The baton was passed safely to anchor leg Maurice Greene tonight, a substantial achievement for the historically mistake-prone U.S. 4x100 relay team. The baton, however, did not arrive in timely fashion. Between Greene, the finish line--and track and field history--was Britain anchor Dwain Chambers, who was already off and running.

Chambers had a head start of more than a step. Greene, however, had more at stake. He already had won gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters here at the world track and field championships. This was his chance to join Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson as the only men to win three gold medals at one championships.

"Once I got the baton, I knew we had won," Greene said. "Once the baton was in my hand, I said, 'I have three gold medals.' "

Greene overtook Chambers with a burst of speed with 50 meters remaining and won by 14 hundredths of a second. When he stood on the medal stand with his teammates--Jon Drummond, Tim Montgomery and Brian Lewis--he raised three symbolic fingers.

"I want to be the fastest man in the world, I want to be number one, I want to hold the world record," Greene, 25, said. ". . . I've always said I wanted to take what Carl Lewis did a step further."

Johnson also did Lewis one better as the world track and field championships concluded tonight at Olympic Stadium. By winning his second gold here, running anchor for the 4x400 relay team, Johnson overtook Lewis for the career lead in world championship medals with nine.

During these championships, the United States won more medals (17) and golds (11) than any other nation. Russia was next in both categories, with 13 and six. The U.S. team surpassed its total of seven gold medals at the 1997 worlds but won one fewer overall.

U.S. women's relay teams tonight did little to inflate the medal total. The 4x400 team, which included Eleanor Roosevelt High's Suziann Reid, couldn't overtake the Russians and finished with the silver medal. The 4x100 team, meanwhile, not only failed to win its third straight world title, but finished fourth in a race won, surprisingly, by a team from the Bahamas.

Hurt both by a poor handoff and the absence of injured anchor Marion Jones, the U.S. women fell behind early and never recovered. Anchor Gail Devers, the gold medalist in the 100 hurdles, was fourth when 200 champ Inger Miller passed her the baton, but Devers could make up no ground. The problems began when leadoff Cheryl Taplin and Nanceen Perry muffed the first handoff. Taplin said their hands got crossed on the exchange.

"It just wasn't meant to be," Taplin said. "I wish Marion well, and wish she would have been here--it probably would have been a different story. However, things happen and we have to go on."

Jones suffered a minor back injury during the 200 heats this week. She withdrew from the championships having won a gold in the women's 100 and a silver in the long jump.

For the United States, this meet provided a mix of great moments and disappointments. Medal favorites Allen Johnson, Mark Crear, Jeff Hartwig and Jones all suffered injuries that knocked them out of competition. John Godina, the 1997 world champion in the shot put, finished a disappointing seventh.

Two world records were set or tied during these championships, both by Americans. Johnson set a world mark of 43.18 in the men's 400 and Stacy Dragila tied the world best in the pole vault with a height of 15 feet 1 inch.

Unexpected gold-medal performances by Devers and Miller, as well as Johnson's world record, were memorable, but Greene's dominance made him the championships' star. At the 1997 worlds in Athens, Greene got everyone's attention by upsetting Ato Boldon to win the 100 meters. This year, he stole the show.

He won the 100 meters last Sunday in 9.80 seconds--just one hundredth of a second off the world record he set in June. He followed that with a less dominant, but more emotional, victory in the 200, which left him sobbing on the medal stand. The next day, he changed hotels, moving from a location in the center of Seville, where he had been staying with his training partners, to the team hotel outside the city center. There, he could be with his relay teammates.

At the last two world championships, the U.S. men were disqualified because of a mishandled baton. In tonight's event, Drummond got off to a fast start and handed off smoothly to Montgomery. Montgomery and Lewis--responsible for the muffed handoff in 1997--took so much care with their handoff that Britain took the lead.

"Great Britain had a great day," Montgomery said. "I don't even know where it came from. They gave us the race of our life."

Actually, it was Greene who had--for the third time during these championships--the race of his life.

"I am very, very, very tired right now," he said. "I've done practically all I can do. . . . It's been a very tough week. I've been going through a lot of things mentally. I've been putting a lot of pressure on myself. I'm relieved it's over with."

And, Greene added: "I'm just overjoyed."

CAPTION: Michael Johnson, 200- and 400-meter world record holder, wraps up 4x400 relay with 43.50 anchor leg. Team ran world-leading 2:56.45.

CAPTION: Marla Runyan catches her breath after finishing 10th of 12 in 1,500-meter final. Runyan ran personal-best 4:05.27 to qualify.

CAPTION: With relay win, Maurice Greene matches Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson as only men to win three gold medals at the worlds.

CAPTION: Maurice Greene takes baton and U.S. hopes as the 100-meter world record holder and 4x100 relay anchor gets handoff from Brian Lewis. Greene ran down Britain's Dwain Chambers to win gold medal.