Section: TRACK AND FIELD
FRANKIE FREDERICKS OF NAMIBIA IS THE LEADING MAN IN A STAR-STUDDED CAST HEADING FOR THE STARTING BLOCKS OF THE 100 METERS IN ATLANTA
With each race, Frankie Fredericks gained a sliver of fame and lost a little piece of himself. Twice in nine early-summer days he nearly broke the world record for 100 meters, and two days after that, for an encore, he became the first man to beat Michael Johnson at 200 meters in almost two years. For this, he has been cast as The Man in the Olympic 100 meters this Saturday night, because the 100 is a show and someone must play the lead. “He’s the person I’ll be watching for,” says Dennis Mitchell, who won the 100 at the U.S. Olympic Trials. But Fredericks would prefer that nobody watch him at all.
He won’t allow himself to be measured by others’ expectations, only by his own, and he applies his code of personal conduct to everything that goes on around him. When he realized that the soccer team at his secondary school was pathetic, didn’t Frankie, a brilliant center-forward, switch to track because he couldn’t stomach losing? When others living under South African rule and apartheid in Fredericks’s native Namibia hated white people, didn’t Frankie refuse to do the same because his mother had taught him to treat everyone as an individual? Didn’t he find a way to accept the father who moved away when Frankie was just an infant? Always, he made his own judgments, set his own values.
But now, after one of the most arresting 11-day runs by any sprinter in history, he finds himself swept along swiftly in the current of popular wisdom. The hot streak began on June 25 in Helsinki, when the 28-year-old Fredericks ran the 100 meters in 9.87 seconds, crushing world champion Donovan Bailey of Canada so decisively that Bailey “just packed it in after about 70 meters,” said Fredericks’s coach, Willard Hirschi. The time was .08 faster than Fredericks had ever run and just off Leroy Burrell’s two-year-old world record of 9.85. On July 3 in Lausanne–against a stacked field that included not only Bailey but also 1992 Olympic champion Linford Christie, 22-year-old prodigy Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago, and the U.S. trio of Mitchell, Jon Drummond and Burrell–Fredericks was clocked in 9.86 seconds, equaling the second-fastest 100 ever (Carl Lewis, 1991, Tokyo). Several meters from the finish, running into a slight headwind, Fredericks threw his arms into the air in celebration. “The little boy in me came out,” he says. That inner kid cost him dearly. “He had the world record, easy, if he ran the whole race,” says Hirschi. Two days after Lausanne, Fredericks beat Johnson in the 200 meters in Oslo, running a personal best of 19.82 seconds, well off Johnson’s fresh world record of 19.66 but impressively fast on Bislett Stadium’s tight, egg-shaped oval, on which no one had previously broken 20 seconds.
“My god, he’s running well,” says Christie, who trains often with Fredericks. “He’s run some fast times, so he’s confident. He’s just in that mode right now. I’ve been there, and it’s a pretty intense place.”
The timing is handy, too, because the Olympic 100 final appears to be as hard to figure out as the plot of Mission: Impossible. Christie, the glowering defending champ, now 36 years old, didn’t formally commit to running in Atlanta until July 1; Bailey has been wildly inconsistent; Lewis and Burrell didn’t make the U.S. team; and Drummond, 27, and Boldon are relatively inexperienced. Most consistent has been Mitchell, until he laid a 10.15 egg, finishing last in the Lausanne race (a performance that he attributes to hard training and the wearying U.S. trials). For all that, the final will almost surely be one of the fastest in Olympic history; five of the likely finalists have been under 10 seconds this season. Fredericks has been the fastest, yet he insists, “I am not The Man.”
Even though he has been in every Olympic and world championship final in the 100 and 200 meters since 1991, and even though he won two Olympic silver medals in 1992, Fredericks refuses to accept the role that has been assigned to him in Atlanta. He clearly relished his role in Barcelona, where, he says, “I had no pressure. Nobody expected me to do that well.”
Those days are gone. During a training session last week in Tallahassee, Fla., Fredericks and Christie rose violently from their starting blocks and tore down the rubber straightaway in adjacent lanes, with Fredericks drawing away immediately. He was a full stride in front at 10 meters and, not long after, clear by daylight. Sixty meters from the start, they shut down simultaneously, Christie looking at Fredericks’s back. “That was quick,” howled Christie. As the two sprinters shuffled back to the starting line, bathed in sweat from the 95[degree] heat and suffocating humidity, Christie extended his right hand and slapped Fredericks’s left, a temporary act of surrender.
Fredericks is smaller than Christie, just 5’10" and 171 pounds, but more chiseled than in past years from what he calls “more aggressive” weightlifting. A nest of veins makes his legs look like a road map of Pennsylvania. “This year I finally believe what my coach has always told me,” he says. “I believe that I can run with these guys in the 100. That I can beat all of them. There was a little doubt before. Now there is none.”
Fredericks was the only child born to Riekie Fredericks and Andries Kangootui, who split up when Frankie was an infant. Riekie raised Frankie in a four-room house in Katutura, a black township outside Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia, a nation of 1.6 million on the Southwest coast of Africa that until 1990 was a territory under South African control. “Katutura was a ghetto, a difficult place to live,” says Daniel Tjongarero, a family friend who is now director general of the Namibia Broadcasting Corporation. When they moved in, there was no indoor plumbing, only an outhouse at the back of the property. But Riekie, while working as a seamstress for a white family in Windhoek and also taking on two part-time jobs, arranged to have a small addition built in back of the house, with an indoor toilet. It was one of many gifts, small and large, that the mother gave to the son.
Frankie’s father, a farmer, would visit occasionally, but there was a palpable chill in the home when he arrived. “I don’t know why my mother and father split up, but I know it wasn’t pleasant,” says Frankie. “But he is my father. We talk. But for my mother, I would do anything.”
At the age of 13, Fredericks enrolled at Dobra, a segregated Catholic school 20 miles outside Windhoek renowned for its soccer teams. “You just didn’t lose at Dobra,” says Fredericks. Three years later Fredericks was offered an academic scholarship at Concordia, a newly formed (and also segregated) private school in Windhoek proper. The education was wonderful, the soccer terrible. “We would lose 4-0, and my teammates would be laughing,” says Fredericks. He made the switch to track. “He could already outrun any defender on the soccer field, and he was a very bad loser, which is why team sports were not best for him,” says Tjongarero. Concordia track coach Koos van Staden would drive Fredericks to a synthetic track in Windhoek, the only such surface in all of Namibia.
In his final year at Concordia he was the South African schools champion at both 100 and 200 meters. Scholarships were tendered by South African universities, but Fredericks accepted an offer–one of only five given to Namibian high school students–to work in a management training program for the Rossing Uranium Mine. He spent the spring of 1987 working in the coastal city of Swakopmund, where he continued to train. At the South African junior track championships that same year, he met Patrick Shane, an assistant coach at Brigham Young, who put Fredericks in touch with Hirschi (who was then BYU’s sprint coach and is now the school’s head coach). In the fall of 1987, Fredericks enrolled at BYU, bankrolled in part by a track scholarship and in part by Rossing (on the agreement that he would return to work for the company, which he does, as a marketing associate). He earned a computer science degree in four years and, in 1994, added an M.B.A. In 1991 he became the first sprinter in 13 years–and the first born outside the U.S.–to win the 100 and 200 meters at the NCAA championships. He still lives most of the year in Provo.
During Fredericks’s first three years at BYU, Namibia was part of South Africa, which was banned from international competition. At the end of the college season, when elite athletes customarily compete in Europe, Fredericks would return to Namibia to work for the mine. “If there was a choice between a test and a practice at BYU, it was an easy choice,” he says. “If I fail athletically, who cares? I could go home to a good job. If I fail academically, I have no job and no life.”
This situation changed with Namibia’s independence on March 21, 1990, and with the country’s admission to the Olympic Games in Barcelona two years later. With outside competition, Fredericks began to improve, peaking with a gold medal in the 200 at the 1993 world championships. There were, however, no outward signs that Fredericks was on the verge of dominating the 100 meters and challenging Johnson in the deuce. “I’ve been very surprised, and I don’t think I’m alone,” says rival Mitchell.
Clearly, Fredericks’s association with the tough-minded Christie, which began in the fall of 1994, has helped elevate him. Fredericks is a sweet sort of fellow. “Doesn’t have a menacing personality,” says Mitchell. Christie, though, has given him an edge. “I think Frank being around Linford is like Rodman being around Jordan,” says Hirschi. “Frank always worked hard, but sometimes you have to see somebody who really works hard to understand.” Says Fredericks, “Being around Linford has taught me how intense you have to be.”
Training with Linford also carries baggage. “Frankie says training with Linford has helped him,” says Mitchell. “Only thing I noticed is Frankie has more muscle mass, he’s bigger.” Since Christie has often been accused of using steroids–though he has never tested positive–the implication is clear: Fredericks must be using them too. Fredericks says, simply and evenly, “This isn’t important enough for me to cheat and put drugs into my body.”
Fredericks is sitting in a small, furnished apartment near downtown Tallahassee, his retreat in the 10 days before arriving at the Olympics. The isolation here suits him. Thunder warns of a storm in the distance, not unlike what Fredericks will face in Atlanta. “I run to win but not for the hype,” he says. “It’s for my own satisfaction, for how hard I’ve worked.”
The rain comes now, falling in thick, warm sheets against the building. Fredericks stares at the deluge and weighs the burden of his own expectations. “Some people have to win,” he says. “I don’t have to win, I want to win.”
PHOTOS (COLOR): Fredericks (opposite) is staring at one of the most competitive 100-meter fields in Olympic history, with (from top) Boldon, Christie, Mitchell and Bailey.