SACRAMENTO, CALIF. Marion Jones wants to accomplish more than any other Olympic track athlete in history. Michael Johnson is intent on sweeping the long sprints for an unprecedented second time. Maurice Greene hopes to prove he's the best sprinter in history, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee is making a surprising comeback.
All four will be in action today in a star-studded opening to the U.S. Olympic trials at Sacramento State's Hornet Stadium.
"This is the greatest track meet in the world," Johnson said Thursday. "This is truly about pressure because if you don't get in the top three, you don't make the Olympic team. It is the most pressure an athlete is in."
Johnson and Joyner-Kersee have survived the pressure, having made Olympic teams and succeeded in the games. Greene couldn't handle the pressure during his one trials experience and poured out his emotions later, sobbing uncontrollably while watching the Atlanta Games. And Jones will be facing the pressure for the first time.
Jones, the powerful sprinter who has come tantalizingly close to breaking the world records in the women's 100 and 200 meters held by the late Florence Griffith Joyner, has set her sights on winning five gold medals in the Sydney Games. No track and field athlete has won more than four, and only three have done that Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Fanny Blankers-Koen.
Jones' ambitious attempt includes the 100, 200, long jump, 400 relay and 1,600 relay.
At the trials, she will contest the two sprints and the long jump. As the fastest woman in the fields in the dashes, she is the overwhelming favorite to make the team in both, provided she does not have a mishap like in last year's World Championships, where she pulled up in the 200 semifinals with back spasms, after having won the 100 and finishing third in the long jump.
"I lucked out when it comes to the schedule," Jones said of the trials.
She has the 100 quarterfinals and long jump qualifying today, the 100 semifinals and final Saturday, the long jump final Sunday, then four days of rest before the 200 quarterfinals July 22 and the 200 semifinals and final July 23, the final day of the trials.
Unlike in the past, there will be only three rounds in the sprints instead of four.
"Because of the schedule, I don't necessarily have to hold back (in the prelims)," Jones said.
The sprints are Jones' domain; the long jump could be her downfall. Her poor technique makes her an uncertainty, as evidenced by her inconsistency this year. In four meets, she has finished first, second, third and fourth.
"I want to qualify (for the final) easily on my first jump and not have to concern myself with getting scared or not getting scared," she said.
Greene, seeking a 100-200 double at the games, similar to last year's World Championships, dismissed his expected 200 showdown against Johnson on July 23, calling it "just a prelim of what's going to happen in the final at the Olympics."
"What happens here doesn't matter, it's what happens at the Olympics that counts," he said.
Johnson wasn't so dismissive. although both he and Greene, who carefully avoided each other's glance during the news conference, were reluctant to discuss the 200 in detail until their early events are completed.
"The rivalry is good for the sport," said Johnson, who will run his 400 quarterfinal today. "This isn't a prelim, this is the Olympic trials.
"I'm better than third place. I'm better than second place. I'm here to win."
No long sprinter has repeated as Olympic champion in either the 200 or 400, and Johnson is looking to follow his 1996 sweep with another double.
Joyner-Kersee, 38, a winner of six Olympic gold medals, including three golds, is competing for the first time in two years. She retired in 1998, but resumed training this year because of her love for competition, the desire to add another gold and the fact that the long jump has remained stagnant since she left the sport.
She will join Jones in the long jump qualifying today.
Today's program also includes finals in the men's and women's 10,000 meters, qualifying in the men's shot put and pole vault and the women's high jump and hammer throw, first-round heats in the men's 1,500 and the women's 400 and 1,500, and the first four events of the women's heptathlon.