Athletics: X Man in the company of legends

Young American already ranked with Owens and Johnson - and at just 20 his best is yet to come
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He has matched the feats of the legendary Jesse Owens. He has run the 200 metres faster than anyone other than the great Michael Johnson. He has even quoted the poetry of John Donne at a press conference. Next Friday night Xavier Carter will be parading himself and his unmistakable X factor in front of a British audience for the first time.

Carter, who went by the name of "The X Man" long before he came within the radar of the marketing men, runs in the Norwich Union London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace. The field for the 200m has been chosen with the intention of recreating the race in which the 20-year-old American revealed his rich talent to the wider track-and-field world. Running in the Athletissima meeting in Lausanne a fortnight ago, Carter produced a grandstand finish to win the half-lap race in a stunning 19.63sec.

Only Michael Johnson has run quicker at 200m. Even then, the peerless 200m and 400m runner managed to do so only the once. His winning time at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 was 19.32sec. The Texan was 28 and at the peak of his athletic powers.

Carter will be only 26 when London hosts the Olympic Games of 2012. The great prodigy from the American collegiate scene, he has exploded on to the European circuit as a faster 200m man than such all-time greats of the track as Frank Fredericks, whose lifetime best was 19.68 sec, Carl Lewis (19.75). Tommie Smith (19.83), Don Quarrie (19.86) and Maurice Greene (19.86).

The frightening thing for the rest of the track world is that Carter has room to improve, as well as time in which to do so. "I made a little mistake on the curve," he said, reflecting on his Lausanne run. "I think I relaxed a little too much. Other than that, it was a great race. I knew I was going to be strong at the end."

His rivals - the closest three of whom line up against him at Crystal Palace - ought to have suspected as much too. Competing at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Championships at Sacramento in June, Carter won the 400m in 44.53sec. He also won the 100m in 10.09sec and ran in the victorious Louisiana State University 4 x 100m and 4 x 400m relay teams. In doing so, he became the first athlete to win four NCAA titles in the same meeting since Jesse Owens triumphed in the 100 yards, 220 yards, 220 yards hurdles and long jump in 1936, the year he won four gold medals in front of Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics.

"I feel honoured to be mentioned in the same sentence as Jesse Owens," Carter said. "I feel like I've reached all the goals I've set myself." In college track competition, that is.

Ten days later, Carter announced that he would be forfeiting his collegiate eligibility in track and field and American football to join the professional athletics circuit. He told a press conference: "In the 17th century John Donne wrote, 'No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent'. This is certainly the case with the LSU track team. As an individual I could never have accom-plished what we accomplished together as a team."

Carter continues to be coached by the LSU sprint trainer Dennis Shaver, and intends to resume his studies at the college when he returns from his maiden voyage on the European summer circuit. "I want to live up to the promise I made to my mother to get my degree from LSU," he said. Carter's mother, Michelle, is an LSU graduate.

"After what I accomplished at the NCAA meet, I felt there was nothing more that I could do at college level," Carter reflected. "It also showed me that I have a good chance to achieve my dream of being an Olympic champion, so I decided to focus on that dream without the distractions of college football [the US version] and track."

The decision was made easier by the X factor of a lucrative financial package offered by Mark Block of Total Sports Management. Carter turned down an offer of $1.2 million (£650,000) to turn professional when he graduated from Palm Beach High School in Florida in 2004 as the leading track athlete and American football wide receiver on the high school scene in the US. He was already known as "the X Man", raising his arms and crossing them in celebration of his winning runs.

According to his uncle, Robert Myer, who negotiated the terms of the undisclosed deal with Block, the grand plan is for Carter to exploit his earning potential on the track for the next six years, competing at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and in London in 2012, before turning his attention to American football. At 6ft 3in and 15st, he has the build as well as the speed for the gridiron game.

For the time being, though, his focus is on the track - on a 100m race against Asafa Powell in Stockholm on Tuesday, and on his debut race in Britain three days later, which will feature the three men who also broke 20sec in his wake in Lausanne: Tyson Gay, Usain Bolt and Wallace Spearmon.

Gay was one of the young American sprinters who left the athletes' village at the World Championships in Helsinki last summer, complaining about bullying at the hands of Maurice Greene and John Capel. Until his sudden departure, he was - to coin a phrase - the only Gay in the village.

Matters of record from Owens to Johnson

JESSE OWENS (1913-1980): Famous for his four golds (100m, 200m, 4 x 100m, long jump) at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but his 1935 feat was even more impressive: in 45 minutes he tied the world 100yd record and set records at 220yd, 220yd hurdles and long jump.

TOMMIE SMITH (1944-): Black Panther salute at 1968 Mexico City Olympics after winning 200m in record 19.83 overshadowed this American's other achievements: he set several individual world and world relay records.

DON QUARRIE (1951-): Jamaican tied Smith's world record twice, in 1971 and '75, and in '76 also tied 100m record in 9.9, one of few athletes to have held both records simultaneously. Took gold in 1976 Olympic 200m and silver in 100m, adding 200m bronze in 1984.

PIETRO MENNEA (1952-): Italian held world record for 17 years. Competed in five Olympics (1972-88), winning bronze in '72, gold in '80. Record of 19.72 was achieved at high altitude in Mexico City, but he also held the low-altitude record for three years (19.96, 1980-83).

CARL LEWIS (1961-): Equalled compatriot Owens' 1936 feat by winning same four events at 1984 Olympics. Won nine Olympic and eight World Championships golds.

MICHAEL JOHNSON (1967-): First man to win 200m/400m double at Olympics: Atlanta 1996. American broke Mennea's record with 19.66 at 1996 World Championships (also taking 400m), improving it to current 19.32 in Atlanta in his unique upright, short-stepping style.

FRANK FREDERICKS (1967-): First and only Namibian Olympic medallist when taking silver in 100m and 200m in 1992 (Barcelona) and 1996. Won 200m at World Champ-ionships in 1993, second in '91, '95, '97, also making final in '99 (did not start) and '03 (7th).