Fastest men on earth fall flat

The men's 200 metres wasalways going to be the closest contest at the US Olympic trials. Maurice Greene, 26, had long taunted the world record holder Michael Johnson as a quitter; Johnson, 32, had hit back with some harsh words of his own. "I will always tune in to watch two guys who dislike each other," Johnson had said ahead of the race.

The men's 200 metres wasalways going to be the closest contest at the US Olympic trials. Maurice Greene, 26, had long taunted the world record holder Michael Johnson as a quitter; Johnson, 32, had hit back with some harsh words of his own. "I will always tune in to watch two guys who dislike each other," Johnson had said ahead of the race.

In the end it was an extraordinary race, but one that both men will quickly want to forget. After a year of bitter and often vocal rivalry, the world's top two sprinters failed to make it to the home straight as both dropped out in agony as the tension and the heat took their toll. "The whole world wanted to see a great show," said a disappointed Greene afterwards. "It's a sad situation that me and Michael didn't finish the race."

Certainly the American public, not normally known for its enthusiasm for attending track events, had been alerted to the possibility of a spectacular finale to the trials. A crowd of almost 25,000, presumably as inspired by the trash-talking build-up from both parties as the sunny weather, turned out to witness the most anticipated showdown in track and field in three years.

Johnson's stunning 19.32sec 200m at the Atlanta Olympics had made him the man to beat. But Greene's camp said that the Texan was unwilling to be tested - Johnson was supposed to run against Greene in the 200m in the US Pro Championships last year, but pulled out because of the death of his grandmother, and the two were set to race again at the USA Championships with Johnson withdrawing for a second time, this time with a quadriceps injury. Johnson's fastest time since Atlanta is 19.91sec, while Greene's best is 19.90sec. The two have faced each other twice, and each has one victory. A classic race seemed in prospect.

Johnson had already had problems with cramp in his right leg, but still took the field in the next lane from his rival. About 50 metres into the race, Johnson pulled up gripping his left hamstring, after decelerating he fell to the track; Greene powered on but after 100 metres he too limped out of the race and left the track with an ice pack strapped to the back of his leg.

"It's one of the most painful cramps I've had," said Johnson afterwards. "I don't believe the injury is terrible. We'll evaluate it in the next few days. Hopefully this isn't too serious so I can get back and go to Europe."

"I felt a strain," Greene said. "I stopped before I tore something. I don't think it had anything to do with the heat or with the rivalry. I was just trying to do something my body wasn't ready to do."

Both had their tickets to Sydney booked already, Greene having qualified for the 100m and the 4x100m relay, and Johnson for the 400m and the 4x400m relay.

With Greene and Johnson out, the 200m race went to John Capel in 19.85sec, the second fastest in the world this year. Capel was the US collegiate champion last year; he had beaten both Johnson and Greene in the semi-final less than two hours earlier. Floyd Heard was second in 19.88sec and Coby Miller was third in 19.96sec.

"I don't regret anything I said," Greene added. "The whole world wanted to see a great show. It put a lot of attention on the sport. I hope it created fans for track and field. If they want a race after the Olympics, I'm all for it."

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