Athletics: Whole new race in Greene land

Simon Turnbull looks at the sprinter who finds breaking records a breeze; 'I don't need a tailwind to help me. I know I can do it... 9.79 felt easy. I know I can go faster'
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FOR A few fleeting moments it seemed that time had finally caught up with the shadow of big Ben last Sunday. The digits displayed on the trackside clock at the Haywards Field Stadium, Eugene, matched those at which the watching world gasped in Seoul's Olympic Stadium nine years and nine months ago: 9.79. Maurice Greene already had his arms outstretched, in celebration of victory in the 100m race in the Prefontaine Classic meeting, when the young man they call the Kansas Cannonball realised he had run faster than the world record. But then came the killjoy blast from the public address system. The wind speed had been measured at plus 2.9 metres per second, 0.9 above the the limit allowable for record purposes. Greene's epic moment had gone with the wind - for the time being, at least.

"It's so frustrating," he reflected later in the week, spectating at the American Collegiate Championships in Buffalo, Colorado. "If it hadn't been for the wind I'd have broken the record on Sunday. I would have run quicker than 9.84 without the wind behind me. I don't need a tailwind to help me. I know I can do it. I felt so easy on Sunday. Running 9.79 felt easy. I know I can go faster, and without the wind. I want to run 9.76. That's my goal this summer."

If the Cannonball hits his target in the weeks ahead he will shoot down not just the time at the top of the world record list, the 9.84 seconds Donovan Bailey recorded en route to Olympic gold in Atlanta two years ago, but the asterisk denoted alongside it too. For almost a decade now the speed merchants of the world have been fighting a losing race to eclipse the tainted deeds of Ben Johnson. The 10th anniversary of the day Johnson was infamously snared in the Olympic drug net in Seoul, two days after he stopped the 100m clock at 9.79, falls on 26 September. The Canadian had been fuelled by Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. In Eugene last Sunday the Greene Machine reached the same speed, 26.9 mph, with more natural assistance.

Two humans have gone faster. Obadele Thompson clocked 9.69 for 100m at El Paso in 1996 and Carl Lewis recorded 9.78 in Indianapolis in 1988. Their freak times, however, could be explained by freak conditions. Both were achieved with tailwinds of above five metres per second: gale-force compared with the gust Greene had at his back. The scorching quality of Greene's run could be measured by the men he had at his back - or, more accurately, the distance behind they were.

Ato Boldon, his training partner, was the closest. The Trinidadian, winner of the 200m title in last year's World Championships, was a full 10th of a second behind in 9.89. And in April, Boldon missed Bailey's world record by 0.02 with a 9.86-clocking in Walnut, California. Further back in the Eugene race was Thompson, fourth in 10.06. The Barbadian, whose father, Alvin, won the British Universities' 100 yards title in 1966, went on to beat Michael Johnson in the 200m. But so did Greene. He won in 19.88, assisted by another tantalising tailwind, 2.1 metres per second.

Just 12 months have passed since Johnson and Bailey contested their $1m (pounds 650,000) 150m race in the Toronto SkyDome, ostensibly to determine the world's fastest man. In that time Greene has emerged to claim the honour for himself, looking, if not quite earning, a million dollars. Last summer he made the quantum leap from Olympic trials also-ran to 100m champion of the world, improving from 10.08 to 9.86, a time which only Bailey (9.84) and Leroy Burrell (9.85) have legally bettered. And he has continued to gather momentum this year, setting a world indoor 60m record in Madrid in February, 6.39, and blasting down the track in Eugene last weekend.

Greene's transformation can be traced back 20 months, to the day he uprooted from Kansas City and joined the John Smith stable in Los Angeles. His high-speed potential had been evident before, though only erratically so. Greene beat Carl Lewis in 1995, in an early-season 100m race in Texas, but was knocked out in the second round in the World Championships that summer and failed even to make the final at the US Olympic trials in 1996. Under Smith's tutelage, the giant talent packed into the Kansan's 5ft 9in frame has been developed with a Midas touch.

Major championship gold eluded Smith in his competitive days. He was favourite for the Olympic 400m final in 1972 but pulled up lame after 80m. As a coach, however, he has been striking gold with a vengeance, guiding Steve Lewis, Quincy Watts, Kevin Young and Marie-Jose Perec to Olympic titles. Since last summer the Californian has also had two world champions: the 24-year-old Boldon and the 23-year-old Greene.

"John is simply the best coach around," Greene said. "You just have to look at what he has achieved to see how good he is. Thanks to him, I feel unstoppable now. I don't think about losing any more. I go to the line expecting to win."

The next time Greene goes to the line, possibly not until the US Championships in New Orleans on 18 June, the watching world will be expecting something more than victory. It seems only a matter of time - less than 9.84, ultimately - before the world record falls to the young American who can run like the wind.

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