Despite loss, Hunt made the right call

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Erv Hunt did not move a muscle. Not a bow of the head. Not a slump of the shoulders. Not a trace of a grimace. Not a single outward sign of disappointment.

The United States men's track and field coach watched his 4x100 relay team settle for a silver medal Saturday night and for a while only his eyes moved. Hunt had made the call to exclude Carl Lewis, and he was prepared to field the fallout.

''There's no guarantee we would have won with Carl Lewis,'' Hunt said. ''And there's no use in having rules and policies for everybody except one person.''

A minute before the race, Hunt was convinced he had made the right decision, and he did not see things differently in hindsight. A coach's job is to make the hard choices, and to live with the consequences. Few coaches have ever had a harder choice than this one.

Runners resent Lewis

Lewis was looking for a 10th gold medal, and had spent the last week lobbying for the anchor leg. But as much as the track fan in Erv Hunt wanted to make this happen, the coach in him recognized an obligation to others.

Lewis had run last in the 100-meter finals of the U.S. Olympic Trials, and had skipped the subsequent relay camp. Hunt did not see how he could justify rewarding Lewis ahead of runners who had not only beaten him, but had also shown up to work on baton exchanges.

The runners themselves were less diplomatic. They resented Lewis' heavy-handed politicking and the pressure they perceived in the media.

''This isn't about what can be given to you,'' said Dennis Mitchell, the U.S. team captain. ''Those spots on that relay team have been earned. They haven't been earned in one meet. They haven't been earned in one day. These are our careers. This is what we live for. These are our dreams.''

Losing sight of the goal

Much as he has meant to track, Carl Lewis' dreams are no more precious than those of any other athlete. To promote him at the expense of teammates who had been running faster and working harder might have made for better television ratings, but it would have been an affront to fair play.

''I've had people tell me that he didn't deserve it, but they would like to see it,'' Hunt said. ''It was a chance to make history. As a spectator, I would have liked to see him run myself.''

When Leroy Burrell scratched because of a strained Achilles, Hunt had the perfect excuse to promote Lewis. He went instead with alternate Tim Harden. If this was a mistake, it was made out of loyalty and pragmatism. Erv Hunt knew Lewis had not run a 100 since the trials, and had not been training for a relay race. He chose Harden's fresh legs over Lewis' rust.

What effect this had on the race is guesswork. Canada, anchored by 100-meter world record holder Donovan Bailey, finished in 37.69, .36 seconds ahead of the U.S. quartet.

Hunt said the absence of Burrell, the former world-record holder, was probably the biggest factor in the finish.

That, and the Canadians.

''The USA relay team was concerned so much with whether or not Carl Lewis would be on their team,'' said Bailey, ''that they forgot other teams were running, too,''

Hunt watched the race from an entrance ramp at the Centennial Olympic Stadium, above the place where Drummond would pass the baton to Harden, beyond the reach of NBC's cameras.

He stood there, a walkie-talkie in one hand, a cellular phone in the other, utterly anonymous to the spectators around him.

As the runners took their marks, a volunteer asked if this was the relay Carl Lewis had hoped to run in. Erv Hunt confirmed that indeed it was.

''What people are going to say is, 'Would we have run faster with Carl?' '' Hunt said. ''But when you think about it, in retrospect, Canada has two real good sprinters and we didn't run that well in the hundred. I knew it was going to be tough to win with the team we had. I thought Leroy was the key.''

With Carl Lewis or without him, the 4x100 was no lock.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Aug. 4, 1996.