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ATHENS 2004

The Victory Lap

Led by 20-year-old Wariner, U.S. sweeps men's Olympic 400 for the first time since 1988. Harris takes second and Brew third.

August 24, 2004|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — They crossed the Olympic finish line in the same order they'd managed last month at the U.S. trials in Sacramento: Jeremy Wariner followed by Otis Harris followed by Derrick Brew.

Americans swept the men's 400-meter Olympic final here Monday, draping the gold, silver and bronze in red, white and blue.

Fourth-place finisher Alleyne Francique of Grenada was impressed, zeroing in on one color in particular.

"He's the fastest white guy I've ever seen run," Francique said of Wariner.

Wariner moves extremely fast -- he completed one lap on the Olympic Stadium track in 44 seconds Monday, faster than Harris' 44.16 and Brew's 44.42. He's a special runner because of his age (only 20, barely older than Michael Phelps), his college (Baylor University, same as Michael Johnson) and his coach (Clyde Hart, same one Johnson had).

But after every race he wins, Wariner is asked to hurdle the same left-handed compliment:

So, you're pretty fast for a white guy.

"I've heard it ever since high school," Wariner said.

"I don't let it bother me," Wariner added. "As I've said before, it doesn't matter what race you are. It's your ability. It's how you run. So, I really don't let it affect the way I run."

Wariner is the first white American to win an Olympic sprint medal since Mike Larrabee of Ventura won the 400 gold in 1964, but Brew suggested that people should focus on Wariner's age, not his skin color.

"He's a great athlete, and he's only 20 years old," Brew said. "That's pretty fast for a 20-year old. That might be some kind of record....

"Race has nothing to do with it. I'm so glad when people break down stereotypes. That's one of the most important things in [our] country."

The sweep was the first in the event since the 1988 Olympics, when Americans Steve Lewis, Butch Reynolds and Danny Everett placed 1-2-3. That 16-year-old feat was on the minds of Wariner, Harris and Brew as soon as they booked their trip to Athens with their performances in Sacramento.

"We knew we could go 1-2-3," Brew said. "We talked about it. We just had to get on the track and do what we do and execute."

Sweep complete, the trio also decided to stick together as they took their victory bows. Wariner, Harris and Brew conducted a subdued celebration on the track, conspicuously shy of preening and posing.

"The most important thing, other than going out and winning, is to respect your country," Harris said. "If we did sweep, we talked about being respectful to the other countries and to the spirit of the Olympics. We didn't want to do anything to disrespect our country."

During his just-completed sophomore season at Baylor, Wariner won both the NCAA indoor and outdoor 400 championships. Johnson, who is providing commentary here for the BBC, has closely followed Wariner's career and said Wariner "has the potential to be extremely consistent and have longevity."

"That's one thing I prided myself on and I think, again, the structure that is around him is designed to have that, to produce consistency and longevity.... And you can see in his demeanor he's a very thoughtful young man who's very mature and he'll make good decisions. And athletes who make good decisions, along with the talent, they have long careers."

Johnson, 400 champion at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, listened to Wariner's post-race interview and liked how the young runner handled the race question.

"I agree with Jeremy," Johnson said. "Athletes are athletes. Obviously, you know, they're different in some kind of way because of the cultural difference or racial difference and, you know, physiological makeup. Who knows? Nobody's been able to figure that out. It's been a question for ages.

"But it's no reason to now start trying to use Jeremy as a lab rat to figure it out with him. I mean, it is what is."

Johnson was asked what he saw in Wariner that reminded him of himself.

"I don't," he replied. "I see Jeremy when I see him run. I don't see me at all. I see a great athlete who at 20 years old has come out here, won the 400 meters in the Olympics. I didn't do that at 20 years old, I didn't make an Olympic team.

"He has the ability to focus, so there are similarities. I had that same ability to focus and compartmentalize and go out there and run races. But I don't see me in him. I see Jeremy as his own person.... I think the sooner we can start identifying Jeremy as his own person with his own style [the better]."

Johnson laughed.

"He's got bigger earrings than I have, you know," he said, referring to the square-cut diamond Wariner wears in each ear. "So, he's his own guy."

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