In just under 45 seconds, three largely unknown Americans brought respect back to the United States in the 400 meters, dominating exactly as expected. But then they changed the script, behaving in a manner that has sometimes eluded other U.S. champions. They celebrated an uncommon achievement with uncommon grace.
Jeremy Wariner, who wears a thick silver chain, huge diamond earrings and dark sunglasses in night races, led the first U.S. sweep in the Olympic 400 meters in 16 years with an astonishing time for a college junior, 44 seconds flat. But then he, silver medalist Otis Harris and bronze medal winner Derrick Brew left their egos at the finish line.
Wariner, 20, raised his arms in an expression of pure joy after outsprinting Harris, who finished in 44.16, over the last 100 meters. Brew crossed the line in 44.42.
"After the race, it was the greatest feeling I've felt in my whole life," Wariner said. "I'm 20 years old and I came out here and won the gold medal, and I know I have a lot more Olympics left in me."
But the trio, which had prayed together moments before the start, walked arm in arm at the beginning of a warm but subdued victory lap. There was no strutting, no posing. Each was eventually handed a U.S. flag, and each held it high.
"The most important thing other than going out and winning is to respect our country," said Harris, 22, a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina. "If we did sweep, we were thinking about it and we were talking about it, we wanted to go out and be respectful of other countries and the spirit of the Olympics."
It was a theme that carried into the interview room, even in a moment fraught with potential for losing one's cool. Shortly after the race, fourth-place finisher Alleyne Francique of Grenada stood in front of dozens of reporters and tossed out a racial stereotype as casually as a congratulations. Asked about the performance of Wariner, the first white American to win a sprint medal since Mike Larabee won gold in the 400 in 1964, Francique said: "It was a blazing race. Man, that kid is good . . . That's the fastest white guy I've ever seen run."
When told of the remark later, Wariner said it's something he has heard repeatedly since he began competing in the event at a high school in Arlington, Tex. "I've lost count," he said. "I don't let it bother me." He added that race, gender and ethnicity should not stand in the way of ability. Harris, who is black, eagerly backed him up.
"Race has nothing to do with it," Harris said. "I'm so glad when people break down stereotypes. That's the most important thing about athletics and it has to do with our attitude in our country, and that's what Jeremy is doing."
Wariner has made enormous strides under the tutelage of Baylor Coach Clyde Hart, the former coach of two-time Olympic 400 champion and world record holder Michael Johnson, who has served as an occasional adviser to Wariner.
Wariner recently has climbed a steep ladder without so much as a stumble, winning an NCAA title, a U.S. title and an Olympic gold medal in the span of two months. Wariner, Johnson pointed out, won an Olympic title long before he did. Wariner, in fact, became the youngest man to win the event since American Steven Lewis won the gold at 19 in 1988.
"He's a great athlete and he's only 20 years old," said Brew, 26, who trains under former 400 star Antonio Pettigrew. "He ran a 44.0. That's pretty fast. That might be some kind of record for a 20-year-old."
Wariner ran a tactically savvy race, a fact that wasn't lost on Johnson. Wariner paced himself through 300 meters, hanging behind Harris, then made a move coming out of the last turn. He passed Harris with about 90 meters left and glided easily to victory.
"It was a perfectly executed race," Hart said. "One of his great attributes is he has a clock in his head."
More noticeable are the diamond studs in his ears, the long chain around his neck and the dark shades on his head. Wariner said the jewelry was given to him last year. He said he wore the glasses once in a race and performed so well he decided to keep wearing them. He speculated that they darken the track just enough to help him focus.
Johnson tried to avoid comparisons with Wariner, but he acknowledged a similarity in concentration. Johnson didn't mention conduct, but he could have.
"I'm proud of all of them," Johnson said. "They have actually, in my opinion, restored the dignity in the 400. After 2000, it was disappointing to see where the event went and they have brought it back up in great style."
Since the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, where Johnson claimed his second and final Olympic 400-meter gold, three male American 400 stars have faced drug allegations. Alvin Harrison, the silver medalist in Sydney, faces a possible lifetime ban in connection with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO). His twin brother, Calvin, was banned for two years for using a banned stimulant.
The exposure of a positive result to a 1999 drug test of Jerome Young, the 2003 world champion, resulted in a recent International Olympic Committee decision to strip the U.S. 4x400 relay team of the gold medal it won in Sydney.
There was also the now-infamous overzealous celebration by the 4x100 relay team members, who won the gold medal in Sydney, then preened and posed irreverently.
The performance drew criticism even from American athletes and resulted in a U.S. Olympic Committee push for muted celebrations, good behavior and sportsmanship at these Summer Games. A day after 100 sprinters Justin Gatlin and Shawn Crawford began trash-talking to each other even before crossing the finish line in a semifinal, Wariner, Harris and Brew delivered -- both in the victory and the victory lap.
"It's respect for your country, respect for your family and respect for yourself," Brew said. "We were all excited, but you've got to act like you have manners."