True Finishes

TRACK & FIELD: The world's fastest humans won Saturday night, once they got out of the blocks.

SATURDAY NIGHT, WITH A BUNCH OF HIS BUDDIES, THE Olympic 100-meter recordholder, the only sprinter ever to be the World's Fastest Human at successive Games, watched as the women took the blocks for their 100 final. Carl Lewis thought Gail Devers, hoop earrings, curved fingernails and all, would win in a breeze.

In fact, she did win, but by a margin so thin over Merlene Ottey of Jamaica that only Devers's lean at the right instant brought her the gold. Devers had run a faster time in the first heat, tuning up the day before. "Finalitis," Lewis said. "And nobody knows that better than I do. It's not that you choke. It's just that you try to do too much." And then he sat back to watch the men vie for his record.

The 100 had once been a made-in-the-U.S.A. race. But Linford Christie of Great Britain won the '92 Olympics over Frankie Fredericks of Namibia. Donovan Bailey of Canada took the world championship last year. And except for one remembrance of glories past, in 1994, when Lewis's good friend LeRoy Burrell set a world record at 9.85, America has had to be content to produce the world's fastest American. There was some hope invested in Dennis Mitchell, the self-proclaimed Green Machine (for his bilious Day-Glo singlet), but as the finals neared Mitchell took on more of a World Wrestling Federational aspect, howling at the crowd after races. The emerging favorite was the gentlemanly Fredericks, who went about after one heat, shaking hands with all his vanquished. Also contending: Ato Bolden, a Trinidadian, who favors swept-back orange shades, and Bailey, the fidgety reigning world's champ.

Nobody much could fathom the Olympic defender, Christie. A 36-year-old grandfather, he spent weeks before the Olympics publicly pretending that he really hadn't made up his mind whether he'd bother to run or not. (And, as it turned out, the joke would be on him.) Bolden, who publicly "100 percent guaranteed" that Burrell's world record would fall in the finals to "me and someone else," posted the best winning time in the semis, a 9.93, but Fredericks's 9.94 in the other semi was a glide. An un-hyphenated African has never won the 100, and Fredericks, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Alec Guinness, knew that his '92 silver medal was but a bagatelle. "It's only the gold that counts," he said. "I still even get asked where I'm from."

And so he lined up in the five-spot, Bailey to his right, Mitchell, Bolden and Christie to the inside. Then began the madness. Christie broke too soon. In college and high school, a false start eliminates you, but in the Olympics you get a Mulligan. Next, Bolden beat the gun. The runners looked exasperated, but surely now ... and then it was Christie again. It was only by 14 one-thousandths of a second, but it was enough not only to eliminate him, but also to send him into a lengthy filibuster. Distraction grew into barely contained anger with some of the other finalists.

"The irony is, it probably hurt Fredericks the most, because he trains with Christie," Carl Lewis said later. "It was like calling time out to bother the field-goal kicker." Indeed, when the now magnificent seven finally broke for real the fourth time, Fredericks was demonstrably tight, running off Bailey's flank. Although Fredericks eventually caught Bolden to gain another silver (and four more years of you're-from-where?-ness) Bailey swept home in 9.84, the world record Bolden had guaranteed. "It's funny the way a 100 goes," Lewis said, as his own Olympic record went by the boards, too. "I think the reason Donovan ran so well was that he was on the outside, where all he could see was he was ahead of Frankie, so he relaxed, and he never put up too much, the way Bolden and Mitchell did." Bailey's victory was, after a fashion, redemptive for his adopted Canada. He had sat, cheering, in a bar near Toronto in 1988, celebrating Ben Johnson's victory over Lewis in Seoul, a 9.79 that would turn to bitter ashes for Canada after Johnson's failed drug test. Still, although Bailey, like Johnson, came from Jamaica, he does not want to simply be remembered as the man who made Canada forget its athletic shame. "My name is Donovan Bailey," he declared after his victory.

Devers's triumph was so close that she, Ottey and Gwen Torrence, who finished third, all milled about for minutes before the result was announced. Jamaica filed an official protest for Ottey, its stylish running queen of an incredible five Olympics. But lacking any overturn, it was another grand chapter in the amazing saga of Devers, the defending gold medalist whose triumph over Graves' disease in '91 came just two days before her feet were to be amputated. If that sounds like the stuff of TV movies, so indeed has one already been made.

For the sequel, we focus on Gail's feud with Torrence. First, at Barcelona in '92, Torrence suggested Devers had used drugs, and then, but a month ago, Torrence thrashed her in the trials and became a heavy Olympic favorite. On Saturday night, though, after Devers's win, she invited Torrence to join her on a victory lap, and Torrence said the whole thing was just one icky mistake. Then, in reel two, Devers finds that almost contemporaneous with her victory, her boyfriend, Kenny Harrison, has beaten Jonathan Edwards in the triple jump--as big an upset as there could be in track.

Bobby Kersee, her coach, dashes onto the track and grabs her in a dear embrace, holding Devers tightly, joyously swirling her about. How bittersweet was the day for him, one that began with his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, tearfully departing the field, in unbearable pain with a thigh injury, abandoning her effort to win a third straight heptathlon. But now, at least his other famous charge, Devers, had won, assuaging some of the family disappointment.

And the finale of the new Devers movie? Thursday she goes for a double in the 100-meter hurdles. In '92, she stumbled at the last hurdle. Only finalitis would appear capable of thwarting her double destiny this time.