Gone With The Wind

SOMETIMES HISTORY IS A GLACIAL FORCE, THE invisible nudge that happens when no one seems to be watching, sort of like jostling gently along the jammed pathways of a reopened Centennial Olympic Park. Other times history is a blur. The assassin's bomb. The 200-MHz chip. The brand name that was unheard of yesterday and on every running shoe tomorrow. Last week in Atlanta, history was a man in red, white and blue who came flying down a copper toned track lit by a million watts and a sultry full moon, a man racing faster than any other, ever, since souls began timing men's tries.

Michael Johnson was history.

How fast was he going? It took a drone camera moving at 23 miles per hour down the sideline to match his pace, a television shot so compelling that it brought hundreds of millions of viewers around the world out of their chairs, feeling, just for an instant, the gust of air flying past his head. It was one great race by a man, one great rush for mankind.

All week long, events seemed to be conspiring to deprive Michael Johnson of his full measure of Olympic glory. The 28-year-old Texan, America's premier track-and-field star of the '90s, had vowed to make history by becoming the first man to win Olympic gold in both the 200m and 400m. But the night of his first gold medal, in the 400, it was Johnson's spotlight rival, Carl Lewis, who made the history by winning his fourth consecutive Olympic long jump. Three nights later -- just minutes before Michael would race his 200 under a Georgia haze -- France's Marie-Jos Prec completed the women's double, winning her 200- and 400-meter races.

Then there was the matter of Johnson's making it all look too easy. In early heats, he would slow down, glancing left and right and back again as if wondering on what track the others were running. The best sprinters in the world were publicly conceding him a second gold. ""He's vulnerable if he loses a shoe,'' said Ato Bolden, a bit of humility from a brash Trinidadian who had trash-talked his way to a 100m bronze. Johnson spent much of his week insisting that it wasn't as easy as it looked. His competitors were really great. He couldn't simply will a world record by stepping onto the track. ""I can't say it enough times. You can't go out thinking, "Hey, let's get the record','' he explained. ""It doesn't work that way.''

Perhaps not. But on Thursday night in the 200, Johnson toed the line in his golden shoes, bent his head with a golden hoop earring in his left ear and proceeded to outrun his thoughts. With a roar carrying him around the turn and into the straightaway, he ran the last 100 meters of his race in 9.20, the fastest ever recorded. His time of 19.32 obliterated his own world record, set in June, by .34 second. As Johnson wrapped himself in the flag for his victory lap, flashing the warmest, most genuine smile ever to crease his public face, a prescient audio technician rocked the stadium with the 1991 hit ""Unbelievable.'' Even the usually cocky Johnson shared that sentiment. ""I can't even describe how it feels,'' he said.

A stellar track-and-field meet was just what the Atlanta Games needed to get back on course after the bomb attack in Centennial Park the previous weekend. That ugly crime detracted from what had been a remarkable first week of competition, particularly for American athletes. As the police investigation focused on a security guard (box) whose motives may have been more pathos than rage, American resilience was on display. Centennial Park reopened with a moving gospel memorial. Andrew Young spoke eloquently, as always, and there were mentions, appropriately, of the two fatalities, Alice Hawthorne, a 44-year-old mother of two from Albany, Ga., who died from shrapnel wounds, and Melih Uzunyol, 40, a Turkish cameraman who suffered a heart attack at the scene. Then the party -- this time with perimeter security -- resumed. There was anxiety in the center city, punctuated by hotel-clearing bomb threats all week. But bag-by-bag searches couldn't dampen the mood of youthful celebration. When Ray Charles sang ""What'd I Say'' on the AT&T stage last Thursday night -- at the very site of the bombing -- a joyous throng of more than 60,000 kept the Games going on.

U.S. athletes never broke stride and won gold medals from A (archery) to W (wrestling). American women's teams, to no one's surprise, excelled. The softballers won the gold over Australia, and two days later shortstop Dot Richardson, whose two-run homer keyed the victory, was back on surgical rounds in Los Angeles. Over in Athens, Ga., while a crowd of 76,000 cheered as if the hometown Dawgs were playing real American football, the U.S. women's soccer team beat China 2-1 for the gold. But track and field has always been the Olympic centerpiece, a critical component of any final judgment rendered on the Games. And three American marquee stars -- Carl Lewis (page 25), Michael Johnson and Dan O'Brien -- proved that their mettle, too, was golden.

How amazing was Johnson's 200m run? One measure is that it managed to obscure a bit O'Brien's triumph in the decathlon. He chugged home in the 1,500m race, the last of the 10 events spread over two days, while the capacity crowd of 82,884 was still huzzahing over Johnson's record. But nothing could diminish the thrill for O'Brien, 30, a three-time world champion who until this week was best known for one calamitous pole vault that kept him off America's 1992 Olympic team. ""I thought about this every day for the last four years,'' he said afterward. ""If there was even one day I didn't think I'd win, that might have been the day I quit.''

O'Brien didn't make a major mistake either day, right down to his choice of hatwear. Other decathletes, who wore baseball caps for protection from the sun, had to tape over the various team insignias, as if they were Pepsi ads. Dan's was the exception; no one was going to make him cover up the Atlanta Braves ""A.'' O'Brien took the lead after the shot put, the third event, but didn't count on gold until the final two laps of the 1,500m. ""I'm thinking, "I'm tired, I hurt, I'm numb, but that's what it's all about','' he said. ""All I had to do was hang on. It was the hardest two days of my life, but the rewards are greater than the stresses.'' The most grueling of competitions, the decathlon is also the most fraternal. O'Brien and his rivals embraced at the end.

Dan faced one more stress: his dress. He hadn't brought his official awards uniform for the medal ceremony -- ""We didn't want to jinx him,'' said coach Mike Keller -- and had to chase after Michael Johnson to borrow his. He was willing to concede ""world's fastest man'' and ""world's best dresser'' to his Nike-mate Johnson, but he would not relinquish his claim to the title of ""world's best athlete,'' which comes with the decathlon gold. ""I don't think Michael could pole-vault 16'5'' or throw the shot put,'' he said. And certainly not all in the same day.

O'Brien couldn't say if he'd continue with the decathlon for four more years through the Sydney Games. His coach noted, however, that O'Brien, whose javelin throw was his all-time best, had achieved a personal best in at least one event in every decathlon since he first competed, in 1987. ""That's why he should stick with it,'' said Keller. ""He's still improving.''

Not all the American stars could claim that last week. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the greatest woman athlete of her era, found that at 34 her expertly honed body had deserted her. She had withdrawn in tears from the heptathlon with a leg injury the previous weekend, then made a brave return in the long jump five days later. On Friday night, after five jumps with her right thigh tightly wrapped, she stood in sixth place. Before her final attempt, she recalled later, she said to herself: ""This is it, Jackie. You either attack the board or don't jump at all.'' She flew out 22 feet 11f inches, good enough for a bronze. And she smiled. ""Of all the medals I've won, I really had to work for this one.'' U.S. relay teams worked hard, too, and won three golds Saturday night; only the Carl Lewis-less 4x100 quartet lost.

Some American gold medalists were all but ignored amid the clamor. Charles Austin (high jump), Allen Johnson (110m hurdles) and Derrick Adkins (400m hurdles) had their moments, but seldom their 15 minutes. That, too, was the fate of most of the foreign champions. But NBC did linger over the beautiful Prec, who achieved her double with a Gallic nonchalance that was the antithesis of Johnson's hyped effort. And Prec, who as a teen moved to France from Guadeloupe, appeared genuinely surprised by her feat. ""I don't know what's happening,'' she said after her 200 victory. ""I'm on cloud nine.'' Prec is so popular in France, where she is known as ""La Gazelle,'' that she became the first person in history to seek obscurity by moving to Hollywood, where she could train in peace. ""I'm quite famous in my country,'' she explained matter-of-factly. ""I'm like Michael Jordan.''

Note she didn't say ""Michael Johnson.'' Which raises the question of just how famous Johnson will now become. America cherishes its track-and-field stars only quadrennially. And Johnson, though a charismatic runner, is a somewhat remote personality whose every step and remark seems calculated. That may make for a champion, but not always a hero. He was never more likable than after his 200m win, when, overwhelmed by his record, he shared obviously heartfelt feelings. ""I knew coming off the curve that I was running faster than I'd ever run in my life,'' said Johnson. ""It was an incredible thrill. My dad once bought me a go-cart when I was a kid and I used to go downhill on it. That feeling is the only thing I can compare it to.''

And so the Games of Atlanta wound down, with the world's fastest man taking delight in a memory of boyish daring that had a bit of danger too. Actually, that's not a bad epitaph for the XXVIth Olympiad itself. The fans had a grand time amid all the state-fair tackiness money could buy. The Olympics' mighty bureaucracy lined its satin pockets, then went home complaining that maybe the sponsorship deals had finally gotten a bit out of hand. And the athletes were marvels to behold. The brave gymnasts: Sexi Aleksei Nemov and tini Kerri Strug. The royalty of the pool: Fu Mingxia, Aleksandr Popov, Amy Van Dyken. The great teams: Australians on the field-hockey pitch, Cubans on the baseball diamond, Americans on the basketball court. The torch may be doused, but the transcendence lingers on.