War of words between sprinters the hot topic as Olympic Trials resume

Thursday, July 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Earlier this summer, Michael Johnson said the talk is not the race. Finally, this weekend, the race arrives and the talk stops, for 19 seconds or so.

The race is the men's 200-meter final on Sunday and - if all goes according to form in the first two rounds - a long-anticipated meeting between Johnson and Maurice Greene.

But first, the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials resume after a two-day break on Thursday with the first five events of the decathlon and finals in the men's javelin and steeplechase. Johnson and Greene don't run the first of three rounds of the 200 until Saturday, but their expected showdown on Sunday has been the biggest topic of conversation since long before the Trials began.

That's because the verbal sparring between the two sprinters has been almost like the build-up to a heavyweight championship fight. Johnson says the trash talk, unlike anything involving him since a 150-meter showdown against Canadian Donovan Bailey in 1997, has left a bad taste in his mouth. But he acknowledges that even he would "tune in when I know there are two guys boxing or competing or whatever that don't like each other."

And these are two guys who don't like each other, fighting for track and field's championship belt, the unofficial title of the premier male track and field star in the United States, if not the world.

Johnson is a six-time world champion in the 200 or 400 meters, the defending Olympic champion in the 200 and 400 and the world record holder in both events. Greene is a three-time world champion in the 100 or 200 and the world record holder in the 100. They are 1-1 against each other.

The trash talk began a year ago. Johnson withdrew from a race against Greene because of the death of his grandmother. A few weeks later, a leg injury forced Johnson to withdraw from the U.S. championships and another race against Greene. Over the next few days, Greene and his camp suggested that Johnson was afraid to race Greene.

Johnson was furious, and so was his coach, Clyde Hart of Baylor. If Johnson wasn't hurt, Hart asked, why would he have spent thousands of dollars to fly his wife, his physical therapist and Hart to Eugene, Ore., for the race, only to turn around and fly home less than 12 hours later? "If Michael was afraid, we could have just stayed home and said he had the flu," said Hart.

Then this year, Greene suggested that the only reason Johnson broke the 200-meter world record in 1996 was because the track in Atlanta was exceptionally fast, so hard that it was barely legal under IAAF rules. When Johnson opened his 2000 season by running a 200 in 19.71 seconds, the fourth fastest of all time and .15 seconds faster than Greene has ever run, Greene said that because the venue was at high altitude it really wasn't any better than a 19.9. Greene's coach, John Smith, also said that Johnson isn't the same runner that he was in 1996, when he set the world record of 19.32 seconds.

Johnson has felt compelled to "defend" himself, saying on several occasions that Greene was immature.

After winning the Trials 100 meters last Saturday, Greene said, "I want Michael Johnson." But Johnson thinks that what Greene really wants is what Johnson has.

"I think that what Maurice is trying to achieve, which is to become a great sprinter and supplant me as the premier track and field athlete, can all be done without making personal attacks and saying things that aren't true," Johnson said. "That can all be done just by the fact that he won the world championship last year and he was ranked No. 1 in the world last year, and he deserved to be and I was ranked No. 2. And that's the way it should be, and that in itself creates a great race."