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Maurice Greene By MICHAEL FITZGERALD

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It isn't easy being Greene. Framed on the office wall in the champion sprinter's five-bedroom house in Granada Hills, north of Los Angeles, is his daily affirmation. "Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up," the four-sentence verse begins. "It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killedŐ " In the time it would take Maurice Greene to mouth that mantra in his Midwestern drawl, the 100-m world record-holder could finish a race and towel off. Perhaps more appropriate for the fastest man in the world is the motto on the license plates of his black Mercedes 500SL: mo gold.

Those two words sum up Greene's aspirations. In Athens last June, his new mark for the 100 m, 9.79 sec., shaved a record margin (0.05 sec.) off a previous 100-m world record. And having run this year's fastest time-9.86 sec., in Berlin on Sept. 1-Greene has declared his intention not only to win gold at the Games but to set a new world mark in the process. While Sydney in spring can be gustier and wetter than Europe in summer, Greene's 2000 goal has been to run 9.76 sec.; his coach John Smith reckons he can do 9.70. "I don't care about the weather," Greene has said. "It can be storming-down raining. I'm going to do what I have to do to win."

If all goes according to plan, that will take precisely 45 paces, covering up to 11.96 m/sec. at around 41.5 km/h. In motion, Greene is the embodiment of Handling Speed Intelligently, the name of Smith's L.A. club, which has also trained Ato Boldon, Inger Miller and veteran Jon Drummond. Unlike most other sprinters, the nuggety Greene is relatively slow and low out of the blocks. Becoming upright 20 to 25 m out, he reaches maximum acceleration at 60 m, at which point the 75-kg "Kansas Cannonball" routinely shoots ahead of his already flagging opponents. "It's like riding a bike," Smith has said. "It's easier to accelerate when you're leaning forward, hands on the handlebars, than when you take your hands off and sit back."

But Greene is more than a speed machine. His personality twinkles like the stud jauntily embedded in his earlobe. "I like the World Wrestling Federation," he has said, and he shares its showbiz savvy. He entertainingly jests with his rivals: poking his tongue out at Canada's Donovan Bailey when he beat the Atlanta champion at the 1997 world championships; jiving across the finishing line to win the 200 m in Seville last August; and spatting like a rapper with Michael Johnson before their 200 m blowout at the Olympic trials on July 23.

Yet lately, Greene's expression has grown less joyful, more wary. While last season he was the most dominant sprinter since Carl Lewis' 1984 heyday or Ben Johnson's 21 consecutive 100-m victories in 1987, this year Greene has shown fallibility. After running fifth in Glasgow in 10.54 sec., one of four 100-m losses this season, Greene complained that his legs were "dead and sore." Then there was his 26th birthday present on July 23: a strained left hamstring that saw him hobble out from the curve in the 200 m, dashing his hopes of three gold medals at Sydney (he's still likely to pick up a second in the relay). "You have to listen to your body," he said after being escorted from the Sacramento track.

That's what took the skinny kid from Kansas to national glory in the first place. After being disgraced in the 100-m quarterfinals of the 1996 Olympic trials, and later watching Bailey set a 9.84 sec. record from the Atlanta stands, he vowed, "This will never happen again without me." Two months later he arrived in L.A. and began training under John Smith. Bulking up his 1.76-m frame, he had lopped a staggering 0.22 sec. off his best 100-m time within a year. Rumors that he had used performance-enhancing drugs inevitably arose, especially in Athens, where he equaled Ben Johnson's steroid-fueled 9.79 sec. But Greene has so far emerged as fresh as his green Nike singlet. "I'm clean," he told the New York Times in July. "I hope they do blood testing at the Olympics. I'll be the first in line. I have nothing to hide."

Except, perhaps, the 100-m time he'll write on a piece of paper, as he likes to do before any big race, and store in his red and yellow spikes, the ones with "Mo" marked on the heels. On the evening of Sept. 23 in the Olympic Stadium, if Greene is as dependable as he's been in the past, we should find out what he's written. It could be phenoMOnal.