ATLANTA — During an Olympic press conference, members of the American women's beach volleyball team were asked what sports they wanted to see. Nearly all said track and field. The volleyballers acknowledged what so many hold to be true, namely that track and field forms the foundation of the Games.
So cue up the "Chariots of Fire" soundtrack and prepare for nine days, (not including the rest day) of riding track and field's emotional roller coaster. The competition begins Friday on a hard, griddle-hot track in Atlanta's new 85,000-seat stadium. It ends on the morning of Aug. 4, when, to escape the day's worst heat, the men's marathon has given up its traditional role as hors d'oeuvre to the closing ceremonies, which begin that night.
Whoever expects to win any of the 44 events must be able to cope with the sizzling temperatures. American middle-distance runner Meredith Rainey views her race, the 800 meters, as at "the threshold," the point at which the heat will definitely begin to factor into the results. She sees it hampering attempts by runners to run more than one race at the longer distances.
The international track federation has optimized the possibilities for competing successfully in two shorter men's races, the 200 and 400 meters, by acting on the suggestion of American sprinter Michael Johnson.
Johnson urged a scheduling change designed to avoid event overlap and increase his possibilities of winning both the 200 and 400, something no man has ever achieved at the Olympics. It's also possible he could add a third gold medal running in the 4x400 men's relay.
Johnson is considered virtually unbeatable in the 400, where he hasn't lost since 1989. His chief competition might be world record holder Butch Reynolds, who was forced out of the '92 Olympics by a disputed drug-related suspension. In the 200, Johnson is less invincible, judging from the loss Namibia's Franke Fredericks handed him July 5 in Oslo. Like Johnson, Gwen Torrence, was looking forward to chasing her own sprint double, a possibility snuffed out at last month's US track and field trials when she won the 100 but failed to qualify in the 200. That was tough to swallow, given that Torrence, an Atlanta native, anticipated defending her Olympic 200-meter title before her hometown fans. Instead, she'll have to concentrate on the 100.
Two legends of American track and field, Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, will be closing out their Olympic careers before appreciative American fans, while Mary Decker Slaney, who holds every American record between 800 and 3,000 meters, will run in the 5,000.
Slaney, who has never won an Olympic medal, had a race-ending collision with Zola Budd in 1984. That same year, Lewis equalled Jesse Owens's feat at the 1936 Olympics by winning four gold medals. In 1988, he collected his 100-meter gold medal after Ben Johnson tested positive for drugs. Altogether he has eight career golds in sprinting and long jump; he only made the team as a long jumper this time. He and Joyner-Kersee are among the favorites in the long jump, although Joyner-Kersee is also a prime contender in the heptathlon as well.
American Dan O'Brien is clearly the favorite in the men's decathlon, where he is the world record holder and three-time world champion.
The pole vault is the sole event for Ukraine's Sergei Bubka, who failed to clear the bar on any of his three opening attempts in '92 and went quietly into the night. The 1988 Olympic champion and 35-time world record setter would like to erase that memory. But he will face stiff competition, as will Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor, the first jumper to clear eight feet.
Fellow Cuban Ana Quirot will be closely watched in the women's 800 meters, where she is one of the top comeback stories of the Games even before competing, having recovered from burns to much of her body.
The British have sent two much-publicized athletes in triple jumper Jonathan Edwards and sprinter Linford Christie. Edwards, the son of an Anglican vicar, has a religious devotion that has led some to compare him to Eric Liddell, the British sprinter who refused to run on Sunday at the 1924 Olympics and whose story was told in "Chariots of Fire."
Christie, at 32, became the most senior sprinter to ever win the Olympic 100 meters when he outran Namibia's Fredericks and American Dennis Mitchell in the '92 final. All three could meet again in this dash, which is usually an Olympic highlight. The competition from a host of runners could push someone to a new world record.
As befits the Centennial Games, there should be a cornucopia of countries represented on the medals podium.
Other athletes who bear watching are Ireland distance runner Sonia O'Sullivan, Syrian heptathlete Ghada Shouaa, Ethiopian distance man Haile Gebrselassie, American sprinter-hurdler Gail Devers, Czech Republic javelin thrower Jan Zelezy, and Algerian Noureddine Morceli, the world record holder in the men's 1,500 meters.