Thursday, September 21, 2000

Track begins Friday

Perec says au revoir, Jones takes center stage

AP Sports Writer

        SYDNEY, Australia — Take a French melodrama, add some Australian home cooking, throw in a generous dose of charm and speed from Marion Jones.

        And track and field is off and running at the Olympic Games, apparently without the two-time defending champion in the women's 400 meters, Marie-Jose Perec.

        The reclusive Frenchwoman flew to Singapore on Thursday after saying she was threatened by an unidentified man who forced his way into her apartment in Sydney. No incident was reported to police, however, and the story got uglier when a television cameraman was roughed up by Perec's male companion at the Singapore airport.

        Perec had not officially withdrawn from the Olympics, however, and was listed in the fifth of eight 400-meter qualifying heats in Friday's first day of Olympic track competition.

        If Perec is a no-show, Cathy Freeman, who stirred the emotions of the host nation with the lighting of the Olympic flame in the opening ceremony, will be an even bigger favorite to become the first aboriginal Australian to win an individual Olympic gold medal.

        The international intrigue diverted the spotlight — at least briefly — from Marion Jones and her quest for five gold medals. Only once has an Olympic track and field athlete won that many — Finland's Paavo Nurmi in Paris 76 years ago.

        “I am not saying that I am a superwoman,” Jones said. “I have heard all these terms describing me. I am not invincible.

        “I am running fast and confident. I am at the Olympic Games. I am 24 years old. It doesn't get much better than that.”

        Jones and America's other two mighty M's — Maurice Greene and Michael Johnson — will make appearances Friday. Jones and Greene will run in the 100-meter preliminaries, Johnson in the opening round of the 400.

        This U.S. team may be weaker than the juggernauts that dominated Atlanta and Barcelona. The medal count could be down because of a lack of depth, a rash of injuries and Olympic trials stumbles.

        Yet there is the potential for plenty of gold, led by Jones, who in her first Olympics will compete in the 100, 200 and long jump, as well as the 400- and 1,600-meter relays.

        Johnson knows what it is like to be “the” story of the games. Four years ago in Atlanta, he was under intense attention as he became the first to win both the 200 and 400 in a single Olympics, smashing the 200 record in the process.

        “It's a lot of pressure. It is difficult to handle at times,” he said. “I think the best thing that Marion can do is surround herself with people who understand what she is trying to achieve, and who have experience in dealing with these kinds of things.”

        Johnson had experienced Olympic pressure before. This is all new to Jones. She had a chance to compete in the relay preliminaries as a teen-ager in 1992 in Barcelona, but decided against it because she wanted to earn her first gold on her own. She missed out in Atlanta because of a basketball injury.

        “It may be hard for a lot of people to understand what Marion is trying to do, but most athletes understand what she is trying to do,” Johnson said. “You know you are capable in your mind of winning every event you compete in. You want to go out there and do that. I think that she would be disappointed if she had decided coming in here, that "I am not going to do one of my events.”'

        “I think she felt like she would be disappointed sitting on the sidelines watching the events she was to go in,” he said.

        The U.S. team could have been much stronger. Greene and Johnson both pulled up lame in the 200 in the trials. Jeff Hartwig, the top-ranked pole vaulter in the world, failed to clear an opening height in the pole vault, and defending decathlon gold medalist Dan O'Brien withdrew with an injury.

        C.J. Hunter, 1999 world champion in the shot put and Jones' husband, is out following arthroscopic knee surgery. And Regina Jacobs, among the favorites in the women's 1,500, had to withdraw because of a respiratory ailment.

        In Sydney, there was more misfortune. Inger Miller, Jones' biggest challenger in the sprints and a key member of the 400-relay team, pulled out of the 100 with a hamstring strain and is questionable for the other two events.

        But holdovers remain. Allen Johnson tries to repeat as gold medalist in the 110-meter hurdles. Gail Devers, the gold medalist in the 100 in Atlanta, will try to win her first gold in the 110-meter hurdles.

        And new faces will emerge. Adam Nelson, a 25-year-old Dartmouth alum who is the top-ranked shot putter in the world, could be the first U.S. track gold medalist Friday. World record holder Stacy Dragila is a heavy favorite to win the first women's Olympic pole vault.

        Greene, also in his first Olympics, is approaching it with his customary confidence and says a world record is within reach.

        “This is the biggest stage you can be on,” he said, “and I like to say the bigger the stage, the better I perform.”


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