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How long the shelf life of a taunt?


SYDNEY, Australia - James Carter listened for boos and jeering whistles when he was introduced to the crowd before the final of the men's 400-meter hurdles at Olympic Park last night.

"I was hoping I wouldn't hear anything," he said.

He didn't. The packed house of 110,000 at Olympic Stadium barely responded to his name.

It meant he had survived the biggest mistake of his life - barely.

"I just don't want people to have that as their image of me," said Carter, a Baltimore native who went to Mervo.

What image? The image of a hurdler turning around and taunting his defeated opponents at the end of a race.

That's what Carter, 22, did in winning his semifinal heat Monday night. He found himself so far ahead that his emotions got the best of him and he eased up, turned and gave an underhanded "come and get me" wave to the runners finishing behind him, looking every bit the NFL receiver on his way to the end zone.

Carter said immediately after the race that the gesture was his signal "to the world that I'm ready," but he knew within minutes that it was a signal he never should have sent.

"I think I knew by the time I started cooling down," he said after finishing fourth last night, "that I shouldn't have done that."

NBC commentators singled him out for stinging criticism as teammates, coaches, rivals and strangers in the Olympic Village a) asked him why he had done it, and b) told him it was a bad idea.

Suddenly, the earnest, soft-spoken kid from near Belvedere Square who overcame a childhood illness, ran for a high school without a track, was nice to his mother and never caused any trouble was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

He was that worst of creatures, the Ugly American Athlete, in the eyes of the rest of the world.

"I'm a young guy, a rookie, and rookies make mistakes," Carter said. "That, for sure, was a mistake."

Not only did he taunt some of the world's top hurdlers, who deserved better, but he had acted unsportingly on the ultimate sporting stage.

"I heard about it from everyone - teammates, guys younger and older than me, everyone," he said, shaking his head. "People said to me, 'That wasn't acting in the Olympic spirit.' I couldn't argue."

What got into him?

"Just youthful excitement," he said. "I was winning the heat, and there were 110,000 people in the stands, and my enthusiasm got the best of me. There was nothing pre-planned about it. It's not like I said, 'OK, if I win, I'm going to turn around and make a gesture.' It just happened."

When it did, the crowd booed, the local papers criticized him the next morning and Carter found himself listening to NBC's commentary over the phone from 15 time zones away.

"I called my girlfriend [in Virginia], and she played a tape of it for me," Carter said. "It wasn't that bad. But it wasn't good."

After coming from nowhere in a year to make the Olympic team, Carter had chosen a terrible time to start exhibiting his individualism.

His gesture wouldn't bother anyone in the NFL or NBA, where such preening is acceptable behavior, but track operates differently at the highest levels. It's basically a European sport, and European sensibilities prevail. Taunting is not only discouraged, but reviled.

"I know he had a lot of remorse," said Freddie Hendricks, his high school coach, who was in Sydney for the Games. "James told me nobody felt that he should be here in the first place. They thought he was a fluke. I hated to see him do that because it detracted from what he's accomplished. I know what kind of a person he is. Anyone who know James knows he's overcome a lot of obstacles."

So, what's a misunderstood hurdler to do? Carter sought out NBC's track commentators and explained himself yesterday, and then he apologized.

"I made it clear to them," he said, "that I was sorry for what I did. It was a mistake."

That he was listening for the crowd's reaction last night might have harmed his mental approach to the biggest race of his life, but he denied that was the case. He just ran out of gas after turning for home in third place, challenging for a medal. He didn't reach his goal of winning a medal, but he did run the fastest race of his life by more than four-tenths of a second.

Was he happy or sad?

"A little bit of both," he said.

And relieved that his mistake hadn't trailed him into the final?

"For sure," he said.

He might still have to live it down, as does any athlete who separates himself from the pack for the wrong reasons on the Olympic stage. His fourth-place finish last night stamped him as a coming star in the 400 hurdles, but to strangers, his reputation might always be that of the guy who taunted his opponents in Sydney.

"I hope not," Carter said, "because that's not me."

That the fans didn't jeer him last night was a good first step in the right direction. He can keep taking such steps if he lets his performances on the track do his talking for him - all of his talking.

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