SYDNEY — Cathy Freeman had not only the hopes of Australia, the host nation, on her shoulders. She had the hopes of her fellow Aborigines, a tiny minority here.
So it was no surprise she talked of her "relief" after winning the gold medal yesterday in the 400-meter run. How had she coped with the pressure? "I live for the moment," she told reporters.
After China got off to a slow start at these Olympics, its coaches gathered the team and told the athletes to stop worrying about meeting high expectations and fixate on just "battling hard." Apparently, it worked. The team so far has won more gold medals (21) than in any previous Games.
Then there's sprinter Michael Johnson of the United States.
Heavily favored to repeat his gold-medal performance at Atlanta in the 400 meters, he raced to an easy victory yesterday. Afterward, he was shaking his head and just being thankful "it's over." Really over. With that, Johnson announced, "This is my last major competition."
Johnson, along with 100-meter champion Maurice Greene and women's pole vault champion Stacy Dragila, was among the high-profile athletes here who could sigh with relief at meeting golden expectations. Perhaps the American with the biggest expectations of all, Marion Jones, continues her "Drive for Five" quest to win an unprecedented five gold medals in track and field later this week.
Not every touted hero passed the pressure test. In the men's 110-meter hurdles, Allen Johnson was one of the biggest favorites in all of track and field. He holds the Olympic mark of 12.95 seconds and had the best time in the world this year, 12.97. But yesterday, he could only do 13.23 and finish fourth.
Several months ago, in more calm times, Michael Johnson was visiting with a group of reporters in Houston and musing about the Sydney Olympics.
Talk turned to his world record of 43.18 seconds he set in 1999 in the 400 meters, erasing a mark of 43.29 seconds established 11 years earlier by America's Butch Reynolds that was beginning to look as if it had been set in granite. Might Johnson be able to somehow lower that searing time even further at the Olympics, to perhaps under 43 seconds - unthinkable until recently?
Johnson responded quickly: "It's about winning, not times."
Prophetic that. Because here on a cool, breezy, slightly damp evening - precisely the kind of conditions that work against world records - Johnson made his feet wearing golden shoes fly in the 400 meters. But his winning time was a ho-hum - for him - 43.84 seconds.
No worries, as the Australians say. He not only was all about winning, he was all about dominating. It was, really, no contest.
To watch Johnson run is to watch a raw and rare combination of speed and power. It's not graceful because it's a stiff and upright style. There's nothing fluid about it because of minimal knee lift. For years, the joke has been that when Johnson runs, his feet don't leave the ground.
All it is is blurry fast.
Johnson says he thinks of himself as "hard, cold steel." And so he doesn't bend, as anyone watching him can attest. But, unlike steel, he does break. That was the only concern anyone had about him in Sydney, since he does have a background of pulling up lame in key encounters.
In 1997, there was the celebrated match race with Canadian superstar Donovan Bailey over 150 meters. Johnson pulled up. This year at the Olympic Trials in the 200-meters, he pulled up in the 200, thus failing to qualify for Sydney in that event.
The trials bust was a particular downer for track fans because Johnson won the gold in Atlanta in the 200, with a brilliant world record time of 19.32 seconds, plus the 400 with an Olympic mark of 43.49. He was the first man ever to win both, and the excitement was building to see if he could do it again here. This propelled him to a reported $12 million endorsement deal with Nike.
Pre-race thinking had been that if anyone could upset Johnson, it would be fellow American Alvin Harrison, who had been second to Johnson in Atlanta.
Almost predictably, Harrison was second again yesterday.
For those who like overcoming-adversity stories, Harrison is one of the best. He was raised by his grandmother in Orlando in a two-bedroom house that housed 11. They shared bath water and clothes. Yet, for all this, here he is in Sydney, wearing the silver medal - again - and an arm-waving testament to another only-in-America rags-to-riches tale.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society