Profile: He just keeps running away: Quincy Watts

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'THE GUY is incredible,' Lee Evans said of the man who finally beat his 24-year-old Olympic record. 'You push a button and off he goes. It's like he's on automatic pilot.' And then he gave a wicked giggle. 'But, shit, Quincy Watts doesn't have as much talent as I did. I know how I'd handle him.'

Evans, one of the heroes of the 1968 US track team, now coaches the sprinters of Qatar, and watched the 1992 400 metres final from the stands. But from lane three, just inside the winner, David Grindley had a rather different view. The 19-year-old British quarter-miler was still trying to put himself back together after finishing sixth in his first Olympic final when somebody asked him to name his abiding memory of the Games. He didn't need to think twice. 'The sight of Quincy Watts running away,' he said.

Quincy Watts came to Barcelona as a rumour and left it as a star of world athletics. Like Linford Christie, he won his event from a field lacking the holder of the world record, but Butch Reynolds' achievements have subsequently been tarnished by positive drug tests, and anyway Watts's performances were so majestically conclusive as to blow reservations into the weeds.

'He's a phenomenon,' said Mike Whittingham, the former British 400m hurdler who now coaches Roger Black and Kriss Akabusi. 'And if he can run as fast as that at a major games, when the rounds catch up on you and most athletes are trying to conserve their energy, then I have to think he can run faster still.' Which means faster than anyone has ever run.

IF the Olympic Games could only have one track event, it would have to be the 400m: the single lap, the whole track covered just once. And the 400m is also an American tradition: of the 23 gold medals awarded over the distance since 1896, 16 have gone to US runners.

It's the shortest race that you can say has a beginning, a middle and an end, and it calls on quantities of both speed and endurance. As a result, it seems to breed the perfect physique. Whereas modern spinters need exaggerated upper-body muscle to help them explode from the blocks, whereas 800m men tend towards stringy limbs, and whereas distance runners are favoured by the greater efficiency of shorter legs, the quarter-miler needs a balanced build.

Quincy Watts, 22 years old, 6ft 3in and 13 1/2st, started as a sprinter, switching to the one-lapper only 18 months ago. He needed some persuading. Jim Bush, the veteran coach at the University of Southern California, was the man who did it.

'Coach Bush and I sat down,' Watts said last week, 'and he wanted me to concentrate on the 400. Now any sprinter, when you mention the 400, they run away - and my first experience of the 400 was a nightmare. It hurt. The 400 is a gruelling race. The butt-lock, it's like rigor mortis setting in. As a sprinter, you never experience that kind of raw hurt.'

But when he ran his first serious 400 in March 1991, the clock stopped at 47.2sec. Six months later he was at the world championships in Tokyo, running a flying 43.4 second leg of the 4x400 relay final against the British in an epic race. Eight months after that he was at the national trials, taking the final place in the US 400 team for Barcelona. Last Monday, he ran the Olympic semi-final in 43.71sec, smashing Evans's Olympic record; and two days later, in the final, he left it at 43.50.

Running away, David Grindley had said. Quincy Watts got used to running away early on. Mostly what he ran away from were his schoolteachers. 'He was a bad, bad boy,' said his grandmother, Loretta Hunt, at home in Detroit last week. 'In every respect.'

'Oh, he was a sweet child,' said his mother, Allidah Hunt, taking over the phone. 'But you can't raise a family when you're doing two jobs.'

'I lived in East Detroit with my mom and my grandmother from when I was nine until I was 12,' Quincy Watts himself remembered. 'A lot of negative things happened in my life there. Not drugs or stuff like that, but I was hanging around with people who did those things. It wasn't a good environment.

'My mom worked two jobs to send me to a Catholic school, St Theresa's. But I always was very mischievous - I was the class clown. So pretty soon they wouldn't have me at St Theresa's any more. And my mom was working so much that she didn't really have time to look after me.'

'As he got older,' his mother recalled, 'he got in with the wrong crowd. So I called his father in California.'

'He was 13 years old and he needed a man in his life,' said his father, Rufus Watts, a post office clerk who last week left his home in the San Fernando Valley to see his son win an Olympic gold medal in Spain.

'My dad took the time and the effort to go to the school to make sure that I wasn't the class clown any more,' Quincy said. 'Mind you, there were a few times when I wanted to pack my bags and go back to Detroit. But I stayed.'

He played a lot of basketball, which had been his father's game, and in high school he discovered an aptitude for sprinting. His father encouraged him, found him coaches, made him a member of a track club. 'I can look back and say that if I'd had someone guiding and pushing me, I'd have been a better athlete,' Rufus Watts said. 'I just wanted Quincy to have a chance to be the best athlete he could be.'

Like all of us, athletes need to find a way of rationalising both failure and success. When Michael Johnson, the hottest Olympic favourite of all, had to face up to the shock of defeat in the 200m semi-final last week, he composed himself sufficiently to remark: 'The sun will be out tomorrow, and the stars will be out tonight. It was only a race.'

Only a race? If you've lost it, maybe. Here, by contrast, is Quincy Watts an hour or so later, reflecting on his victory in the 400: 'You put out all you can,' he said. 'It's the final. There is no tomorrow.'

Coming into the race, he had felt 'a little nervous. But I also felt that all that hard work and pressure was behind me. The only thing to do now was run.'

He had worked on his tactics with his coach, John Smith, a former 400m world record holder who would probably have succeeded to Lee Evans's crown in Munich in 1972 had a hamstring not given way after 80 metres. 'The game plan,' Watts said, 'was to run the first 200 very hard.'

The first to feel the effect was David Grindley, who had come out of his blocks notably faster than the man outside him in lane four. For the next 40-odd seconds, though, all he could see was a US vest receding into the distance. Watts was on his way to destroying a field that also included Steve Lewis, the reigning Olympic champion and a fellow member of John Smith's stable.

But why, someone asked him at the press conference afterwards, had he looked so disappointed when he crossed the line? Was it because he hadn't broken Butch Reynolds's world record as well as Evans's Olympic mark?

'I was just tired,' Watts said. 'Very, very fatigued. I wasn't disappointed at all.'

Mike Whittingham thinks that Watts's special qualities are his background as a sprinter and his size.

'He has an enormous amount of basic speed, which makes it easier for him to cruise. If you've got a car that only does 120, and that's the speed you need to be doing, then it's going to be a strain. But if you've got a car that'll do 160, then 120 is easy.

'And all the outstanding 400 men are tall. It's an advantage in terms of stride length. You put that long stride together with the fast leg cadence that you get from a sprinter's fast- twitch muscle fibres, and you've got an outstanding 400-metre runner.'

When it comes to rating Watts against the disgraced Reynolds, Whittingham and Evans disagree.

'He's more elegant than Reynolds,' Whittingham says. 'He has a better style, he has more basic speed. He's a very flowing runner.' Can he take Reynolds's world record? 'I never believed that record really existed, which was confirmed when Reynolds was found positive. But if Watts can run those speeds on two consecutive days, then I have to assume that he can run even faster.'

'He's not a natural 400 runner,' declares Evans, who coached Butch Reynolds during 1989, the year after he had broken Evans's world record. 'John Smith has done a good job of building him up with weights, of teaching him how to relax, of sustaining speed and endurance. He has power, he's strong, but he doesn't change rhythms like a natural runner would, like I would. Butch Reynolds is definitely the more talented runner. I don't know how ready he is, but he's a tough guy. I'd have to put my money on him.'

Quincy Watts hasn't seen his mother in nine years, since the day he left for a new life in California. They talk on the phone, he said, once or twice a year, usually on birthdays. 'We're set in our ways,' Allidah Hunt says, 'me in mine, he in his. I respect him, he respects me. I love him. He knows it, and I know it.'

She watched his 400m final on television. 'When he crossed the finish line, I just wanted to jump through the screen and grab him. He looked so tired. I wasn't thinking about no gold medal. I was thinking about my child. My child was hurting inside. Money ain't nothing. I hope you understand what I'm saying.'

Quincy Watts believes that they'll be seeing each other again before long. 'I think,' he said, 'she's proud to see now how her son turned out.'

(Photograph omitted)