Speed thrills

When the world's fastest humans, Marion Jones and Maurice Greene, won their races, they put us in touch with something buried deep in the human psyche.

By Gary Kamiya
September 23, 2000 9:40PM (UTC)
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The gazelle bolts across the savanna, accelerating faster with every springy stride. Millions of years of evolution have gone into making this animal a light, tight running machine, its joints supple, its frame precisely articulated to its packed twines of muscle. Thirty miles an hour. Forty. The dark line of the brush gets larger as it races toward safety.

The cheetah explodes from its ground-hugging crouch. Its spine bends and its paws push off the ground effortlessly, a vision of rippling, inexorable force. It is a perfect killing machine and its engine is speed. In 20 ground-gobbling paces it closes on the flying gazelle, like an express train overtaking a car. The gazelle hears its pursuer and breaks hard to the left, a quicker and harder move than any animal could follow except this one. The cheetah angles, follows the gazelle's desperate maneuver and springs. End of gazelle.

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In the beginning, God created speed.

All sports are atavistic, and the most atavistic of all is the simplest: running. Running puts us in touch with our primordial past, with a time before our brains had grown to the point where we could outthink our enemies instead of outrunning them. We began as hunters and the hunted, using our legs and our lungs to kill and keep from being killed. Our earliest art shows animals running, the cave paintings paying homage to the spirits of the slain while asking the gods for the speed to catch them again. But running isn't just about survival. It is a celebration of our physicality. To run as fast as you can is to give everything your body has, to use yourself up, to hurl yourself hard and joyously against your limits.

So it is not surprising that epics and mythologies, sagas and stories throughout human history extol the swift. Wing-footed Mercury joins fleet Achilles joins Tolkien's striding Aragorn joins Marion Jones, a glittering chain that will never be broken as long as human beings are still animals.

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On Friday, track and field, the heart and soul of the Olympics, began. And with them these Games returned to the human basics, to what got us here as a species. Citius. Altius. Fortius. It was an amazing, an unforgettable, feeling to enter the vast, airy Olympic Stadium, to stand among 100,000 spectators cheering on the fastest and strongest men and women in the world, competing for a wreath first awarded thousands of years ago. Many things pretend to be festivals. This truly was.

Saturday night featured the two most celebrated races of the Olympics, the men's and women's 100 meters. And these races would be especially memorable, because they featured the fastest man of all time and the fastest woman of all time whose feats are not under a cloud of drug suspicion -- arguably, in fact, the two greatest sprinters in history. On paper, they were unbeatable. But they still actually had to run the race.

The women's race came first, at about 8:05 p.m. The crowd was buzzing, eagerly awaiting the Marion Jones show. Aussies cheer their own on lustily, but they are true fans who admire greatness no matter what flag the athlete is competing under. Of course, everyone knew that this night would mark the beginning of Jones' audacious quest to win five gold medals in one Olympics -- an unprecedented feat. (Forget one Olympics -- the career record for American women athletes is five golds.) But above all, this was the Race -- the one that gives you permanent bragging rights. There is something mesmerizing and irresistible about the 100-meter dash: It's so brutally short, so intense, so explosive. It's the crack cocaine of sports. No one went to the bathroom.

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Jones had breezed through her two earlier qualifying races, never being seriously challenged. But one thing that watching lots and lots of heats and qualifying races gives you is a healthy respect for how hard it is to come out on top, what a long road it is, how many chances there are to blow it. No other sprinter was even close to being in Jones' class, but if she got a really terrible start, or made some other mistake, could Greece's Ekaterini Thanou (how wonderful that one of Jones' main challengers was a Greek -- somewhere Homer is smiling) or Jamaica's ageless, 40-year-old Merlene Ottey or another of the amazing contingent of fast Caribbeans make her pay?

The disproportionate presence of Caribbean sprinters had a cool Puerto Rican guy, an old-jazzbo-type track fanatic with gray hair, a beret and a goatee, cackling with glee in the stands on Friday. "Look!" he said, in heavily accented English, to everyone in our mile-high vicinity with a smug smile as swarms of thousands of moths circled madly around the huge Olympic flame above us. "You see there, Obadele Thompson. Barbados! Caribbean! Merlene Ottey. Jamaica! Ato Boldon -- Trinidad and Tobago!" The Sunday Morning Herald also found the phenomenon worthy of comment, although its words will probably not make their way into the official tourist brochure: "A thing of wonder is how the Bahamas, with a population of 300,000 and traditions including piracy, blockade running, rum running and provision of a haven for tax exiles, can produce a relay team capable of taking on the U.S., with a population of about 300 million and traditions including coming first at most things."

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The moment had come. Jones had been talking the talk, boldly announcing her victory: Could she walk the walk? The runners were directly below us, Jones in the U.S. team's oddly psychedelic red and blue, skintight running suit and shiny chrome shoes. As she settled into the blocks and went through her pre-race routine (one of her tics is to lightly pound her powerful buttocks a few times), I marveled at her upper back and shoulders. She is a strapping, muscular woman, with shoulders so extraordinarily broad they almost look like a man's. Next to her, the other runners looked like little girls.

There was a false start, Thanou breaking early. Would it break Jones' concentration? They went through the agonizingly slow ritual of getting back into the blocks again. The runners' faces were hidden from us, but you could almost feel their inner silence, their hair-trigger poise, the special rooms they had worked to create in their heads where nothing was allowed in but one thing: Gun. Move. The human capacity for preparation, for discipline, is incredible.

The gun sounded, its crack drifting up to our distant seats after the runners had started. For a moment as they raced out in the first meters, the field was bunched up: Jones isn't known as a fast starter. She briefly trailed one runner -- and then she hit her magnificent stride, and with scary suddenness, it was over. She simply destroyed them, left them stumbling along with walkers and canes on the track. When she roared across the line, the second-place finisher was an incredible 4 meters behind her -- which in the 100 meters is like being in another ZIP Code. When Jones crossed the line in a blistering 10.75 (the world record of 10.49 is held by the late Florence Griffith Joyner, but suspicion of drug use hangs over her feats; after FloJo, Jones has run the seven fastest times ever), it looked like she could just keep outrunning the rest of the field until she blasted right through the stadium wall and out to Tasmania. The Greek Thanou, who came on midway through the race, took the silver in a slow 11.12, and Jamaica's Tanya Lawrence grabbed the bronze at 11.18, just beating the tough-luck Ottey at 11.19, who was denied gold in 1996 in a controversial photo-finish decision. Jones' victory margin of .37 seconds was the widest in the event since the use of double-digit fractions began. Her time would have won the men's 100 meters in 1920.

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As Jones crossed the finish line, she threw her arms high over her head and a wild, ecstatic smile, almost disbelieving, crossed her face. As she came over to the stands, she seemed overcome by what she had done, or by sheer relief, or by everything all at once, and for a moment the 24-year-old broke down, her face quivering and tears flowing. But then she got back up, and her smile returned -- the more familiar smile, the gorgeous one of pure, shy joy that seems to unlock a little girl in her -- and it stayed on her face as she took the victory lap waving flags of the United States and Belize (her mother's native land), the crowd roaring as thousands of flashbulbs went off like exultant fireworks.

I have seen a lot of smiles like that in the past eight days, probably more than in the entire rest of my life. It doesn't get old.

A few minutes later, it was time for the loquacious Greene to face the ultimate test. He is the greatest male sprinter in the world, the world record holder at 9.79, but he faced stiffer competition than Jones, particularly from his friend, roommate and training partner, Trinidad's Ato Bolden. Bolden had run 9.90 to take bronze in Atlanta, and it seemed possible that he might push Greene, at least give him something to think about. But Greene, unfazed by the ominous sunglasses affected by his pal, had just dusted Bolden in the semis, 10.06 to 10.13, so any psychological edge was in his corner.

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As Greene warmed up, he did a kind of boxer's shuffle, licking his lips -- a trademark quirk. He got down in the blocks, his round-muscled, bulging physique perfectly still. The gun sounded. Within a few meters, as with Jones' race, it was all over. Once Greene took the lead, his ripped arms and ridiculous quadriceps pumping in perfect form as he flew down the track, there was never any question that he would be caught. It's an amazing thing to see a runner just demolish another one, when the other one is himself moving at frightening speed. Greene won in 9.87, fast but well off his world record of 9.79. The Olympics is about winning, though, not setting records, and he cleaned Bolden's clock by .12 seconds. Obadele Thompson of Barbados took the bronze at 10.04.

Greene had missed qualifying for Atlanta, and four years ago he had sat in the stands at the 100-meter final and wept. When he crossed the line, Greene put his hands on his head, then sank to his knees and embraced his friend Bolden for a long, heartfelt moment.

In a plastic age where every two-bit ballplayer has a P.R. agent, we get used to seeing athletes feigning emotions, pretending to be touched. But I don't think either Greene or Jones was pretending. I think they were in the moment, just as they'd been in the moment when they came down that track faster than anyone else on the planet. I think they just realized they'd won gold at the Olympics.

Greene took his lap, highlighting it by throwing his shoes into the crowd. He and the other medalists posed with the flags of their countries draped around them. And then he was gone, taking with him one 10-second feat that would last for the rest of his life, and that would stay uncannily in the minds of those who saw it. After all, we had just watched the fastest man in the world.


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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