August 22, 2000


send this story to a friend

Capel thrust into spotlight

John Mehaffey in London

John Capel won the National Collegiate 200 metres title last year and abandoned a modest American football career last April.

John CapelTwo unremarkable facts in the standard reference books. And all it seemed any student of track and field needed to know about Capel.

Yet after last month's U.S. trials, the 21-year-old American sprinter has been suddenly elevated to the heady status of his country's top 200 metres title contender at the Sydney Olympics opening on September 15.

Victory to Capel was not the preferred ending to a race billed as a heavyweight clash between Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene, a precursor to what was supposed to be the track event of the Games.

Johnson, already troubled by injury, lasted only 50 metres before pulling up in agony with a left hamstring cramp. Less than 50 metres later Greene came to an equally painful halt, also grabbing his left hamstring. Unnoticed as a shocked silence descended on the packed Sacramento stadium, Capel held off 34-year-old Floyd Heard to win in a personal best of 19.85 seconds.

The heavyweight fight of the year had ended with both fighters knocking themselves out. Or as Johnson's coach Clyde Hart put it: "New script for the Western. Both gunslingers get shot."

Johnson can not now repeat his epochal 200-400 double at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and will run the 400 metres only in Sydney. Greene will concentrate on the 100 metres, the event in which he is the world champion and world record holder.

A Johnson-Greene showdown in Sydney would have commanded as much attention as Marion Jones's well-publicised goal of five gold medals. It would also have boosted publicity for a sport troubled by drugs busts and a public perception that athletics, in common with swimming and cycling, may owe more to chemists than coaches.

Reports of animosity between Johnson and Greene were genuine. Johnson did not care for Carl Lewis, his predecessor as the premier American sprinter, and finds Greene's similar craving for publicity equally distasteful.

He also had his doubts about the hyperbole surrounding the 200 metres final at the U.S. trials, especially as the demands of running the 200 metres appear to be becoming too much for his 32-year-old body.

"I'm thinking, if I pull out of this race what are people going to write about me?," Johnson said. "It's sad that track is in such bad shape that it needs one-on-one battles to get people's attention when the sport, and especially the sprints, don't lend themselves to those kind of match races."

Despite Johnson's reservations, one-to-one battles are precisely what his sport needs, especially in the professional era when the chances of a previously unknown athlete erupting on the scene as Alberto Juantorena did in the 400 and 800 metres at the 1976 Montreal Olympics are minimal.

Some of the finest athletes in history will be on parade in Sydney, including Ethiopia's long-distance genius Haile Gebrselassie and Algerian middle distance king Hicham El Guerrouj. Neither African, though, has any serious rival provided they steer clear of injury.

Sergei Bubka, another equally illustrious name, has already confirmed he is the best pole vaulter ever with six world titles and 17 world records. Buy even the great Bubka is starting to bow to age and injury and at the age of 36, the demands of an event requiring the speed of a sprinter, the strength of a weightlifter and the agility of a gymnast appear too much.

Which leaves Jones and her dreams at the end of an athletics season which has resolutely refused to catch fire.

The pressures on the young American are many and various.

In the 100 metres she looked unstoppable in Stockholm but fallible in Zurich where team mate Inger Miller almost stole victory. Miller is the chief threat in the 200 metres where a mistake on the bend can mean the difference between gold and silver.

And then there is the long jump, the event where Jones is at her most fallible. Lacking the technique which took Lewis to four consecutive Olympic titles, Jones relies on her speed and determination. Both were needed when she faced elimination at the trials after fouling her first two jumps.

Jones came through to win, earning a tribute from Johnson watching on television in the warmup area. "Man she cut it close," he said. "But she's a competitor. That's what showed today."

If she completes the individual events successfully, Jones must then contend with the vagaries of the relays, where her fate throughout the rounds will be in the hands and feet of her three team mates in the 4x100 and 4x400.

"It's going to be difficult," said Jones. "I'm going to have to say 'today is Monday, what do I have to do? I have to do two rounds of the 100. Okay, let's do that."

Although there have been at least three memorable world championships, the Olympics retain a special magic for track and field athletes.

"I'm looking foward to landing in Sydney," Jones said. "And, this is going to be funny, going to the opening ceremonies and taking my video camera and being the typical first time Olympian."

Greene also has never competed at the Games. "U.S. Olympian," he said, relishing the sound of the words after qualifying for the American 100 metres team. "This is the best there is."

Back to top
(C) 2000 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content, including by framing or similiar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters and the Reuters Sphere logo are registered trademarks and trademarks of the Reuters group of companies around the world.Reuters
Mail Sports Editor