Olympic track looking very American

Dick Pound, the vice-president on the International Olympic Committee, says these Games at the halfway point are on their way to being "magic ... when absolutely everything went right and everyone had a wonderful time."

The Americans are in no position to disagree. It was a weekend in which a strong United States contingent lived up to its own high expectations. And when there were surprises, they were more of the pleasant than the unpleasant kind.

So far, the US has accumulated 52 medals, 21 gold. The closest team to those totals was China, with 18 golds and 44 medals in all. Australia followed with 40 medals, 10 of them gold.

In the high-profile track-and-field events, the US superstars finally had the world stage. It was cool and breezy here in the $372.6 million Olympic Stadium, conditions not conducive to record setting but, as it turned out, very conducive to very cool performances by America's best female and male sprinters.

Marion Jones easily cruised to victory in the 100 meters in her season best of 10.75 seconds, far off Florence Griffith Joyner's 10.49 world mark. But that was no downer for Jones, who said afterward, "I'm only 24, and this has been my dream for 19 years of my life."

This was the first step in a difficult journey Jones has planned for herself that, if successful, will end in her having five gold medals draped around her neck. She'll compete in the 200, run on two relays, and try to win the long jump.

Maurice Greene, with a time of 9.87 seconds, didn't seriously challenge his own world mark of 9.79 which he set in Athens last year. But the record wasn't the point: Winning was. And he was his usual, supremely confident self, seemingly turning on just enough speed at the end to triumph over his training buddy, Trinidad's Ato Boldon.

As the crowd erupted, Greene looked as if he could increase his speed any time he wanted. Later, he wasn't sure what happened in the race. "You work for years," he says, "for something that lasts nine seconds."

Greene had the attention of all the Olympics because if they were reduced to only one event, it would be the men's 100 meters because the winner automatically is considered the world's fastest human. There seemed little doubt going into the race on Saturday evening that Greene not only would win - he repeatedly says, "I know I can run as fast as any man out there" - but dominate the showcase event in the showcase sport. Greene did both.

Donovan Bailey, the '96 Olympic 100-meter champ from Canada who set an Olympic record in Atlanta of 9.84 seconds, pulled up in the race when he was already soundly beaten. He said he had respiratory problems and groused, "I shouldn't have run."

Bailey was not the only fallen star.

In a debacle of the first order, US high jumper Charles Austin from San Marcos, Texas - the American record holder at 7 ft., 10 in., a three-time Olympian, and the '96 Olympic gold medalist - failed to qualify in an event he was considered a lock to win.

In the preliminaries, he cleared 7 ft., 2 in. He, however, never could get over 7 ft., 4 or 7 ft. 5 in., thus failing to qualify for the finals.

Later, Austin said his shoes were too small. He hadn't tried them on before the competition. Former high jumping great Dwight Stones viewed the episode as "one of the dumbest moves in a qualifying round that I've ever witnessed."

But Austin's bad fortune helped Russia's Sergey Kliugin, who won with a mediocre leap of 7 ft., 8-1/2 in.

Things were far happier for the US over the weekend in the shot put, where a feel-good story continued for American Adam Nelson. He won a silver medal with a throw of 69 ft., 7 in. on his second of four attempts. He beat teammate John Godina by three-quarters of an inch, leaving Godina with the bronze. Arsi Harju of Finland won the gold.

Nelson has improved on his personal best by nearly five feet in this year alone. He was understandably ecstatic. And he had no regrets about being second, saying, "The silver medal is fine with me."

The Olympic women's marathon has not been kind to Americans since Joan Benoit won the first one in 1984. Her mark of 2:24.52 stood until Sunday when the top three finishers all bested it.

Tops in a starry field was Naoko Takahashi of Japan, who won in 2:23.14, eight seconds better than runner-up Lidia Simon of Romania.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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