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Victory Laps

Track and field: Johnson keeps his record perfect in event after Freeman lives up to expectations.


SYDNEY, Australia — "The Star-Spangled Banner," an endangered species at this Olympic track and field competition, resurfaced twice at Olympic Stadium on Monday, once as a command performance by Michael Johnson, once as an over-the-top single by Stacy Dragila.

Of course, by now, the national anthem has become Johnson's personal soundtrack whenever he runs a 400-meter final at a major international meet. Four times, Francis Scott Key has accompanied Johnson to the 400-meter medal ceremony at world championships and now, they have performed a duet twice at the Olympic Games.

Running conservatively on a cold night not conducive to world-record challenges, Johnson became to first man to win 400-meter gold medals in consecutive Olympics, repeating his 1996 triumph with a winning sprint of 43.85 seconds.

Minutes later, Dragila cleared 15 feet 1 inch to win the first gold medal in the women's pole vault, an event making its Olympic debut in Sydney.

They were predictable victories, results lifted straight off the dope sheet, as was Australian Cathy Freeman's crowd-pleasing run to the women's 400-meter championship in 49.11 seconds.

Other than that, it was a long night of slow American runs, short American throws and Yankee triple jumps that more closely resembled bloop singles.

Michael was the only Johnson to repeat Olympic gold, as 1996 110-meter hurdles champion Allen Johnson chugged in at 13.23 seconds, finishing fourth behind surprise winner Anier Garcia of Cuba (13.00) and U.S. teammates Terrence Trammell (13.16) and Mark Crear (13.22).

Anthony Washington, the 1999 world discus champion, finished last in Monday's Olympic final, managing only one legal throw that measured 196 feet 5 1/2 inches. American teammate Adam Setliff placed fifth at 216-7, well behind Virgilijus Alekna's gold-medal throw of 227-4 for Lithuania.

Hazel Clark and Robert Howard finished seventh, respectively, in the women's 800 and men's triple jump--events won by Mozambique's Maria Mutola (1:56.15) and Britain's Jonathan Edwards (58-1 1/4).

No American had qualified for the women's 5,000 final, won by Romania's Gabriela Szabo in an Olympic-record time of 14:40.79. And in a stirring men's 10,000 final, won by Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie (27:18.20) as he outsprinted Kenya's Paul Tergat (27:18.29) to the finish, Americans Abdirahman and Mebrahtom Keflezighi placed 10th and 12th.

With the Olympic track competition at the halfway point, the United States is sitting with four gold medals--well off its pace in Atlanta in 1996, when American track and field athletes totaled 13 golds.

Clearly, USA Track and Field Chief Executive Craig Masback has enjoyed better days. Masback missed the first hour of the women's pole vault final; he was detained downstairs, fielding questions from the media about U.S. shotputter C.J. Hunter testing positive for nandrolone.

After the inquisition, Masback sighed and said, "What I'm really concerned with is the U.S. team. We're not doing very well."

Fortunately for Masback, Johnson was running later in the evening. Michael Johnson in the 400: Dial-A-Gold Medal.

Johnson, who had talked in previous weeks of lowering his 400-meter world record--43.18 seconds--in Sydney, stared into the wind whipping through Olympic Stadium, looked up at the rain clouds congregating overhead and readjusted his sights.

"Today's race was more conservative than I might have run if maybe the weather was a little better, if I thought I could have broken the world record," Johnson said.

"But I couldn't take chances with the way Alvin [Harrison] was running. And training with Gregory [Haughton of Jamaica], I knew he was running well. I can't take chances, running against guys like that.'

So Johnson blew out of the blocks, asserting himself early, building a five-meter lead by the 150-meter mark and then brought it in at 43.84, well off his best time of the year, 43.68, set at the U.S. Olympic trials in July, and his Olympic mark of 43.49 at Atlanta.

Harrison was second at 44.40 and Haughton took third at 44.70.

Johnson said he drafted energy off Freeman, who had electrified the crowd of 112,524 with her 400-meter triumph in the previous race.

"There was a lot of energy in the stadium after Cathy ran," Johnson said. "I was fortunate to run right after her, with the stadium really buzzing. It made our race much better."

Freeman walked onto the track for the women's 400 final looking like an Australian comic-book hero, clad head-to-ankle in a green, gold and silver hooded body suit that lacked only mask and cape. The race wasn't a breeze, as she had to pull away from silver medalist Lorraine Graham of Jamaica in the last 50 meters. Freeman's time was less than superhuman, tying her for 10th on the all-time Olympic leaders list, but it was the fastest time of the year and, as with Johnson, it got the job done.

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