The noise was deafening and potentially unsettling in the minutes before the start of the men's Olympic 200-meter final. The Olympic Stadium crowd chanted "Hellas! Hellas!" for Greece and "Kenteris! Kenteris!" for disgraced Greek sprinter Kostas Kenteris, who would likely have been on the starting line Thursday if not for the drug charges against him.
Fans also took out their frustrations on U.S. sprinters Shawn Crawford, Justin Gatlin and Bernard Williams, cascading boos upon them when their names were announced. They resumed the heckling whenever the cameras put the Americans on the large screen -- which was frequently.
The bedlam was such that the final was delayed for several minutes. There was one false start. Namibia's Frankie Fredericks pleaded with fans to please be quiet, gesturing with his hands. The Americans paced the track.
"It was not so friendly," Germany's Tobias Unger said. "Kenteris was out, so they are very angry, but what can the American guys do?"
Quite a bit, actually.
When the noise finally subsided, and the race finally got off, the Americans ran unfettered. Crawford won the gold medal in 19.80 seconds, followed by Williams (20.01) and Gatlin (20.03), giving the United States the first sweep in the event in 20 years, and its first sweep of the 200 and 400 in the same Olympics since 1904.
But the big news did not end there. This night was carefully choreographed and splendidly executed. The U.S. sprinters were counseled to prepare for a hostile crowd, and urged to keep their cool. They had talked for months about taking the top three spots, and they also decided -- months ago -- they would not overshadow a great performance with a stupid celebration.
When they crossed the finish line, they were nearly expressionless. They traded hugs, then knelt to the track, bowing their heads with their arms around each others' necks. They only managed about half of a victory lap before stadium officials began the presentation of medals for the men's long jump -- which saw American Dwight Phillips win the gold and John Moffitt the silver, giving the United States a five-medal haul.
"I heard a slight boo after we won," said Gatlin, who wore an olive wreath for more than an hour after the race and clutched an American flag sewn to a Greek one. "But anyone who saw, we weren't acting like idiots. We were very gracious on the win, on the sweep. There was nothing but love from all of us. A lot of us know about [the Summer Games in] 2000. We wanted to go out and behave like gentleman."
Trevor Graham, the coach of Gatlin and Crawford, predicted that the crowd would be unruly before the race and warned his athletes not to be distracted.
"I told them the crowd was going to hold up the race about 10 minutes, and to make sure the guys just prepared for that," Graham said.
For Williams, the chance to run another Olympic victory lap was almost therapeutic. Williams was the athlete who clowned the most during the now infamous celebration after the U.S. men's 4x100 relay team won the gold in Sydney. At one point, Williams had tied the U.S. flag around his head like a bandana. Thursday, he couldn't resist flashing several toothy smiles for the cameras, but he behaved with as much decorum as he ever has.
"My silver medal here gave me a chance to show some growth," Williams, 26, said. "I was carrying the flag with respect. I'm older, wiser. I got a chance to show a better picture of myself. . . . That was what the plan was: The victory lap was as important as getting a medal. I knew I had a second chance to actually do it the right way. I had four years to think about it."
Of course, they had to win before they could celebrate. The trio said they talked about a sweep for a week, and the talking intensified after Jeremy Wariner, Otis Harris and Derrick Brew swept the 400 meters Tuesday.
"Because we had seen the 400 meter guys do it, it kind of inspired us," Williams said. "We didn't want anybody to sneak in and get one of those medals."
There was little danger of that. Jamaica's Asafa Powell, a medal favorite, did not compete in the race, perhaps because of fatigue. Portugal's Francis Obikwelu, who finished second in the 100, said he was too tired to put up a strong fight. He finished fifth in 20.14, just behind Fredericks, who is 36, and also was clocked in 20.14.
"I was so tired" Wednesday, Obikwelu said. "My coach didn't want me to run in this race, but I told him I would do it for my country and myself. Five days, eight races -- that's too much for me."
It wasn't too much for Crawford, who managed only fourth in the 100, and Gatlin, the 100 gold medal winner. Crawford, 26, was gracious in defeat last weekend, saying he was thrilled that his training partner had achieved such a momentous goal. A Clemson graduate, Crawford once outran a giraffe -- for a television special -- but his biggest international achievement to date was winning an world indoor title, a far less prestigious championship.
Though he is considered a 200 specialist, he claims to prefer the 100, saying once that "the training isn't as hard. You don't have to throw up as much."
Crawford ran strong from the start and had the lead off the final turn. He was never challenged by Gatlin or Williams, who fought for second place.
"We prayed," Crawford said. "Thank God we were able to do a clean sweep and come out of the race injury free. Once you accomplish something like that . . . a lot of eyes are upon you. You have to uphold yourself with honor and dignity."