ATLANTA -- They left the greatest Olympian of them all on the practice track. They left him sipping a can of sports drink. They left him walking slowly into an Olympic sunset.
Last night, Carl Lewis, nine gold medals to his name, didn't run and the U.S. team lost.
Without Lewis in the men's 4 x 100-meter relay, the Americans ended up with the silver medal behind Canada at the Centennial Summer Olympics.
Even with Lewis, the U.S. team would have faced an uphill struggle against Canada, the reigning world champion, which was led by 100-meter world-record holder and Olympic champion Donovan Bailey.
The Canadians won easily in 37.69 seconds. The United States was second in 38.05 and Brazil finished third in 38.41.
And all the second-guessing began. Lewis was out. Some 22-year-old kid named Tim Harden, who had never run a 100 under 10 seconds, was in. A trio of old-timers named Jon Drummond, Mike Marsh and Dennis Mitchell brought up the rear.
Would the Americans have won with Lewis?
"It's possible. It's plausible," Marsh said. "But I need time to look at the tape and reflect before I open my mouth.
"To be blunt about it," he added, "we got barbecued."
"I think Carl's a better businessman than that. It wouldn't be a smart investment to get out there and embarrass himself," Bailey said.
The whole commotion started in the wake of Lewis' remarkable victory in the long jump. He didn't make the relay team at the U.S. trials. He didn't show up at the relay practice camp last month. But at the last minute, he wanted in, and, according to at least one poll, many fans seemed to agree.
After all, this was about history, not fairness. Another gold would have moved Lewis past runner Paavo Nurmi, swimmer Mark Spitz and gymnast Larysa Latynina on the all-time Olympic gold-medal list.
"The fans have earned the right to see us win the medal," Lewis said before the race. "If the team needed me to run, I'd be available. We want the U.S. to win the gold. Everyone would be happy. But whoever runs, I hope they win."
The coaches wouldn't budge. Even when Lewis' training partner, Leroy Burrell, pulled out with an Achilles' tendon injury late yesterday afternoon, the coaches decided to go with the inexperienced Harden, the 1995 NCAA 100 titlist.
"I didn't think I was going to be in the final," Harden said.
Harden was nervous. He should have been. The start was nothing short of surreal.
The team from Ghana, running in Lane 1, was bounced from the event for trying to use an undeclared runner. And then Ghana's sprinters took about five minutes to leave the track, as they were trailed by officials and security guards.
When the race started in a flickering of camera flashes, the Americans got the early lead from Drummond, who handed the baton to Harden. But when Harden gave the baton to Marsh with a bobble and a stutter-step, the Americans were second, and beaten.
"I don't know what happened," Harden said. "I ran late. I gave the stick up. We ran second. Our best wasn't good enough."
What was he thinking when he handed off?
"Please God, let Mike [Marsh] catch him. Let Dennis [Mitchell] do his thing," he said.
But it wasn't going to happen. Only Canada's Robert Esmie lost his leadoff leg to an American. Glenroy Gilbert, Bruny Surin and Bailey each beat his American counterpart.
"I've got a heart as big as a fire truck and I gave it all up and we still couldn't win," Mitchell said. "I have no excuses."
For the first time, America had lost an Olympic sprint relay final it had completed. Three other times, the U.S. team had lost because of a dropped baton.
"It's a good thing Carl wasn't running," Drummond told a crowd of reporters. "Canada would have won and you all would have blamed Carl."
Canada's Gilbert said that, with or without Lewis, the Americans were going to lose.
"We don't bicker, we don't fight, we don't care if Carl Lewis was here or not," he said. "We wanted to show everyone who is the No. 1 sprint nation in the world."
Canada won. The Americans were second.
Carl Lewis was left behind at the practice track.
Pub Date: 8/04/96