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Off and Running
Tim Layden
April 27, 1998
Ato Boldon's sizzling 9.86 seconds in the 100 meters served notice that he has taken dead aim at the world record and the man who holds it, Donovan Bailey
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April 27, 1998

Off And Running

Ato Boldon's sizzling 9.86 seconds in the 100 meters served notice that he has taken dead aim at the world record and the man who holds it, Donovan Bailey

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Enough with humility and gracious, congratulatory fluff. More than an hour after he had watched his training partner, Ato Boldon of Trinidad, win the 100 meters in a blistering 9.86 seconds at the Mount San Antonio College Relays on Sunday; after he'd helped explain how Boldon had equaled the third-fastest time in history (and Carl Lewis's fastest), had missed Donovan Bailey's world record by just .02 of a second and had run faster than any other sprinter so early in any season, Maurice Greene turned deliciously selfish.

"Hey, John, I've got to run a 100, and soon," he squealed at John Smith, the Los Angeles-based sprint coach who trains both Boldon and Greene and who has chosen to keep them in separate races until early summer.

"Oh, man, come on down, I'm right here," shouted Boldon from a nearby bench.

Greene paced the worn grass of the Mt. SAC warmup area, manic with energy. He is the world and U.S. champion at 100 meters—and owner of a 9.86 of his own—and on Sunday he won the 200 meters in a scorching 20.03 seconds. Yet it was only the fragrance of Boldon's 100 that excited him. "We are going to go at it," said Greene, eyeballing Boldon with a malevolence that is both serious and familiar, repeated dozens of times a day in their train-and-trash sessions at UCLA. "And when we go at it, that record is going way, way down."

It's Boldon's and Greene's common cause to annihilate the world record of 9.84, set by Bailey at the 1996 Olympics, a passion that is derived in part from their dislike of Bailey. Last summer at the world championships in Athens, Bailey tried for two days to unnerve Boldon and the internationally unproven Greene, before Greene endured to beat him in the final, sticking out his tongue at Bailey as they crossed the finish line. In postrace interviews, the erudite Bailey belittled Greene's nervous, unpolished manner of speaking. More recently, after Greene defeated Bailey in Australia in February, Bailey suggested to the Sydney Daily Telegraph Mirror, that Greene has used performance-enhancing drugs. (Never mind that such talk is a given for any rising star in the track world.) "Donovan is an intelligent guy," said Boldon. "What he's trying to do is get a rise out of Maurice. Well, he's going to get it; not only am I going to break his record, Maurice is going to break it, too."

Beyond Bailey, there's the 100-meter record. "Soft, very soft," said Boldon. As dramatic evolutionary changes have unfolded in every sport—300-pound football linemen who run the 40 in 4.9, baseball players who threaten to hit 70 home runs in a season, basketball players who break not just backboards but basket supports—track, too, has been on fast-forward. Nearly every men's record has been crushed in the last decade, many in the last two years. But the 100-meter mark has barely moved, decreasing just .11 of a second since Jim Hines's 9.95 at the 1968 Mexico City Games. The biggest drop during that period was at the world championships of 1991, when Lewis lowered the record from 9.90 to 9.86. ( Ben Johnson ran 9.83 and 9.79, but both marks were expunged after he admitted to using steroids.) "We're going to get this thing under 9.80," Boldon promised. "The question is, How much under?"

When the 24-year-old Boldon speaks like this, particularly in April, track cognoscenti cringe. He has two Olympic bronze medals and a world championship (last year in the 200), yet his words and deeds promise much more. A year ago Boldon opened his 100-meter season by running 9.89 at the Modesto Relays but only once ran faster thereafter—a why now? 9.87 in a quarterfinal heat at the worlds. He finished fifth behind Greene in the Athens final. Similarly, he peaked in the 200 with a 19.77 in early July in Stuttgart, then staggered home to his first world title with a wind-aided 20.04 against a field without Michael Johnson. Boldon is the slugger who hits 35 home runs by the All-Star break and finishes with 42. "I know exactly what other sprinters will wake up saying when they see what I've run here," he said. " 'Boldon's at it again. We'll get him in July.' "

His midseason struggles are painful to watch not just because Boldon is so talented but also because he's a wellspring of intelligence, humor and infectious enthusiasm. After winning Sunday's 100 with a gusty-but-allowable 1.8 meters-per-second wind at his back, Boldon carried the flag of Trinidad around the modest stadium that sits among green hillsides in Walnut, Calif., an hour east of Los Angeles. On the infield he conducted a press conference and then did several interviews on his cell phone. "He's the type of person whom people gravitate to," says Jonathan Ogden, a former UCLA track teammate of Boldon's and now a Pro Bowl offensive tackle with the Baltimore Ravens. "He loves to talk. We used to say, It's a good thing we all like Ato so much, because if we didn't, we'd want to kill him for talking so much. But I miss him. There are no people like him in football."

Boldon—the first of two sons of a Jamaican mother, Hope, and a Trinidadian father, Guy—comes naturally to his role. He was named Ato Jabari, from the words in Yoruba, a West African language, meaning "brilliant leader." Says Guy, "If you name your son Jesse or Frank, you can expect him to behave like a Jesse or Frank. I wanted my children to look upward." To underscore his desire, Guy asked a favor from the developer who built the family's home outside Port-of-Spain, and thus the knoll on which they lived was named Jabari Hill.

Ato lived in Trinidad until he was 14; after his parents divorced, he and his brother, Okera, moved to New York City with Hope. There Ato was introduced to track by Jamaica ( Queens) High coach Joe Trupiano, who witnessed Ato's arresting speed being squandered in a soccer game. Before Ato's senior year in high school, Hope took a job as a human resources consultant in Atlanta and moved Ato to California, where he lived for a year with an uncle, Leroi Boldon, a veterinarian who gave Ato the keys to his gold Mercedes 380 SL. "Playboy lifestyle without the income," says Ato. "In retrospect, not a good thing."

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