SPORTS

A bitter rivalry on the road to Seoul

MARK NICHOLS August 29 1988
SPORTS

A bitter rivalry on the road to Seoul

MARK NICHOLS August 29 1988

A bitter rivalry on the road to Seoul

SPORTS

Ever since he set a dazzling world record in the 100-m sprint in Rome last August, Canada’s Ben Johnson has been hailed as a superstar by European track-and-field fans. When Johnson appeared at a track meet in Sestriere, Italy, earlier this month, fans swarmed over fences to ask for autographs. And in Zurich last week, youthful admirers once again mobbed the Toronto runner. But at Zurich’s Letzigrund Stadium, Johnson’s fortunes suddenly took a turn for the worse. In a long-heralded 100-m race against his American archrival, Carl Lewis, track officials called Johnson back after he exploded from the blocks in a false start. Then, after a second start, Johnson slowed in the last 20 m, allowing Lewis and another American, Calvin Smith, the former world-record holder, to surge past him. Lewis’s victory gave him a strong advantage in their bitter rivalry, as he and Johnson prepare for the Seoul Olympic Games starting on Sept. 17. Declared Lewis: “All I have to do is carry this momentum into the Games.”

Despite his third-place finish, Johnson still shared with Lewis in a purse that was, by most accounts, the richest in track-andfield history. Reports circulating in Zurich said that each man received at least $300,000, most of it put up by European and U.S. television networks, CBC TV (which paid about $25,000 to broadcast the race live) and corporations that have sponsorship arrangements with the two track stars.

At the same time, the 26-year-old Johnson blamed his loss on the fact that he is still recovering from a torn hamstring muscle in his left leg that forced him to stop running for nearly three months this summer. Declared Johnson: “Now I’ve got five weeks to get ready for Seoul. That’s all that matters.” While Lewis flew back to Houston to resume training, Johnson said that he planned to run in a 100-m event in Cologne, West Germany, on Aug. 21.

From the start, Johnson’s appearance in Zurich before a sellout crowd of 23,000 was dogged by trouble. During a practice start immediately before the race, one of Johnson’s starting blocks slipped, pitching him forward onto the track. And shortly after the race ended, he said that the clicking of a nearby

camera had distracted him —and helped provoke him into the false start. Clearly, because a second false start would have disqualified him, Johnson visibly restrained himself. Even so, he led the field of eight runners until the last second of the race, when Lewis— who is known for his powerful finishes—surged past. But Lewis’s time of 9.93 seconds—.07 seconds ahead of Johnson—posed no threat to the Cana-

dian’s world record of 9.83 seconds.

The crowd in Zurich did see one record broken, when U.S. runner Butch Reynolds won the 400-m event in 43.29 seconds, cutting more than half a second off the old mark of 43.86 seconds that American Lee Evans set at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. But no athlete in the small Canadian contingent in Zurich managed a first-place finish. Toronto’s Mark McCoy placed second in the 110-m hurdles, while Vancouver’s Lynn Williams took third place in the women’s 3,000-m event. In the women’s 100-m sprint, Toronto’s Angela Bailey placed fourth, in 11.21 seconds, while Torontonian Angella Issajenko—Canada’s top female sprinter—was eighth in 11.52.

Following his triumph over Johnson, the 27-year-old Lewis played to the crowd. Even as he crossed the finish line, he raised his arms in a victory ges-

ture, then jogged around the arena and handed out presigned photographs of himself. At one point, Lewis’s 25-yearold sister, Carol, lifted her 180-lb. brother into the air. “It was a real confidence-builder for me,” said Lewis of the race. He added that the win showed that he did not have to concentrate on developing a faster start to beat Johnson. “My race is the best race for me,” said Lewis, who won gold medals at the

1984 Los Angeles Olympics in the 100-m and 200-m events, the 400-m relay and the long jump. “I can’t change it. I can’t get into Ben’s race.”

For his part, Johnson appeared confident despite his first defeat by Lewis since 1986. Said Johnson: “I just need more races to get sharpened up and just try to maintain that last 40 yards.” Johnson’s trainer, Toronto track coach Charles Francis, expressed similar views. Said Francis: “This isn’t a psychological blow. In some ways, Ben needs to be under pressure. He feels pretty good, but he knows that he messed up and got tight.” Now, after losing to his archrival and being cast as the underdog, Johnson is travelling toward Seoul with a single objective: snatching Olympic gold from Lewis.

-MARK NICHOLS