SYDNEY, Australia - Bernard Williams grew up around the corner from "The Corner," the notorious intersection in West Baltimore that inspired a book and an Emmy-winning HBO series. Surviving the drugs and violence that infest his neighborhood was good preparation for the battle zone he walked into with the U.S. 400-meter relay team.
Before C.J. Hunter cast a cloud over the Olympics, the major controversy on the American track and field team was the men's 400 relay team. It will be a hot topic until the final is run Saturday, and will be dropped only if the United States doesn't do that to the baton.
Earlier this week, head coach John Chaplin announced Williams was in his top four, but yesterday he backtracked and said he reserves the right to make changes.
"In the end, he'll run or he won't run," Chaplin said. "We have one more practice, then we'll decide. Somebody could be a little off. We could end up with all six getting medals. If it's three rounds, then you can gamble in one. I said my goal was to run the same four all the way, but circumstances change. That's a big stadium out there; young people can panic. Experience is wonderful, but speed is also wonderful."
"He [Williams] may be the next great sprinter, but he's young. John Smith will calm him down."
Earlier this week, Chaplin said Williams would run the third leg for the United States. At yesterday's practice, he worked the second spot, and there is speculation he will stay there through all three rounds.
At 22, Williams is the youngest man in the pool by three years. He's three years out of Carver High and only five removed from his first track meet. Though Chaplin may have some reservations about his seasoning, but there are none about his future. Williams was recruited by HSI, the speed factory in Los Angeles, because the people there feel he has the potential to break Maurice Greene's world record of 9.79 seconds for 100 meters.
"Maurice and Ato [Boldon] have both said that he's going to give them problems," Smith said. "He's come in running faster than they did when they came to us. He didn't start running [seriously] until he was in the 11th grade. This boy has levels that he has never experienced, so this is a good test for him."
Greene and Boldon went 1-2 in the Olympic 100 on Saturday. They are coached at HSI by Smith, who set a world record in 1971 for 440 yards that still stands because the United States finally went metric. He is in the middle of the relay controversy because his club lobbied to use its foursome of Jon Drummond, Curtis Johnson, Williams and Greene.
Since finishing second in the 100 at the U.S. trials, Johnson has run poorly, and he is not in the six-man pool. On Monday, Chaplin said the three other HSI men and Tim Montgomery were his top four, with Kenny Brokenburr and Brian Lewis rounding out the pool. Montgomery may be pulled in favor of Lewis, who would run the third leg.
Drummond, a 32-year-old from Philadelphia who used to be known as much for his clowning as his speed, is the unofficial relay captain, and it was clear from his body language at a practice yesterday that he has taken Williams under his wing. After a routine first pass from Drummond to Williams, the two came back together and slapped hands. Drummond took the baton and tapped it on his teammate's chest.
Williams, who was seventh in the trials 100 and fourth in the 200, said he hasn't been told anything definitive about the U.S. plans for any round, including the first tomorrow.
"One thing they [the U.S. coaches] see is the communication between Jon Drummond and I," Williams said. "They know my ability to run full speed, run people down, and not panic."
Despite being the fastest man at the national junior college and NCAA levels the past three springs, Williams anchored at neither Barton County (Kan.) Community College nor Florida because of his skill in receiving and passing a baton. That's a valuable commodity, given the recent U.S. history of botched exchanges at the 1988 Olympics and the 1997 world championships.
"Bernard is what's called a stick man," Smith said. "They've seen him do this in junior college, in his university days. He's one of the future guys in sprinting. You see that, and you give him the nod. ... He's going to have 110,000 people clapping with him while he does his favorite thing; that's a pleasure and a gift and a joy. All of that is overwhelming. At the same time, you have to realize it's fun, that's what you came here for."
Williams said that the largest crowd he has ever competed before was at the Penn Relays last April. Chaplin said the United States is looking for good men who can handle a pressure-packed situation and atone for a record that includes one gold medal in the past three Olympics.
"I've always known the history, but I haven't experienced it," Williams said. "I have an idea, but I won't know exactly what it feels like until I get out there and run in front of the crowd. I'll tell you more once I run."