Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ten seconds that took fifteen minutes

The Olympic Series: A glance back at history in the shadows of London 2012

July 27, 1996: Out they walked for the fastest show on earth. More so than ever, the men’s 100m final was the showpiece of the Olympic Games. No longer just the blue-ribbon event, but almost the main event that defined an Olympics. Think Jessie Owens not only defeating Germany, but an entire race of people, with a world record in 1936. Think Carl Lewis equalling Owens’ four gold medals in Los Angeles 1984. Think the greatest upset in Olympic history that in reality was not, when a substance-enhanced Ben Johnson beat Lewis with what appeared to be the fastest run in human history in 1988.

And so on this hot summer’s night in Atlanta, one of the deepest, most open fields in Olympic history assembled for the men’s 100m final. There was Linford Christie, the defending champion. Christie had become just the second Brit to win this title since Harold Abrahams in Paris 1924. Abrahams’ story made it to the silver screen. Christie’s legend was coming close. Second to the upgraded Lewis in Seoul, he was looking to join King Carl by becoming the second only to win back-to-back 100m gold. Alas for Moscow’s 100m champion Alan Wells, there would be no silver screen, just an asterisk for winning the only Olympic 100m final without an American runner present.

Frankie Fredericks was here too. The popular Namibian had won silver in both the 100 and 200m in Barcelona. He won a 200m world title in the interim, having won gold in Stuttgart in 1993. Fredericks' conqueror in the 200m in Barcelona would also line up in this Atlanta final. Michael Marsh was one of two Americans in the field, alongside Denis Mitchell, who was third on the podium behind Christie and Fredericks in Spain. Each was hoping to join Lewis (Los Angeles 1984), Eddie Tolan (Los Angeles 1932), and Archie Hahn (St Louis 1904) as the only Americans to win 100m Olympic gold on US soil. Another American, the world record holder Leroy Burrell, was absent due to an Achilles injury.

The reigning world champion was a Jamaican-born Canadian, Donovan Bailey. The former basketballer had only taken up sprinting in 1991, aged 24. His win in Gothenburg, 1995, was in some way a restoration of national pride after the disgrace of Johnson seven years earlier. Bailey was in red-hot touch, having broken the 50m indoor world record months earlier. He would be a key figure.

There was also a 22-year-old from the island of Trinidad. Ato Boldon, born in Port-of-Spain, had immigrated to New York as a teenager. He was discovered playing soccer, his speed on the wing catching the eye of an elite track coach. Two years later, aged 18, he found himself in Linford Christie’s first round heat in Barcelona, only to be beaten badly and ousted before his first Games experience had really sunk in. But a month after Olympic failure Boldon showed his true talents winning the world junior 100 and 200m titles in Seoul, becoming the first in history to achieve the junior double. He would progress to a senior medallist in Gothenburg winning bronze behind Bailey in 10.03, but had run a blistering 9.93 to be an early world leader in 1996, and had announced himself as a real threat in Atlanta.

The early rounds were psychological warfare. The exuberance of youth saw Bolden run 9.95 in the second round. Fredericks went toe-to-toe with the young man lowering that with 9.93. Christie and Bailey simply did what they had to. They exerted little energy and made their way through quietly. Modern sprinting and championship racing was fast becoming an art of who could make the biggest statement in the quietest way. Bailey and Christie were whispering, Fredericks and Boldon were shouting their form from the rooftops. Boldon qualified fastest for the final with 9.93 in the second semi, after Fredericks clocked 9.94 in the first.

At 9.50pm local time the eight men strode out to the start. Bravado and testosterone saturated the hot Atlanta air. They were in the land of showmanship. Tommy Smith and John Carlos, of Mexico City infamy, were the fathers of it. The US Dream team, led by Michael Jordan and company, had brought the commercial branding and bright lights of the NBA to the Olympics in Barcelona. Atlanta, the home of Coca-Cola, were the “brand” Games. Michael Johnson marked his 200m world record with his Nike golden spikes. The eight that were about to toe the 100m line were there to put on a show.

Marsh would run on the inside, 100m seeming half the distance it needed to be for him to be a real challenger. Christie had drawn lane two. His disrobing and preparation was the equivalent of a striptease show on a catwalk. He pranced up and down his lane like the defending champion he was. Tracksuit was removed in a teasing fashion; his one-piece British race suit was only on from the waist-down. He waited until his name was announced before he slipped his hulking arms into the top half to finally cover his concrete slab chest.

Boldon projected an outward confidence, hiding the inexperience behind his trademark Oakley’s and expressionless face. Denis Mitchell would run in lane four. He looked a man possessed, his eye-balls bulging, almost bursting out of their sockets, naturally twitching the gold ring that was pierced through his right eye-brow. Mitchell chattered to himself like an inmate in an asylum. Boldon could not have been in a worse spot next to the devil Mitchell in four.

Fredericks stood to Mitchell’s right in five. He had seen it all before. He looked so relaxed he almost appeared disinterested. It was this that so endeared him to fans around the globe. Many believed this would be the Namibian’s night to finally stand on the top level of an Olympic dais.

The World Champion was in six. Although Jamaican by birth and genetics, he was Canadian through and through. Quiet and focussed, but excited to be there, Bailey was warm and all encompassing as he acknowledged the crowd reception that accompanied his introduction.

In seven stood reigning African champion Davidson Enzinwa. The Nigerian, like Boldon, had been a world junior champion in the 100m and had come as close as anyone to winning the double that Boldon eventually achieved, also claiming silver in the 200m in Plovdiv 1990.

In lane eight was the sole Jamaican, Michael Green, which is hard to comprehend given that sixteen years on it seems easier to win an Olympic final than to make a Jamaican relay team. Green was the fastest runner to ever graduate from William Knibb Memorial High School, until some kid called Usain Bolt enrolled there.

Finally at 10.00pm, they were ready to go.

10.01pm: “On your marks!”

Mitchell bounced around and into the crouch first. Fredericks eased his way down, with the grace and smoothness of a cat curling up on a couch. Sweat beads gathered on Christie’s brow as he checked his hands behind the line.


Away. Two gun shots were fired. Christie broke. He was first up at “set” and jumped well before acceptances. There was no doubt it was a deliberate act by the old fox to unsettle the nerves of the youngsters alongside him. He turned around immediately and raised both arms to acknowledge it. Bailey ran 30 metres with Green despite the rest returning to their blocks promptly. Christie was ashen-faced. Fredericks remained relaxed.

10.05pm: They were called to their marks again.


Away. Boldon jumped quickest. Christie a little slow. Fredericks got a smooth start. Fifteen metres run a second gun was fired?! It was as late a recall as you would ever see. All eight heads tilted skyward. Enzinwa threw his hands over his eyes. Christie pulled up quickest. Bailey and Green ran 65 metres before stopping. Boldon turned and stood motionless, with hands on hips, half-way down. Bailey stormed back, understandably frustrated, but almost excited at how well he had run the 65m. Boldon then spotted an official marching to his lane. He threw his arm at him in frustration and shook his head violently as the yellow card was raised. He was adjudged to have broken.

In April 2010, Boldon said if he had the chance, the Atlanta final would be the only race of his career he would run again. “I fell into an old habit that night. I was saying to myself why is this happening to me? I should not have done that.”

Two breaks. All eight were still there behind their blocks. Mitchell kept talking to himself. Christie looked tired, breathing heavily after two starts. Boldon, who replays confirmed had broken, calmed himself. Fredericks was still the coolest cat in the line.

10.08pm: They were called to their marks for a third time. Tension in the stadium was building. Everyone, including the eight runners, was restless now.


They were held for what seemed an eternity.

Away. They seemed even this time but again the second gun shot rang out! Boldon lost it, throwing an enormous tantrum. Christie turned and hoped. Fredericks dropped to his haunches, the first sign of any concern from the Namibian.

The officials congregated. One held up two fingers. One of Boldon or Christie was to be disqualified for a second false start. Boldon was back behind his blocks in a flash waiting for another start. Christie saw the official walk towards him and raise the yellow card. The defending champion was out. He went straight to the reply monitor on the infield. The replays confirmed him the first to move, whether he had beaten the gun was another question. He shook his head calmly, went back to his lane, removed the red flag that had been placed there and readied himself to continue. It was shades of cricketer WG Grace putting the stumps back in place after being cleanly bowled and remarking his guard. This was Christie’s coronation. Instead of being crowned he was being hung. He refused to believe it.

10.11pm: The seven other finalists walked up the track leaving Christie alone behind the blokes. He was still arguing his case with the officials. He raised his arms to the crowd looking for support. Boldon sat down on his lane sign, looking a bit like a trouble-making student who had just been censured by his teacher. Christie sat next to him. Reality was beginning to sink in.

10.12pm: Attention was diverted by another Brit, Jonathan Edwards, in the men’s triple jump final. The symmetry was scary. Edwards was the world champion and world record holder, but he lay second on the night behind American Kenny Harrison with one jump left. With the chaos of Christie happening in the home straight, Edwards’ last jump was delayed. When he finally went, he fouled by the barest of margins, and bowed out an Olympic silver medallist.

With Edwards’ crowd acknowledgement, Christie exited. He pulled his suit down to his waist and walked back down the tunnel. The defending champion was finally, officially, disqualified. He was asked to head into the tunnel but he turned and stayed to watch the race, still shaking his head.

10.14pm: The seven remaining were called to their marks. It is always strange to see a lane vacant in a 100m race. But never before has the hole looked as large as that in lane two, left by the larger than life defending champion.

“Set!” for the fourth time in 15 minutes.

10.15pm: Away cleanly, finally, and Marsh all alone in lane one got the fastest start. Boldon and Mitchell got away reasonably well. Fredericks was sluggish and Bailey was slowest out for the third time in succession. Boldon’s drive phase was strong. He led at half-way. Fredericks was finally into gear and Bailey came with a rush, flying past Fredericks and Boldon to win in a new world record of 9.84! Fredericks was second again. Boldon tightened late, and faded for third. Bailey had held his nerve. He roared with delight, but also with self-assurance. His world title was no fluke.

Fredericks looked numb. The Christie saga had got to him. Boldon was disgusted with himself. He had succumbed to the emotion of the false starts. He had spent too much energy earlier to finish off a race that he owned through the first 60 metres.

Christie usurped the moment but running down the straight, topless, waving to the crowd. There are those who believe he false started to save face in the knowledge that he could not win that night. Regardless, he was still an Olympic champion. Only now he was a “former”, as it was Bailey’s crown to wear.

Canada thought they had their first 100m Olympic champion in Seoul. Eight years later they could celebrate properly. Donovan Bailey had won the slowest 100m race in Olympic history in the fastest time ever run.

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