Mike Fitzgerald is on vacation.
His column returns July 31.
It doesn't matter what you call it. A dash or a run. The quarter mile, 400 meters, or, in the old days, 440 yards. Anyone who has ever seriously raced one lap around the track knows this for fact: It is a very painful experience. Especially for most sprinters.
Unless you are very gifted, you must go full-throttle the entire distance. And even if you're in great shape, you will run the last part of the race in oxygen debt.
Everything tightens up. You imagine your chest, buttocks and hamstrings all are on the verge of explosion. The last 50 meters seem to take as long as the first 350.
Only if you trained hard enough, and only if you are fast enough, you are there, approaching the tape among the leaders. You are propelled equally by the chance to win and to end the pain.
But that is what mortals experience. Then there is Michael Johnson.
As the world watched and flashbulbs tracked him around the oval at Olympic Stadium in Atlanta last night, Johnson (also favored to win the gold in the pure-speed 200 meters where he holds the world record) made quarter-mile hell look like a jog around the block.
Johnson slowed down the last 100 meters in last night's semifinal, but he still had the top Olympic qualifying time of 44.59. Tonight he goes for the gold medal and the world record of 43.29.
The owner of that record, fellow American Butch Reynolds, blew out around the first turn in his semi, victim to cramps and wounded hamstrings.
About 80,000 were on hand, and Johnson was the star of the show, as he figures to be for the rest of the Games. If he wins the gold in the 400 and 200, he will be the first man to ever do so in the Olympics.
If that happens, Johnson will become the new unofficial king of track and field, replacing Carl Lewis, who is now 35 and in his final Olympics.
But Lewis can also make history by winning the long jump tonight for the fourth time. He would join Al Oerter as the only U.S. athlete to win gold medals in four consecutive Summer Olympiads.
It was a poignant moment - and a clutch performance to rival that of gymnast Kerri Strug's vault last week - when Lewis jumped 27 feet, 21/4 inches on his last qualifying effort yesterday. It lifted him from 15th to first place.
Regardless of what he does tonight, it reminds us that Carl Lewis is never one to be counted out. He was supposed to be washed up four years ago, but he helped the U.S. to a gold medal in the 4x100 meter relay at Barcelona.
Lewis has eight Olympic gold medals and is considered by some the greatest track and field athlete ever. But, for some reason - even in this age when personalities are marketed for much lesser accomplishments - Lewis never became popular with the general public.
When he was younger, he was often perceived as aloof and sometimes arrogant. Charisma is a difficult thing to quantify, and our society seems to have no set formula when choosing its sports heroes.
Maybe it's the sport itself - although the purest of athletic endeavors, track and field is appreciated by most American sports fans only once every four years.
Michael Johnson could change all this. He has a better chance of being embraced by the public than Lewis ever did. Johnson has the dignified confidence of Michael Jordan, yet his golden track spikes look like they came out of Dennis Rodman's closet.
"Right now, I'm just a 400-meter guy," Johnson said last night.
If he can make hell look easy one more time - preferably in record time - and then win the 200, he may finish these Olympics as much more.