High Flyers

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Maurice Greene celebrates his victory in the 100 meters

Maurice Greene opened the door to his balcony each day around 9 a.m., stepped outside, looked at the glittering sea and took a deep breath of salt air. Another fine morning in Sydney. Marion Jones awoke in her suburban apartment and said good morning to her husband, the very large, very injured shot-putter C. J. Hunter. Meanwhile, at the Olympic Village in Homebush, 10,000 young athletes were being shuttled to competitions. They were busily proving that Korean women sure can shoot arrows; that Ping-Pong isn't just kid stuff; that while Americans and Australians still rule swimming, the Dutch and Italians are bearing down. Off the clock, these athletes were buying souvenirs, taking pictures, going to pubs — living the Olympic experience.

That experience in no way resembled the Olympics week of Greene and Jones. These two Americans were about to embark on high-profile, high-stakes, big-money quests, and they each needed a bubble. They needed their own versions of what the great British miler Seb Coe called "a cocoon of concentration."

Their approaches to last Saturday night's 100-meter races were similar only in this insularity. Jones went inland, low-keying everything. She holed up with her handlers and family in a just-built apartment complex in the working-class suburb of Bankstown. Two-by-fours still littered the yard; a Dumpster out front hadn't yet been carted away. Hunter, a taciturn 320-pounder who likes the kitchen a lot, did most of the cooking. (He had the time, as knee surgery had forced him to withdraw from the shot-put competition.) After breakfast, Jones reported to a nearby track and practiced under the gaze of coach Trevor Graham. It was all very much like life back in Raleigh, N.C., which was precisely the point. But in Raleigh, she could sleep. Here, she said, "I've been sleeping very little. Last night, hardly at all."

Jones went to Bankstown, Greene went to the beach; he wouldn't be caught dead where nobody could find him. He is a showboater, a character. He works hard to burnish a high-gloss image as the gum-popping, strutting leader of coach John Smith's Handling Speed Intelligently team, a stable of hip-hop athletes who train at UCLA's Drake Stadium and hang together in the off-hours. In a strategy similar to the Jones camp's, the honchos at HSI sought to approximate L.A. in Sydney by renting a beach house in Coogee. Sharing it were four HSI sprinters: Greene, Jon Drummond, Curtis Johnson and Ato Boldon. They were clearly happy there, getting up late, training, playing pool, chillin'. Greene cracked jokes, cracked gum, seemed relaxed — but he always does and never is. "Do I get nervous?" he said on Wednesday. "Of course. I don't show it, but I'm nervous right now. This is the biggest stage I've been on, and I want Maurice Greene to put on the best performance ever seen."

In the track meet, Jones and Greene cruised through their heats, not noticeably breaking a sweat. Jones ran 10.83 sec. on a cool Friday evening, thrilling 110,000 fans. "I decided to put one out there tonight," she said afterward. Sending a message? "Ohhh, I don't know." In Saturday's semifinals, two more warning shots: Jones and Greene each qualified fastest.

On Saturday night, the women's 100 meters was exciting only in the way of Secretariat's Belmont: a superb racer pulled away, showing the audience what fast looks like — and faster. Jones ran a 10.75 and finished seven meters clear. Greene, by contrast, came out of the drive phase with a fight on his hands. But the focus of this big-meet runner was never sharper, and he accelerated after 40 meters like the Ferrari he had been driving around Coogee, crossing the line in 9.87 sec. "He just destroyed us," said Boldon, who hung tough for second.

Marion Jones and Maurice Greene — two very different people had taken two very different routes to arrive within .88 sec. of each other at the same destination: fastest in the world. And then something happened that showed they were true kin under the skin. As Jones, overwhelmed, broke down sobbing under the stands, Greene was in the stadium behaving in an extraordinary manner — not swaggering, but crying too. "Tears of joy," both runners called them later.

Greene's Olympics is nearly over: All that remains for him in Sydney is the 4x100 relay. Jones, of course, is just beginning. Her mission is to win five gold medals. Her next final, the 200 meters, isn't until Thursday night, so she can take a bit of a break. "Tonight," she said on Saturday, "I will sleep."

Greene had other ideas.