when Perec, the defending Olympic champion from France, suddenly departed Thursday.

"Mademoiselle La Chicken," exclaimed today's front-page headline in Sydney's tabloid newspaper, the Daily Telegraph.

Perec is the latest of an unusually high number of track and field athletes to withdraw before the start of the competition. Other high-profile Americans besides Miller who will not compete here include world champion shotputter C.J. Hunter, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, and 1,500-meter runner Regina Jacobs, who has a viral infection.

One reason for the withdrawals might be the time of the year, two months later than usual for the Summer Olympics because it is only now just turning spring in the Southern Hemisphere. Some athletes are already worn down from a long season and injury prone.

A favorite in the women's 800, world champion Ludmila Formanova of Czech Republic, failed to advance past today's first round, pulling up with an injury. She is coached by Jarmila Kratochvilova, whose world record in the event set in 1983 still stands. (The Americans' Clark family--sisters Joetta and Hazel and sister-in-law Jearl Miles Clark--all advanced through the first round of the 800.)

There also is speculation among the sport's officials that some athletes will decide not to compete because of the more comprehensive drug testing here or will not be able to maintain fitness because they quit taking drugs earlier than usual in order to avoid detection.

French Olympic Committee and government officials took the unusual step Wednesday night of releasing a joint statement declaring that Perec's decision to leave was not drug related.

"The French delegation doesn't know the reasons, but it would like to clarify that it is in no way linked to an anti-doping test," the test said.

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