If anyone needed convincing that this event could be one of the most memorable of the 1996 Games, the evidence came last month in Oslo.
On the tight, sheltered Bislett stadium track, Michael Johnson's 21-race unbeaten run in the 200 metres was brought to an end by Frankie Fredericks, whose delight at the end was patent.
"I got him!" yelled the Namibian, whose time of 19.82sec on an evening which was far from ideal for sprinting was a personal best. Until that breakthrough, there seemed little chance that Johnson, the world champion at 200 and 400 metres, would be seriously challenged in his ambition to become the first man to complete that double at the Olympics.
Others have bridged two running events - Carl Lewis took the 100 and gold at Los Angeles in 1984, Alberto Juantorena won the 400 and 800m titles at Montreal in 1976 - but Johnson's intended combination has been out of reach until now.
Johnson has not been beaten at 400 metres for six years, but Fredericks's form this season has created a genuine doubt about his chance in the half- lap sprint even though the American has recently broken the 24-year-old record with a time of 19.66 at the US trials.
Fredericks began the year by becoming the first man to break 20 seconds for an indoor , lowering the world record to 19.92 in Lievin. After spending two months training with Linford Christie in Australia, Fredericks showed astonishing form outdoors over 100m, running 9.87 on a cool night in Helsinki, and then recording 9.86, just 0.01sec outside the world record, in defeating all the leading sprinters in Lausanne. It was from that kind of form that he stepped up to defeat Johnson two days later.
Johnson, never overly demonstrative, was sanguine in defeat, putting his performance down to a poor start and diplomatically avoiding comment on the apparent flyer with which Fredericks had got away.
As the two men had raced side by side down the final straight - Johnson leaning back as if he were running into a gale, Fredericks striving forward with his customary fluency - they presented a thrilling glimpse of what might happen in Atlanta. Assuming both men make their way safely to the final on 1 August, their experiences in other events may be an important factor in the result. Both the 100m, which Fredericks may also contest, and the 400m will have been completed.
While the confrontation between Fredericks and Johnson is the obvious point of interest in the event, there will be enough runners of quality around to ensure they cannot afford to slip below their normal standards, in particular the 1992 Olympic champion Mike Marsh, who pushed Johnson to his world record at the US trials, Jeff Williams, the third American choice, and Trinidad's Ato Boldon, a 22-year-old US-based runner who has shown impressive form this year.
Britain's trio of Christie, John Regis and Owusu Dako will have to be at their very best to make any impact on the event.
World 19.66 Michael Johnson (US) 1996
Olympic 19.73 Mike Marsh (US) 1992
British 19.87 John Regis 1994
Best times in the world - 1996
19.66 Michael Johnson (US)
19.82 Frankie Fredericks (Namibia)
19.85 Ato Boldon (Trinidad)
Best British performances - 1996
20.29 Linford Christie
20.33 John Regis
20.58 Owusu Dako
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