Section: 1991 TOKYO WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS MEN’S 100 METERS
Never before have so many run so fast In the end, Carl Lewis proved he’s still King of the 100.
It’s easy to understand the universal appeal of track and field–why the sport is the cornerstone of the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza, the Summer Olympic Games. A single word explains it: simplicity.
Track and field is based on elementary human movements–throwing, jumping, running. Of the three, running is the purest. The competitors, nearly naked (and on a few noteworthy occasions, even running without shoes), race each other over an established distance. They start, they run, they strain to reach the finish line. How much simpler can things get?
As fans, we naturally find ourselves drawn to the two extremes of running: the marathon and the 100 meters. Each represents the outer edge. The marathon requires raw endurance, the 100 meters raw speed.
Because there is nothing wishy-washy about the marathon or the 100, we feel more satisfied watching runners challenge these two distances than any others. These are athletes tilting at the farthest realms of running. These are races full of impossible dreams.
In the modern history of track and field, which Italian track historian Roberto Quercetani dates to a competition at Eton College, England, in 1837, the greatest footrace ever run over any distance took place on Sunday evening, August 25, in the Tokyo National Stadium at the 1991 World Championships meet.
It is 7:05 P.M. Tokyo time. The sun has set 45 minutes earlier. The stadium, warm and still, brims with 60,000 spectators, including the Emperor and Empress (attending their first-ever sports even0, the world’s best and widest sumo wrestlers and Ben Johnson, once the fastest man alive.
At the north end of the stadium, the world’s eight best sprinters prepare for the 100-meter final. They stretch their long and powerful hamstrings, lick their lips in nervous anticipation, back their way into the starting blocks, flick the last kinks out of their calves and carefully place their hands just behind the start line. Then, at last, they look up. They stare down the long, narrow lane in front of them.
At the end of the lane, they see the finish line. And above it, a surprise. A full moon is breaking over the stadium, the most fabled and portentous moon, capable of influencing the tides of oceans…and of men.
At the starter’s gun, Dennis Mitchell moves so quickly that a mild controversy later ensues. International track rules require that starting blocks be wired to a “false start apparatus for the assistance of the starter.” If a sprinter reacts to the start gun in less than .100 seconds, the apparatus signals the start official, who may or may not decide that a false start has occurred. He can call the runners back and ask them to begin again.
Mitchell explodes off the blocks in .090 seconds. The electronics sound an alarm, but the starter decides no violation has taken place. The race is on!
Mitchell bolts down lane six fast but not cleanly. “A step and a half out, I stumbled,” he says later. “That made me wake up. The rest of the race, I concentrated on going through every zone faster than I ever had before.” He reaches the end of the first 20 meters in first place, in a blurringly fast 2.87 seconds.
To his left, in lane five, Carl Lewis is focusing on the weakest, and therefore most important, part of his race. He had arrived in Tokyo early to spend a week practicing start drills. “I knew what I had to do,” he said after his first heat. “It’s a mechanical thing. I wasn’t really driving from the blocks before. I was coming up too quickly.”
Despite the special attention and his best starting efforts, Lewis is simply too long-legged to match the others out of the blocks. He has already fallen behind. At 20 meters, he’s in seventh place–next to last. His split time, 2.96 seconds, is identical to his 20-meter split in the 1987 Rome World Championships and the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. If Lewis is to perform better than in those two races (9.93 and 9.92), he won’t achieve it through improved technique. He’ll simply have to run faster than he ever has run before. This doesn’t seem likely. At 30, he’s practically the Methuselah of sprinters.
Two lanes farther to the left, Leroy Burrell has “drilled” (Carl’s word) Lewis with his muscular start, just as he did two months earlier in running his 9.90 world record at the Mobil/TAC meet in New York. Burrell trails only Mitchell and Jamaica’s Ray Stewart and hasn’t yet reached his full, crunching overdrive. His power brings to mind Bob Hayes, who set a world 100-meter record, 10.0 seconds, in this very stadium in the 1964 Olympic Games.
- Dennis Mitchell: 2.87
- Leroy Burrell: 2.89
- Carl Lewis: 2.96
You wouldn’t imagine that sprinters spend much time thinking about their races. After all, the 100 meters is over in 10 seconds. What’s to think about?
A lot. Perhaps because the distance is so short, sprinters spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about it. They know they won’t have time to correct their mistakes after the start. They have to work out every detail beforehand: how to harness every fiber of brute force into such a compressed period, how to remain taut yet relaxed. In the race itself, the best they can hope is to react like a perfect animal. There’s no time to make up for any physical or mental lapses.
Mitchell, with a personal best of 9.99 in the semifinal, has mentally prepared himself to do what no one thinks possible: beat Burrell and Lewis. “I run the race many times in my head before we got out there,” he says. “I didn’t want my body to have to face anything new. I told it, you’ve got to be able to run 9.90.”
Since setting his world record, Burrell has been dealing well with the pressures of the worldwide spotlight. He’s a bright, personable, outgoing 23-year-old who seems to revel in the media attention. But Burrell also faces another, more basic form of pressure. The burning question: Can he run faster than Carl Lewis again? “The race is 95 percent mental,” he explains. “You might have some doubts, but you have to stop yourself from thinking negatively or you’ll have a negative performance.”
Rather than letting the competition come between them, Burrell and Lewis have used it to their mutual advantage. Theirs is a model sports friendship, rare among athletes of any kind, virtually unique among sprinters.
Daily training partners at the University of Houston as well as teammates on the Santa Monica Track Club, Burrell and Lewis have spent hours talking about the Tokyo 100-meter final. They have long agreed that it would probably take a world record, a sub-9.90, to win. But which of them will run the 9.8? “The 100 meters is a test of nerves,” Burrell says. “Whoever has the strongest nerves will get there first.” At 30 meters Burrell catches Mitchell, though both now trail Stewart by .01.
When Lewis found himself facing knee surgery 10 months earlier, he suffered a period of soul-searching. He asked himself: Do you still think you can run and jump better than ever? And, more tellingly: Are you still having fun? To both questions he eventually answered, yes.
“When the jury came in–no pun intended,” he says in Tokyo, referring obliquely to his acquittal last winter on drunk-driving charges, “I realized track and field is what I enjoy most. I’m lucky to have a lot of young guys around [his training partners] to give me energy and a youthful outlook. Sure, I sometimes have to sleep a little later than they do, but I hang in there pretty well.”
Lewis needs the energy now. Mitchell and Burrell have pulled .09 seconds ahead of him. In a 100-meter sprint, where .01 seconds is the currency of victories, this is a gigantic gap. Experience is the only thing that can save him; he has been behind before. “Mentally, the most important thing a sprinter can do is run his own race,” Lewis says. “I concentrated on what the coaches told me: to work my arms and to stay loose.”
Inevitably, another thought also crowds into Lewis’s consciousness, one that has lodged there for three years. He knows Ben Johnson is watching this race from the stands. On steroids in Rome and Seoul, Johnson had cheated Lewis of the one thing that means most to a champion: the brief but glorious and four moment when you cross the line ahead of the pack. Sure, the judges can later disqualify someone for illegal drugs or tactics, but they can never give you back that moment. (Remember Jacqueline Gareau, cheated of her 1980 Boston Marathon moment by Rosie Ruiz?)
“The last time, drugs beat me,” Lewis tells himself as he straightens up to his full 6’ 2" height and digs for more speed. “This time everyone’s clean. And I’m simply going to run the best I can in my own lane and not worry about anyone else.”
- (tie) Dennis Mitchell and Leroy Burrell: 4.68
- Carl Lewis: 4.77
For the jackrabbit starters like Mitchell, sprinting has a certain inevitable quality to it. The really fast guys–the Burrells and Lewises–almost always catch you. The most you can do is to stretch your early advantage as far as possible, to see if someday you can stretch it all the way to the finish.
“I like to get what I can get early and then just hang on,” Mitchell says. “I was hoping to get far enough ahead of Carl that he couldn’t catch me.” As usual, the plan begins to unravel about midrace. Burtell steams past Mitchell. Lewis begins closing fast. “I just couldn’t get far enough ahead,” Mitchell sighs.
As a kid, Leroy Burrell dreamed of achieving stardom in baseball. “I only had a couple of problems,” he says. “I couldn’t catch, and I couldn’t hit.” The team manager used him as a pinch base runner, then suggested he pay a visit to the track coach. Burrell acquiesced. It proved a wise choice.
Favored by many to win the World Champs, Burrell looked ragged in the early heats. (Each 100-meter man had to run three qualifying races before reaching the final.) “I was nervous and anxious–not the athlete I wanted to be,” Burrell said. “I had to go home and reconstruct.”
And keep dialing a hospital room in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where his father was undergoing open-heart surgery. Finally, on Sunday morning, he got through to his dad, who had just been released from intensive care. “Once I heard his voice, my spirits began to rise,” Burrell said. “I told myself, Dad’s okay, I’m okay. I felt happy again.” At 60 meters, he bursts past Mitchell and shares the lead with Stewart.
Carl Lewis is now running faster than anyone else in the race, though it barely shows. He’s still mired far back, in fifth place, well behind Burrell, who has beaten him in five of their last six races. Earlier in the afternoon, the two had spent an hour or two together, Carl visiting Leroy’s room. They chatted about music, the upcoming race (“We motivate each other,” Lewis says.) and their fathers.
Lewis’s father died in May 1987, and the son has never forgotten his first: coach. At the funeral, Carl pressed one of his Los Angeles gold medals into his father’s hand. On the night of the Tokyo final, when Lewis spots a full and brilliant moon, his first thought is: great. No clouds in the sky. Dad can see through the darkness.
The situation on the track is less clear, but as ,he passes 50 meters, Lewis begins to find reason for hope. “I may have been fifth at 50, but I felt great,” he says. “At 60 meters I wasn’t feeling confident I could win, but I knew I had a shot at it.” He simply needs to run the last 40 meters faster than he has ever run.
- Leroy Burrell: 6.41
- Dennis Mitchell: 6.42
- Carl Lewis: 6.46
In fact, it doesn’t take Lewis 40 meters to win this race. He does it, astonishingly, in 20. Running now at his full, uncoiled stride, which makes him not just the fastest runner ever but the most fluid as well, Lewis races from 60 to 80 meters in 1.67 seconds. If he could cover the full distance at this speed, he’d run an 8.35.
Faced with the biggest challenge of his life, Lewis has responded with the fastest running. Still, he’s not in the lead, and he won’t let up until he crosses the finish line. “At 80 meters I felt good, and I thought I had a great chance at winning” is all that hell allow.
Burrell, legally blind in his right eye, can’t actually see Lewis coming, but he trains with Carl every day and knows what to expect. Later, after he’s watched videotapes of the race, Burrell is asked what makes Lewis so unmatchably fast.
“It’s those knees,” he answers without hesitation. “His knees come up so high it’s ridiculous. I can’t do that. Carl can maintain speed really, really well. He’s able to respond where others can’t.” Burrell leads by a fraction of a second, but Lewis has the momentum.
One-hundred-meter sprinters generally reach top speed somewhere between 60 and 80 meters and then, as their muscles concede to the lockjaw of anaerobic metabolism, straggle to stave off deceleration. This is roughly the equivalent of marathoners hitting The Wall at 20 miles.
Burrell, for example, runs his best 10-meter split, .84 seconds, between 70 and 80 meters. His last two splits will be .89 and .87. He slows down at the end, as does every other sprinter.
Lewis’s gift–the talent that enables him to overcome his mediocre start–is his ability to resist deceleration. He stays loose and fast where other sprinters begin to tighten up. “Carl just seems to take a deep breath, to relax his jaw, to relax everything else and to carry his momentum across the finish line,” observes Burrell.
- Leroy Burrell: 8.12
- Carl Lewis: 8.13
- Dennis Mitchell: 8.14
At 90 meters a smile creases Carl Lewis’s face for the first time. “I was really rolling,” he says later. “And when I had cleared everybody but Leroy, I thought, hey, I can win this. But first I had to find out where Leroy was.”
Burrell is now .01 seconds behind Lewis. Although he can’t see Lewis out of his blind fight eye, he senses the presence of another runner, and he realizes it has to be Carl. “I was thinking, oh, gosh, he’s close,” Burrell says. “I thought I might be able to maintain.”
When he hits the 95-meter mark, Lewis looks to his left and sees that he has surged ahead of Burrell. “He passed us like we were standing still,” Burrell says. Two strides later, Lewis thrusts both arms skyward and leans into the finish line. After flashing a moment of exhilaration, his face deepens to a more profound joy, nearly to disbelief, nearly to tears. He wraps his hands around his head, buries his face in his forearms and searches out Burrell and Mitchell to envelope them.
“My emotion at the finish is hard to explain,” he says. “My achievement tonight couldn’t have happened without the help of so many people–my coaches, my teammates, my family.”
With his world record 9.86 clocking, Lewis has run the first legal 100 meters in under 9.90 seconds. Burrell has improved his personal best to 9.88. Mitchell has run a personal best, 9.91. England’s Linford Christie has run a personal best and European record, 9.92, and promptly announces his retirement. Frank Fredericks, a BYU student, has run a personal best, Namibian national record and African best, 9.95. Ray Stewart has recorded a personal and Jamaican best, 9.96.
In all, six runners have broken 10.0 seconds. The greatest number under 10 in any previous race was three. Bruny Surin, of Canada, runs 10.14, which would have been worth a silver medal in the inaugural 1983 Championships…and finishes last.
Lewis adds the 100-meter title to the long list of championships titles he already possesses: Helsinki, Los Angeles, Rome, Seoul and now Tokyo. No other runner has won gold medals in all these World Championships and Olympics. “The cream of the crop always rises at the big meets,” says Burrell, “and tonight we saw the cream rise.”
Mitchell puts Lewis in a larger context: “Carl proved tonight what he proves every time he gets into the blocks, every time he steps onto a long-jump runway, every time he steps onto the track for a relay race–that he’s the greatest track athlete ever.”
- Carl Lewis: 9.86
- Leroy Burrell: 9.88
- Dennis Mitchell: 9.91
PHOTO (COLOR): They’re off! Dennis Mitchell (second from left), Ray Stewart (fourth from Jeff) and Leroy Burrell (fifth from left) explode from the starting blocks. Carl Lewis (third from left) is taller than the others and takes longer to reach top speed, but already he’s driving hard his long arms.
PHOTO (COLOR): A blur of speed: Now out of the blocks and running tall after 40 meters, every sprinter in the field is pushing to reach top speed.
PHOTO (COLOR): Still the fastest man alive: Carl Lewis flashes across the finish line in a new world record 9.86 seconds.
PHOTO (COLOR): All for one and one for all: Burrell (1104) and Mitchell (on right) congratulate an emotional Lewis after their historic race.