THERE is something appealingly simplistic, almost primitive about the 100-meter dash. It is the distance at which the human race measures raw speed. That makes it an alluring event at any international competition, and especially at the Olympic Games, where the Olympic motto, ``Citius, Altius, Fortius,'' is translated in one of two ways: ``faster, higher, braver,'' or ``swifter, higher, stronger.'' Either way, the universal fascination and emphasis on speed are evident.
The 100 meters, therefore, is traditionally a showcase event at the Olympics. But at these Games, it has attracted added interest.
The women's race brings together a strong international field headed by flamboyant Florence Griffith Joyner, the world-record holder. For sheer drama, however, the battle between Carl Lewis and Ben Johhnson makes the men's 100 a can't miss event.
All week long it has been surrounded with the same sense of anticipation that accompanied the Mary Decker/Zola Budd 3,000-meter match-up in 1984. Even more exciting this time is the fact that the rivals are probably the best two runners at their distance of all time.
All the pre-race hype, of course, has been based on the assumption that both men will reach the final. With three preliminary heats, the potential for something strange happening always exists in this event. The first two rounds were scheduled for Friday morning and afternoon in Seoul (Thursday night in North America), with the semifinal and final on Saturday. But barring the unforeseen, Johnson and Lewis should be settling into the starting blocks at Olympic Stadium along with six other runners on Saturday afternoon (11:30 p.m. Friday, Eastern time) in the dash for the gold.
As the reigning world-record holder, Johnson can claim the title of ``World's Fastest Human,'' with a time of 9.83 seconds produced at the world championships last summer.
Lewis, however, is the defending Olympic champion and ran even faster at the US Olympic trials in July. His 9.78 clocking didn't go in the books, though, because it was aided by a 5.2-meters-a-second tailwind, far above the allowable limit of 2.0.
Lewis is from the United States - Houston by way of Willingboro, N.J. - while Johnson wears the Canadian maple leaf, having moved to Toronto from Jamaica when he was 14.
Their duels, therefore, are not cold wars in a political sense, but they are cold from another standpoint. In waging a fierce battle over the last several years, the two haven't seen any warming in what has, at best, been a standoffish relationship.
When Lewis arrived at Kimpo Airport, he was quoted as saying, ``The gold medal is mine. I will never again lose to Johnson.'' Johnson, who was third at the '84 Games behind Lewis and Sam Graddy, had this response: ``He can beat me a thousand times, I don't care. I just want to win the gold medal.''
For the record, Lewis owns the lifetime edge in their confrontations, with nine victories to Johnson's six. The latest match-up came Aug. 17 in Zurich, where reports circulated that each athlete received $250,000 in appearance money.
Johnson, who has struggled to peak in the aftermath of a leg injury earlier this year, finished a disappointing third behind both Lewis and American Calvin Smith, who held the world record before Johnson and could be a spoiler here.
Other names that have cropped up as threats to the Lewis-Johnson competition are Jamaica's Raymond Stewart and Britain's Linford Christie, another Jamaican 'emigr'e, and Dennis Mitchell of the United States.
In a race of such short duration, a lot can happen, as Lewis acknowledges. ``Nearly everybody that should be in the final will be about a 10-flat sprinter,'' he says. ``You can make one minor mistake and run 10 flat while someone else runs a 9.98 or 9.97. So I don't think anyone can be counted out.''
Most observers have assumed all year, of course, that it will come down to Lewis vs. Johnson, in a head-to-head pairing of two virtual opposites.
Johnson is compact and very muscular, Lewis taller and more supple looking. The introverted Johnson is a man of few words who has worked on overcoming a childhood stutter and speaks with a clipped Jamaican accent. The glib Lewis, on the other hand, can fill notebooks when he arrives in the interview area, which he did, accompanied by a phalanx of 15 or so of Seoul's finest, the other day.
As articulate and intelligent as he is, though, Lewis came up virtually empty-handed in the endorsement sweepstakes that followed the '84 Games, this despite matching Jesse Owens's 1936 feat of winning four track-and-field gold medals.
Before the Seoul Olympics began, Sports Illustrated devoted an entire story to this mysterious image problem, citing a misplayed hand by his manager - who brashly predicted that Carl would be as big as Michael Jackson - among the reasons for corporate America's lack of interest.
Another possible turnoff was Lewis's decision to play it safe in the long jump rather than go for a world record. At the time, there was a lot of talk about Lewis's approaching Bob Beamon's almost unthinkable record in the event, yet Carl decided to save his energy for the 200 meters and 4x100-meter relay and passed on his last four of six jump chances.
Lewis, who seems to be received more favorably overseas than in the US, will again attempt to cop four gold medals, in the same four events. But no athlete in Olympic history has ever retained titles in any of his three individual events - the 100, 200, and long jump - and as supremely talented as Lewis is, the deck appears stacked against him.
Once again he has to contend with a very busy schedule that could exhaust him before he completes his quest. Furthermore, he claims his competition is better in every event - starting in the 100.
If he can't beat Johnson, who is focusing his entire effort on this one event, and a flock of not-so-long shots, the four-gold-medal dream goes up in smoke right at the start.
Though the media may claim Johnson and Lewis will be playing mind games at the starting line, Charlie Francis, Johnson's coach, says that neither runner will be thinking about the other.
``It's who can remain calm enough to do what he has to do without folding up and trying something different,'' Francis explains.
``Don't do anything special, don't try harder, don't change anything. Do what you do in practice every day.''
Both men have ``X'' amount of energy to expend, and both will reach virtually the same top speed somewhere in the race (about 27 m.p.h.). The difference comes in where the energy is expended and how efficiently it is used.
Johnson is known for his explosive starts and has worked on doing a better job of maintaining speed. Lewis may take longer to get his regal stride in full gear, but once he does he often appears to out-accelerate his rivals.
He explains that this is an illusion. ``You do not accelerate a full 100 meters. The ending, the last 30, 40, 50 meters, or whatever, is just a sense of maintaining tempo. It isn't that I'm running faster than the others, it's just that I'm deaccelerating slower than they are.''
Johnson, a cool customer who is pretty good at shutting out the distractions, actually slept almost right up to the time he set the world record in Rome last year. He says, ``I'm going to run my race. He [Lewis] is going to have to catch me.''
Lewis has enjoyed the better year and now would appear to be the favorite. Favorites, however, haven't necessarily fared well in these Olympics, where anything can happen on any given day, and especially in the space of any given 10 seconds.