It has been a couple of decades since I covered games for a living and I forgot most of them as soon as I filed the story, but there is one moment from a sports event I remember clearly. It was what Frank Fredericks said to me as he stepped off the track following the Olympic 100-meter dash final in Atlanta.
Sports force athletes to face immense pressure to perform, either self-induced or from outside forces or both. Steve Young threw up before games and sometimes afterward, too. I believe the pressure to perform is even greater in the individual sports — swimming, wrestling, track and field. I’ve heard many dual-sport athletes, especially football players, say track was far more nerve-racking than football. I know of one athlete who gave up a track scholarship at a major university simply because he could not deal with the pressure — the sleepless nights and the worry before races. He decided he would rather pay for school than endure that any longer.
There is some safety in numbers in team sports, but in individual sports there is no one else with whom to share the blame of a loss or to cover a poor performance. There is no hiding. It’s exposed for all to see.
Add all of the above to the pressure of competing in the Olympics and it can be crushing.
I was in the tunnel under the Olympic stadium before the start of the 100-meter dash at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. I was standing with Fredericks and his coach Willard Hirschi. Fredericks, a quiet, unimposing man who looked more scholar than athlete in street clothes, was representing Namibia, but also, unofficially, BYU, where he had risen to world prominence under Hirschi’s direction.
Fredericks was the hope of a nation — which was the headline of a profile I wrote about the sprinter in 1993. The country was climbing out of decades of apartheid and Fredericks was the people’s ambassador, the man which they had pinned their pride, love and hopes on. He gave them a presence in the world. The adulation transcended sports.
Four years earlier, at the Barcelona Games, Fredericks gave Namibia its first two Olympic medals — silver in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes. And yet afterward, Fredericks wondered if it was enough for his countrymen. “They want the world,” he said. “Everybody wants the gold. So I don’t know how they’re going to accept me.”
When he returned home, he was given a hero’s welcome. Thousands met him at the airport and lined the streets to celebrate his return, including the nation’s prime minister and president. He was driven through the streets in an open car past adoring crowds to his home. The celebration continued the next day.
But in Atlanta the expectations had been raised, partly because of Fredericks himself. He had been dominant in the sprints in the weeks leading up to the ’96 Games. He had beaten the favorites in both the 100- and 200-meter distances — Canada’s defending world champion, Donovan Bailey, in the 100 and world record holder Michael Johnson in the 200. Weeks earlier Fredericks had clocked 9.86 — the fastest time in the world that year — despite slowing down in the final meters. It was just one one-hundredth of a second off the world record set two years earlier by Leroy Burrell.
Fredericks was in top form, but the Olympics are like no other competition and the 100 is its premier event, the one that crowns the World’s Fastest Man. At one point, I peered out of the tunnel to view the stadium and saw 85,000 people in the stands. Forty million more were watching on TV. If I had been on the track that night, I couldn’t have tied my shoes.
It seemed as if everyone in the stadium was holding his or her breath as the sprinters queued up in the blocks for the start of the 100. The tension was thick. What happened next only increased the drama and pressure.
The sprinters rose to the set position. The gun was raised. The stadium went silent. The gun sounded.
There was a false start.
The sprinters walked back to the starting line and climbed into the blocks again. The race was restarted.
There was a second false start.
The sprinters walked back to the start and climbed into the blocks once again. The race was restarted again.
There was a third false start.
This one resulted in the disqualification of Fredericks’ friend and training partner, Linford Christie, the defending Olympic champion. Per the rules, he was told to leave the track, but refused. He stared at the replay with the judges, then stood defiantly by his blocks. It was several minutes before he cooperated and left the starting area so the race could be restarted.
The sprinters climbed into the blocks for the fourth time, some seven minutes after the race was supposed to begin. They rose to the set position again. The gun was raised again. The stadium went silent again. The gun sounded again. It was a clean start.
Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago shot to the lead and appeared to have the race in hand. Fredericks was back in the pack, with Bailey. At 50 meters Bailey began to rally. He overtook Boldon in the final 10 meters and reached the finish line in a world-record time of 9.84. Fredericks had to rally to edge Boldon for second, with a time of 9.89 — a time that would have won every other Olympic 100-meter final. He had claimed another silver medal.
I was waiting just inside the tunnel when Fredericks walked off the track. As he passed me he was downcast. “Unfortunately, in sports it’s only the gold medal that counts,” he told me. “ ... I don’t know if this will be enough for people in Namibia.”
The old doubts he had experienced in Barcelona had returned. Clearly, he cared about his countrymen and wanted to please them. They were on his mind as soon as the race was finished.
A few days later, Fredericks returned for the finals of the 200, in which he would face Johnson. In the tunnel before the race, his coach kept repeating the same words: “Frank, run the turn; Frank, run the turn ….” He was telling Fredericks to scorch the first 100 meters. He did just that, but Johnson matched him and came out ahead as they reached the homestretch — and then he pulled away. Fredericks’ time of 19.68 made him the second fastest man in history — he would’ve easily won any Olympic Games to date — and yet he was a distant second. Johnson had set an astounding world record of 19.32.
So there it was: He had finished second in two races behind two world records. He had collected four silver medals in four Olympic races in four years. Only Carl Lewis had won as many Olympic medals in the 100 and 200 as Fredericks, but all Fredericks could think was that he had fallen short.
Silver was his color. From 1992 to 1997, Fredericks won eight medals in the World Championships and Olympics at 100 and 200 meters — seven silver, one gold. In terms of career world rankings, Fredericks is No. 1 in the 200 — the best ever. He ranked first or second in the world nine different years at that distance (three of them No. 1), and 13 times ranked in the top 10 during a 15-year run (injuries sidelined him during those other two years). Ten times he was ranked in the top 10 in the 100 (including one year at No. 1).
But he never won that Olympic gold medal. An injury forced Fredericks to withdraw from the 2000 Olympics. He made one last attempt in the 200 in 2004, at the age of 36. He was fourth.
Looking back at the 1996 Olympics, Fredericks once said, “I don’t like pressure; I can’t handle it. I realized that in the 100. There was so much pressure. It was very emotional for me. I let the pressure get to me (in the 100). I wanted to win too much, and that’s not my style.”
As if to underscore that point, four weeks after the Atlanta Olympics he met Johnson in the 200 again, this time in Berlin. Fredericks won.-Desert News