It was to be the night of the supreme track rivalry, and it turned out to be just that.
But it was the match of Butch Reynolds against the Lee Evans of 20 years ago that stole the show, not the battle of contemporary sprinters Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson.Reynolds, in perhaps the greatest track and field achievement in 20 years, carved a staggering .57 seconds off the 400-meter record that Evans established in the rarified air of Mexico City in the 1968 Olympics. Reynolds' destruction of the old standard was similar to Bob Beamon's audacious lengthening of the long jump record to 29 feet, 21/2 inches in those same 1968 Games.
Reduced to a sideshow was the season's first, and only, pre-Olympics showdown between the two top sprinters on the globe, Carl Lewis and Canada's Ben Johnson. Lewis, beating Johnson for the first time since 1985, hit the tape in 9.93 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year. Calvin Smith edged Johnson for second.
But the sprint hardly seemed to matter, not after what Reynolds did.
His 43.29 clocking made a shambles of Evans' 43.86 gold-medal run in 1968, and was even more impressive because it wasn't run at altitude.
"This is it. No wind-aided, no altitude," a jubilant Reynolds said. "It's done. It's history now.
"I had the determination and guts in the final straight."
With 25,000 roaring fans urging him on, the 24-year-old Ohio State star stayed near the lead as Nigeria's Innocent Egbunike set a murderous pace for 200 meters.
"When I saw Innocent go out there, I knew it would be a world record pace," Reynolds said. "I figured I had the record 10 meters before the tape."
Reynolds impressed last month by winning the U.S. Olympic trials in 43.93, the first sub-44 quarter ever run at sea level. As in the trials, teammates Danny Everett and Steve Lewis trailed Reynolds to the finish, this time by decidely larger margin. Everett was timed in 44.20, Lewis in 44.26.
Evans wasn't on hand to see his record broken. For the last several years, he has been teaching and coaching in Africa. Egbunike, who paced Reynolds to a slice of history on Wednesday, is one of Evans' products.
"I'd like to meet him," Reynolds said of Evans, "and share the record with him."
It took drama of the kind supplied by Reynolds to steal
he spotlight from Lewis and Johnson, who were paid a reported $250,000 apiece for their pre-Olympics dash.
Johnson, who set the world record of 9.83 in beating Lewis in the 1987 World Championships, has been back in serious competition for only a few weeks after a hamstring injury in February. Lewis, meanwhile, pronounced himself at near 100 percent.
There was electricity in the air as Johnson false-started and the field was recalled. Then they were off, with Johnson taking a short lead. But Lewis overtook Johnson in the last 10 meters. The crowd, which gave Lewis a few boos before the start, went wild again.
He was bear-hugged by his sister, Carol, and posed triumphantly for the crowd, hands on his hips, before taking a victory lap.
Smith was timed in 9.97, Johnson in 10.00.
Lewis dedicated the victory to his late father, whose death from cancer in May 1987 left Lewis a sobered man.
"I ran my own race so I was able to run much better," Lewis said after his first victory against Johnson in their last six encounters.
"He's great, you can't doubt it," Lewis said. "He built a lead, but it was a small lead, not a decisive one. So I was very confident at 50 meters.
"I'm looking forward to even better times."
Johnson said he was "not really disppointed," though coach Charlie Francis said the powerhouse sprinter was tense.
"I feel good. I'm very happy to be back," Johnson said. "I just need some more racing. Nobody had injuries like I had and came back so quickly. I've got five weeks to race (until the Olympics) and that's a lot of time."