For some, real Olympics ahead

Track and field starts Friday to high US hopes

The 2000 Olympics really start tomorrow.

Indeed, for all the glories and wonders of this extravaganza that encompasses everything from judo to beach volleyball, the signature event is track and field.

There can be chatter about badminton and water polo and trampoline. There can be flirtation with gymnastics. Swimming has a serious relationship with fans. But for many enthusiasts the true and meaningful love affair that lasts forever is with track and field. And for them from tomorrow until the men's marathon on the final day, Oct. 1, the real Olympics unfold.

That's especially true of millions of Americans, for understandable reasons: The United States is by far the most successful and dominant competitor in Olympic track and field history, winning 287 gold medals. The runner-up is the Soviet Union, with 69. Overall, the US has won 668 medals of all hues to 204 for the Soviets (and later Russia).

As track-and-field athletes prepare to strut their stuff, the US may be on the brink of hauling off another mother lode.

Marion Jones will soon begin her assault on her self-set goal: to win five gold medals. Her events are the 100 and 200 meters, the 4x100 and 4x400 relays, and the long jump. Jones's determination seems in place - "I don't handle failure very well," she says.

But events beyond her control could conspire against her. An obvious peril is present in the relays, where a single bobble passing the baton between runners - not necessarily involving Jones - could torpedo her plans. Or one of her teammates could have a slow-feet day.

Beyond this, experts remain concerned by her lack of solid technique and consistency in the long jump. Optimists reply that she only will need one good leap and that she clearly has the athletic talent to do it. Qualifying heats in the 100 meters start tomorrow, with the finals Saturday. The buzz is that Jones should cruise in both the 100 and 200 meters. Yet, there is always room for a slip up. No American woman has ever won five golds in a single Olympics.

The other dominating American story is 400-meter sprinter Michael Johnson, who has won 17 international gold medals and five world titles. At a press conference here yesterday, Johnson was his usual ultra-confident self, saying that "somebody is going to win, and my plan is to win."

Johnson won both the 200- and 400-meter races at Atlanta in 1996. His dazzling success there was life-changing. He describes it: "More of everything. More money. More pressure. More expectation. More time constraints. More appearances."

But he will not be in the 200 here, because he was injured in the trials and didn't finish. Therefore, he failed to qualify. Never mind his fame, fortune, and the fact he'll be competing less here than in Atlanta. Johnson emphasizes his focus must be on "running fast." His heart, and he hopes his feet, are set on bettering his world record of 43.18 seconds in the 400.

Johnson's world record in the 200 of 19.32 seconds, run in Atlanta, is a mark many believe is safe forever. He'd like to put his 400 time below 43 seconds, which also would be regarded as unassailable. To this end, Nike is doing its part. At a press conference complete with plenty of pomp and an overload of circumstance, the shoes Johnson will race in were unveiled. They feature droplets of 24-karat gold.

"I'm very pleased with the shoe," said Johnson on corporate cue, "as you can tell by the smile on my face."

Beyond Jones and Johnson, Maurice Greene has in mind improving on his 100-meter world record of 9.79 seconds. Adam Nelson, who suddenly is shot-putting five feet farther than last year, has golden thoughts in the shot put. Chris Huffins is thinking success in the decathlon. Allen Johnson is the top pick in the 110-meter hurdles, and Angelo Taylor might be golden in the 400-meter hurdles, observers here say.

On the women's side, veteran Gail Devers looks primed to finally medal in the 100-meter hurdles after many disappointments. Sandra Glover could score in the 400-meter hurdles. In the Olympics debut for women's pole vaulting, America's Stacy Dragila is a big favorite.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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