Athletics: Lean Greene on a quest for Mo Gold

Simon Turnbull hears why the world's fastest man is unfulfilled
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The Independent Online
IT WAS, in television terms, a classic cut. The world's fastest man was not quite quick enough for the BBC production team. "I'd just like to th..." was as far as Maurice Greene got before he was overtaken by Clare Balding and the snooker. That the winner of the BBC's Overseas Sports Personality of the Year award was afforded an embarrassing split- second acceptance speech last Sunday night was, if nothing else, a reminder to the fastest man of the millennium that events do not always unfold as planned. Greene will have little margin for error himself in 2000.

For all he has achieved in the last three years of the 20th century - two world titles at 100m, one each at 200m and 60m, world records at 100m and 60m - the Kansas Cannonball has yet to get even a shot at Olympic gold. He failed to make the United States team for the 1996 Games in Atlanta, suffering a knockout blow at the second-round stage of the 100m in the trials meeting. And he will miss out again next year if he fails to place in the first three in the Sacramento trials on 15 July. The sudden-death US selection system does not take into account such vagaries of everyday life as injury, illness or just plain loss of form.

"Yeah, I have no room for error," Greene acknowledged, a wry smile flashing across his face as he shifted in his chair in the Kensington Park Hotel last week. "But I believe I will be fine in the trials. I believe it will set me up to win the Olympic gold. I want that very badly and I'm not going to stop until I get it."

Since his failure to make the Atlanta team, Greene has made a habit of getting what he wants. In 1997 he won the world championship 100m title in Athens; in 1998 he broke the world indoor 60m record; and this year he has won the world indoor 60m title, collected three gold medals at the outdoor world championships (100m, 200m and 4x100m relay) and reduced the 100m world record to 9.79sec.

In less than one Olympiad, the four-year cycle between games, Greene has gone from American also-ran - scraping a living walking greyhounds at a dog track, serving at fast food restaurants (McDonald's and Wendy's), tearing tickets at a cinema and loading trucks - to the fastest runner in history, mobbed by autograph-hunters on the streets of London, with a Mercedes bearing the vanity-plate "MO GOLD" and a mini movie-theatre built into his luxury home at Granada Hills, north of Los Angeles.

Greene's favourite film happens to be Heat, which is rather appropriate considering that the metaphorical heat will be on him in Olympic year. Having emerged in a class of his own since he joined John Smith's stable of thoroughbred sprinters in Los Angeles, he goes into Olympic year as the hottest favourite for 100m gold since Carl Lewis in 1984. Greene acknowledged as much himself last Monday, at the press conference which announced his appearance at the CGU Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham on 20 February. Asked to identify his main rival for the Olympic 100m, he replied: "Myself."

When urged to elaborate, Greene asserted: "I believe if I do what I have to do, if I run my race, I will win. If I lose it will be because I have done something wrong." He did something wrong in the World Championship 100m final in Seville in August - making an uncharacteristically bad start - but still emerged victorious, beating the Canadian Bruny Surin by four hundredths of a second.

It seems a measure of how far Greene happens to be ahead of his rivals in his specialist event that such a fuss is being made about a possible showdown over 200m with Michael Johnson. The pair will meet at that middle- ground distance in the Sacramento trials if Johnson decides to defend both of his Olympic titles. For Greene, the priority next year will be to secure the Olympic 100m crown, the blue riband of world sprinting. At 25, though, he is already assured of a place in history, as the fastest man of the 20th century - indeed, as the fastest man of the millennium.

"I guess it means a little bit more to hold the 100m world record at the end of the century," the Kansan reflected. "Just to be there on the list in the company of people like Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis is a great thing because they were such great athletes. I just want to take what they did a step forward."

Some pedants might attempt to argue that Greene has yet to take his event a step forward from the 1988 Olympics, when Ben Johnson stopped the trackside clock at 9.79sec - precisely the same time the American recorded in Athens in June this year. But, as Greene is not slow to point out: "He ran his 9.79 with a following wind of 1.1m per second. I ran mine with a wind of plus 0.01. I have run the fastest 100m with the least wind."

Johnson, of course, also ran his time with the assistance of the anabolic steroid Stanozolol. Ask Greene where he gets the power that is packed into his compact 5ft 9in frame and he replies: "From the faith I have in God and the Lord Jesus Christ. That is what makes me run as fast as I can." Barring a power failure, no one else is likely to have a prayer in the 100m in Sydney.