ATLANTA -- The victory lap took forever, or about as long as Carl Lewis' career.
Michael Johnson set an Olympic record last night, but his coronation had to wait.
King Carl wouldn't vacate the throne.
He won his ninth Olympic gold medal and four straight in the long jump, further cementing his place in track and field history.
Johnson probably couldn't believe it.
On the night he took the first step toward completing his unprecedented double in the 200 and 400 meters, Lewis stole the show.
Two magnificent athletes, U.S. teammates reaching new pinnacles.
And yet, there was a certain tension to it all.
Your reaction to Lewis winning the long jump, Michael?
"That's great," Johnson said.
He smiled, then shrugged, as if to indicate that was all he had to say.
An uncomfortable silence followed.
"That's good," Johnson continued. "I don't think I'll be able to get that many gold medals in my career. I'm hoping I can do some things that haven't been done. But that's good for Carl. I congratulate him on that."
Big of him, wasn't it?
Actually, he showed Lewis about the same respect he gets in return.
The difference is, Lewis leads in gold medals, 9-2.
And so it was that the past and future kings of American track collided in Olympic Stadium, competing in different events, taking turns electrifying the crowd.
Johnson, 28, won the 400 by nearly a full second, finishing in 43.49, .01 under the previous Olympic record.
Lewis, 35, became only the second track and field athlete to win the same event in four straight Olympics, joining Al Oerter (discus, 1956-68).
Then came the dueling news conferences.
"I've never said I think he needed to pass the torch to me," Johnson said. "I said, as far as Carl trying to be the premier athlete in track and field, if that's what he's trying to do, then he should step down.
"It's always a matter of opinion. I'm not in any way competing with Carl. I'm trying to win as many gold medals as I can, so I can put my name up there with the great athletes in track, like Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis."
"I don't know what anyone has to do to pass the torch. There is no manual on that, or at least I haven't found it yet.
"Here's my feeling: Track and field has 30 some-odd events. If we had 30 Michael Johnsons and Carl Lewises, there'd be no other sport in the world. Track would be No. 1.
"I'm too old to bicker with young people. I don't want to beat up dandelions. I want to see the roses. What Michael needs to realize is there's no such thing as passing the torch."
True enough, but if Johnson sounded ungracious, it wasn't without reason. Lewis criticized him at the most recent world championships, calling him "boring," and saying "he doesn't have it."
Lewis later became more conciliatory, but there's more to this rivalry than mere words.
Johnson is the anti-Lewis, seemingly humble, less interested in commercial success. He's not into self-promotion, he's into promoting the sport.
Lewis would demand huge appearance fees, making it difficult for U.S. promoters to stage meets. Then he'd complain that the sport didn't push its stars, ignoring the fact that if meet directors met his price, they couldn't pay others.
Johnson pointedly insists he will be a different kind of torchbearer, accepting less money to compete in domestic meets, if that's what it takes to make the sport popular in this country.
Whatever, Lewis' legacy is immense.
Paavo Nurmi was the only other track athlete to win nine golds.
Dream Teamer Grant Hill was 11 when Lewis won his four golds in 1984. Gymnast Kerri Strug was 6, swimmer Beth Botsford 3, gymnast Dominique Moceanu 2.
It was so long ago, the Orioles were defending World Series champions. The Colts had just left Baltimore. Len Bias was entering his junior year at Maryland.
The guy has been around so long, his name might as well be Carl Ripken. And in some ways, last night resembled last Sept. 6, filled as it was with emotion.
Lewis took his victory lap not on the track, but on the grass directly in front the stands, the better to get closer to the crowd.
He waved an American flag in time with the fans chanting "USA! USA!," then draped it around his shoulders.
It wasn't the grandest competition -- Lewis won on his third jump with a leap of 27 feet, 10 3/4 inches, and then his opponents wilted one by one.
Lewis passed on his fourth jump and then again on his sixth after U.S. teammate Joe Greene fouled on his final attempt, sealing the outcome.
Remember when the crowd at the Los Angeles Coliseum booed him for passing in 1984, when he had the 200 to come?
Years pass. Perceptions change.
"They wanted to see a competition and didn't see it that night," Lewis said. "But that's 12 years ago.
"Many moons ago. Fifteen hairstyles ago. No gray hairs ago. Fifteen pounds ago. Miles and miles of training. Thousands of screams from Coach [Tom] Tellez."
What a night, what a career.
Johnson's coronation is on hold until Thursday, the night of the 200.
"I'll be ready in about two hours," said the man who would be king, not willing to wait any more.
Pub Date: 7/30/96