A rare charmer, Carter on offensive in 400 hurdles

SYDNEY, Australia - Four years out of Mervo High, James Carter yesterday became the first product of a Baltimore-area high school to compete in Olympic track and field since 1972.

He easily qualified for the semifinals of the 400-meter intermediate hurdles and was to work in front of more than 100,000 people at Olympic Stadium again tonight. Carter's race was held at 4:59 a.m. in Baltimore.

Carter was attempting to barrel his way into Wednesday's eight-man final and add another chapter to an amazing life story. The 22-year-old pulled down the top half of his singlet for members of the media to show the long scar that runs down his chest, a reminder of the thymectomy he underwent as a middle schooler to treat myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease. Mervo is only now building a track, and Carter said he wore spikes here that he bought himself.

"It's interesting, having 100,000 eyes on you," Carter said. "You wonder to yourself, `Am I going to be able to do my best?' You get a bunch of people cheering you all the way around the track, that gets you pumped up and ready to go. I trained to do this all year."

With his mother, Marilyn Knight, in attendance, Carter hoped to be one of the eight men to qualify for Wednesday night's Olympic final. He ran in the third of three semifinals, in Lane 3.

He handled three races in as many days at the U.S. Olympic trials in July. His only competition since then was in an informal meet at an auxiliary track here two weeks ago, but he looked sharp on a cold, gusty night reminiscent of April at the Penn Relays. By the time Cathy Freeman and Michael Johnson competed in the semifinals of the 400, there was a downpour.

Running in Lane 7, Carter needed only the first hurdle to catch Matthew Beckenham, the Australian outside him in Lane 8. He was in command until he had trouble on the second turn. Carter was passed by Hadi Souan Somalyi of South Africa, but he was second in his first-round heat in 49.41 seconds, the fastest time among the three-man American entry and seventh fastest in a field of 62 men.

"Obviously, I got out good. I hit the sixth hurdle, sat down on it, and that's a correctable mistake," said Carter, who was asked whether he would try to conserve any energy in his semifinal. "I'm not saving anything. I'm going all out from the gun to the finish line."

The fastest first-round qualifier was Zambia's Sam Matete, a four-time Olympian who won the silver medal in Atlanta four years ago.