Athletics / Gateshead Focus: Owens' magnanimity a world away from today's rivals: Mike Rowbottom relates some of history's greatest sprinting confrontations

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The Independent Online
CARL LEWIS may have matched Jesse Owens in taking four gold medals at a single Olympics, but he is unlikely to emulate the attitude his former idol once showed towards a rival.

Shortly after he had earned his medals at the 1936 Games, Owens was racing in Cologne against the man who had taken the Olympic 100 metres silver in Berlin for the second time in four years, Ralph Metcalfe.

The gold medallist was leading by two metres with 30 metres to go when he slowed perceptibly to give his friend, taking part in one of the last races in his career, the victory. Metcalfe's winning time was 10.3sec; Owens, who finished in 10.4, realised almost immediately that he might have become the first man to run the distance in 10.1sec had he not eased up. It did not worry him.

There will be no hint of any such gesture at Gateshead tonight. But while Lewis clearly sees himself as having a rivalry with Linford Christie, whom he referred to carefully this week as 'the most talented sprinter ever in Europe', there is none of the antipathy between them that existed between Lewis and the man to whom he now refers as 'that other guy' - Ben Johnson.

However, Johnson's subsequent bans for drug abuse have retrospectively devalued the confrontations in the late 1980s which had the athletics world in ferment.

The 100m has periodically found itself with two leading protagonists. In the late 1960s, two Americans, Jim Hines and Charlie Greene, contended for the No 1 position. Greene, when asked at one indoor meeting why he was wearing sunglasses, replied, 'These aren't sunglasses. These are my re-entry shades.'

When it came to the 1968 Olympics, however, he found himself dropping away from Hines like a discarded satellite section. Afflicted by a pulled muscle, Greene looked across at his rival and realised he could do nothing to stop him. Hines won in a world record of 9.95sec; Greene was third.

Ten years later, Britain's Allan Wells was engaged in a close rivalry with Italy's Pietro Mennea. In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Wells became the first Briton to win the 100m title since Harold Abrahams in 1924, while Mennea won the 200m.

However, Wells's full fury was directed not at Mennea, but at the Americans as a nation of sprinters. Enraged by their claims that Stanley Floyd would have won in Moscow had the United States not staged a boycott of the Games, the Scotsman channelled his fury into beating Floyd at the first subsequent opportunity, in Koblenz.

When the Americans ranked Floyd above Wells at the end of the season, on the grounds that he had a 2-1 record over him, Wells concentrated his efforts once again, and at the Berlin meeting, on a freezing night, he beat the best of the American 200m sprinters by five clear yards.

Two Americans, Hal Davis and Barnie Ewell, contested one of the closest 100m rivalries. Davis, whom many regard as the fastest finisher in history other than Lewis, held the edge, but it was his misfortune that he reached his peak between 1940 and 1944.

The rivalry between Abrahams and the American contingent of Charlie Paddock, Jackson Scholz and Loren Murchison was something that became apparent in the course of the 1924 Olympics, as the Briton had not been considered a major contender. It was only in the three and three quarter hours between the semi-final and final that Abrahams began to feel pressure. 'I felt like a condemned man feels just before going to the scaffold,' he said. The following year, he was forced to retire after injuring his thigh while long jumping and Scholz, the 100m silver medallist, would never have a chance to gain satisfaction.

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