To accommodate all those interested in something as consequential as a race of the century, Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis held press conferences here this week. Not jointly, of course. For two guys who run neck and neck, they're not what you'd call close. Johnson, especially, likes to keep his distance. Asked at his press conference, "Do you like Carl Lewis?" the Jamaican-turned-Canadian smirked and said, "I like everybody."But clearly, Ben Johnson has had it up to here with Carl Lewis this and Carl Lewis that. Carl Lewis is the fastest man in the world. Carl Lewis wins four gold medals in Los Angeles. Carl Lewis' record album goes platinum in Sweden. Carl Lewis is on the cover of Gentleman's Quarterly. Carl Lewis haircuts are all over America. Carl Lewis owns a 9-6 lifetime record over Ben Johnson.
"Carl Lewis is not God," Johnson said at his press conference.
It should be noted that, at his press conference, Carl Lewis agreed with that.
"I know who Carl Lewis is," he said - Carl Lewis likes to talk about himself that way, in the third person - "He's not bigger than life. He's just Carl Lewis."
So they agree on that. As to who will win their race of the century - set for 100 meters this Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in the Olympic Stadium (9:30 p.m. Friday in Utah) - they're not as together.
Said Johnson: "He's no match for me."
Said Carl Lewis: "We (another favorite expression) just want to run our best."
These sprinters are as different as yin and yang. One's an introvert running for Canada, the other's an extrovert running for the United States and the Santa Monica Track Club and all the endorsements he can handle. They've met 15 times on the track, and very few times other than that. That amounts to, what?, about 150 seconds. In that space of time they've developed the best 100-meter rivalry in, well, in this century.
When they met in Rome a year ago Johnson set a world record with a 9.83 clocking that still stands. When they met in Zurich last month for a long awaited rematch, Lewis won in 9.93.
Johnson said he was hurt for that race. He ran a 10.0 and should have been in a hospital bed.
"Now I feel strong again, like I did in Rome," he told the press. "When I'm at my best there's no one can match me. Nobody."
Nobody human anyway.
It's obvious that Johnson is taking the more macho approach of the two, and the more serious. His press conference appearance was the first time anyone had actually seen him in Seoul. He didn't march with the Canadian Olympic team in the opening ceremonies. Covering 100 meters in 15 minutes didn't appeal to him. He said he stayed in his hotel room, off his feet.
His press conference was a no-nonsense affair. Johnson wore a drab sweatsuit and was accompanied by his coach, who liked to answer a lot of the questions. There weren't many of the light, anecdote-laden stories that feature writers really get into, only that Johnson's mother will see him run for the very first time Saturday. His father would also have been on hand, but the hurricane hit Jamaica and he had to stay home and try to help fix the damage.
Maybe 200 reporters floated in and out of Johnson's press conference. For Carl Lewis', on the other hand, nearly 1,000 came and stayed for what was a distinctly more media-ized affair.
Carl Lewis came in a black tank-top with black-and-white striped pants, looking rather resplendent, and brought his mother with him, who sat there and smiled, and he had his press agent distribute color brochures detailing his career and his lifetime record against Johnson.
He said Carl Lewis has been taking acting lessons in New York. He said life has been good to Carl Lewis. He said the media has been good to Carl Lewis - which is a definite change from the Olympics of `84, when Carl Lewis acted a lot more like Ben Johnson - and he said Carl Lewis had been shopping in It'aewon, where he picked up the pants.
Carl Lewis said Carl Lewis was in the opening ceremonies because that's part of the Olympic experience, and that he'll try for four more golds in `88, but the world has gotten stronger, what with all the socialists back in the Games.
He said he fully expects Johnson to get the jump on Carl Lewis Saturday, which is Johnson's style _ "to go out as strong as he can for 60 yards and then hang on." He said it will be up to Carl Lewis to catch him.
"It's the biggest race of the year for us," he said.
Or maybe the century. It could be. The right ingredients are in place. Ben Johnson can't wait to get it over with, and Carl Lewis can't wait to chase him down.