SYDNEY, Australia - Get ready for the most intense 10 seconds in athletics.
The old guard at the Olympics considers the other 28 sports sideshows to track and field. Dozens of compelling characters will excel at the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium between track's start tomorrow and Oct. 1, when the men's marathon concludes the Games. Monitor Marion Jones and her Drive for Five; marvel at miler Hicham el Guerrouj and the best distance runners ever; gasp at Stacy Dragila in the first Olympic pole vault for women.
Just don't blink when Maurice Greene is in the blocks.
A 26-year-old college dropout from Kansas City, Kan., Greene may be the only titled athlete among the 10,000 here. The World's Fastest Human owns a pair of world championships and a world record of 9.79 seconds for the 100-meter dash. The only thing missing from his resume is an Olympic title. He sat in the stands in Atlanta as a non-qualifier and cried, but is a tad more assured here.
"I'm going to win," Greene said yesterday. "I came here to win a gold medal, and that's what I'm going to do. I plan to take the first round as easy as possible and then in the second, third and fourth rounds, let it hang. And I'm going to let it hang real fast."
The first two rounds of the 100 will be held tomorrow, the semifinals and final Saturday. Yesterday Greene was the customary center of attention at a free-for-all news conference at the Sydney Media Center that featured the HSI group.
Five years ago, agent Emanuel Hudson and coach John Smith opened a club that originally stood for Hudson Smith International. Now it stands for Handling Speed Intelligently.
There should be a "G" in the team's name, because Greene has played as big a role in making UCLA's Drake Stadium the center of the sprinting universe. HSI practices there include Curtis Johnson and Jon Drummond, the other Americans who will run the 100, and Trinidad and Tobago's Ato Boldon, who should medal in both the 100 and 200 for the second straight Olympics.
Baltimore's Bernard Williams, the newest member of the group, is where Greene was four years ago. The Carver High grad is in the pool for the American 400 relay, but may not be chosen to run. He is only 22, and was recruited to HSI by Greene. Smith said Williams "is going to take his rightful stance as one of the greatest sprinters ever." Greene's career shifted into a higher gear when he went to train with Smith.
Greene, Hudson and Smith stand accused of pulling a power play designed to fill the American 400 relay with four HSI men, which would benefit Williams.
The HSI's lesser lights are residing in the athletes' village at Homebush Bay. The certified stars sought privacy on the other side of Sydney, in a beach rental on Coogee Bay. In Los Angeles, Greene watches the sunset on the Pacific. Here, he can watch the sunrise on the Tasman Sea.
When America last saw Greene, the 5-foot-9, 174-pound bundle of muscle was writhing in pain at the top of the straightaway in Sacramento, Calif., where the Bust in the Dust ended the U.S. trials. Greene and Michael Johnson, the greatest long sprinter ever, were the key figures in an overhyped 200, the former as the defending world champion and the latter as the world-record holder. Both were done halfway through the race when hit with twinges that have quickly healed.
Greene could not resist getting in another dig at Johnson, who is also expected to take two gold medals, in the 400 and his relay.
"Maybe we'll race again one day," Greene said. "That's up to him."
Johnson has insinuated a rift between Boldon and Greene. Asked about their relationship, Greene faked a chokehold around Boldon's neck, smiled and said: "I really don't like him. We're sharing a house together, aren't we?"
Boldon said the atmosphere brings out the best in all.
"From the outside, the perception always is, how can you compete against each other and stay friends, but isn't that what the Olympics are all about?" Boldon said. "Maurice and I have always been able to separate who we are from what we do."
Australia's Cathy Freeman trained with HSI after she learned she would light the Olympic torch. She may become a full-time member, but all is not well on the women's side. Inger Miller is out of the 100 with a hamstring strain, a development that makes gold medals in the two sprints even more of a formality for Jones.
Miller is the reigning world champion in the 200, and hasn't given up hope that she can recover in time to compete in that race
Greene is nearly as big a favorite as Jones in the men's race. There might not be an abundance of suspense in his race, but he'll nonetheless add his brand of drama to an event that has given the Olympics the poignancy of Jesse Owens in 1936, the blinding acceleration of Bob Hayes in '64, the pretty form of Carl Lewis in '84 and a steroid-enhanced winner in Ben Johnson in '88.
"This is the biggest meet of my life," Greene said. "The Olympics is the biggest stage in the world. The bigger the stage, the better I perform."
For Olympic results in real time from Sydney, go to www.sunspot.net/sports/olympics/.
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