SYDNEY, Australia - The showboat in James Carter came out last night. He would love to display that side of his personality again tomorrow.
Carter usually comes across as a quiet, reserved type, and he barely gets noticed among the stars and drug scandal on the U.S. track and field team. He is no longer an unknown in the 400-meter hurdles, however, as he easily won his Olympic semifinal. He will race tomorrow's final in front of another crowd of nearly 110,000 at Olympic Stadium and a long, long way from Mervo High.
Carter was booed as he crossed the finish line in his semifinal. In command of a race that included Zambia's Sam Matete, one of the event's revered practitioners the past decade, Carter slowed down with 20 meters to go and waved to the men trailing him with a gesture that said, "C'mon, what's keeping you?" In the absence of C. J. Hunter, Carter drew scorn from some who were looking for an American to hiss.
"That was my message to the world, to let it know I'm ready," Carter said. "I'm not here just for the running. I'm here to go for a medal, just like everyone else. Once I got over the last hurdle in control, I decided to save something."
Things have rarely come that easily for Carter.
A myasthenia gravis foundation wants him as a spokesman because Carter suffered from the neuromuscular disease as a pre-teen and had his thymus removed. The city is only now getting around to constructing a track at Mervo, which nonetheless built a state-championship team around Carter. He was declared academically ineligible at Hampton University a year ago, and is looking for a new professional club affiliation.
A dispute with his agent led Carter to miss the lucrative European circuit in August. Olympic prognosticators wondered what became of him, but returning to Hampton and training with Maurice Pierce, one of the university's assistants, may have been the best thing that could have happened.
His semifinal time of 48.48 was bettered by five men, most notably Saudi Arabia's Hadi Souan Somalyi and South Africa's Llewellyn Herbert, the men who will flank him when he settles into Lane 5 at 5:35 a.m., Baltimore time, tomorrow. His lifetime best, 48.46, is the slowest in the eight-man final, but much of the competition is dragging at the end of a long season. Was there any benefit to his two-month layoff from serious racing?
"It's starting to look that way," Carter said. "I don't know if there's anything to that, but it's sure shaping up that way. ... I'm in good enough shape to run 47.8 or 47.9."
Carter, who came into 2000 with a lifetime best of 49.45 seconds, looked strong in Sunday's first round and drew Lane 3 in the third semifinal. The top two finishers in each semifinal advanced, along with the next two fastest times, and Carter was ready to run considerably quicker on a cool, still night when some of the sport's greatest stars were out.
"I'm from Baltimore," Carter said. "I'm used to cold weather. I ran in this for four years in high school, and I'm not affected by it."
In light of the news that shot-putter Hunter, Marion Jones' husband, had tested positive for drugs, the day was painful for USA Track & Field, the sport's national governing body. It was absolutely splendid for Baltimore track and field, as another 22-year-old from the city was one of the men selected to join Maurice Greene on the American 400 relay team. Bernard Williams ran for Carver High, and tangled with Carter in the occasional 200 in 1996.
"That's very neat that the city of Baltimore has two Olympians," said Carter, who is the first product of a local high school to compete in Olympic track and field since Dulaney's Bob Wheeler in the 1,500 in 1972. Douglass alumnus Cliff Wiley qualified in the 200 in 1980, but didn't get to compete because of an American boycott of the Moscow Games.
That Olympics was the only one since 1972 in which the 400 hurdles gold medalist didn't come from the United States. The event has produced the likes of Edwin Moses, who won in 1976 and 1984, and Kevin Young, who set a world record in 1992 that still stands.
The throng at Olympic Stadium knows nothing of Carter's underdog background. He has his mother, Marilyn Knight, here to cheer him on, but did he think he had turned the rest of the crowd against him?
"I'm in Australia," Carter said. "They were booing us before we even started competing, when we marched in the opening ceremonies. It's me against the world."