By ELLIOTT DENMAN
NEW YORK - Baylor's Jeremy Wariner, of course, succeeded Baylor's Michael Johnson as lord of the Olympic rings over the one-lap distance in 2004.
MJ continues in the sport as JW's agent and continues making major waves as mega-media man for Great Britain's BBC network and as athletics (that's track and field to all you provincial Americans) columnist for The Times of London.
Michael, as the athletics world has long known, has never been found lacking in the strong-opinion department.
To MJ, the American track and field system is truly lacking in major areas. Such matters as big-time talent development, the care and feeding of Olympic candidates, the obvious lack of a major spectator base, and a huge shortfall in generating sponsorship and public interest in the sport that is, and always will be - whatever the networks try to fell us - the flagship sport of the Games. All shortcomings pinned on a national governing body he considers badly out of touch.
JW sees all this, hears all this, and laughs all this off.
"Oh, that's just Michael being Michael," Wariner shrugged at a pre-Adidas Grand Prix Classic/ IAAF Diamond League press conference. "Michael has always been a man of strong feelings. He's certainly entitled to his views. But I certainly don't go along with a lot of them."
The Olympic 400-meter final has been run 27 times since Baron Pierre DeCoubertin came up with the brilliant idea that is was time to let the Modern Games begin. Since that first one in 1896, won by Thomas Burke in 54.2 seconds, Team USA has won the one-lapper an astounding 20 times; leaving, of course, a mere seven to the balance of the universe.
And 20 might easily have risen to 22 had the Americans (a) following a protest, been willing to challenge Briton Wyndham Halswelle's 50-flat "walkover" win in 1908, and (b) not stayed away from the Moscow Games of 1980 under presidential command, leaving Viktor Markin of Russia to win it in 44.60.
We all know that such history can never be reversed, but a key consideration in all this is that Team USA has won seven consecutive Olympic 400 titles, the longest stretch of one-nation Olympic event dominance still going.
Since the Markin win of '80, Team USA has reeled off the wins with Alonzo Babers in 1984, Steve Lewis in '88, Quincy Watts in '92, Johnson in '96 and '00, Wariner in '04, and LaShawn Merritt in '08.
MJ remains the lone man ever to win a second 400 crown but now, with London just ahead,
that factoid of Olympic life appears under major siege. Merritt is rounding back into prime form after bouncing off the suspension list and badly wants to win it again. And Wariner keeps telling you - despite some recent discouragements - that it would be a mega-mistake to count him out of it. The two past champions are squarely back in the picture.
Then again, the USA's 7, Rest Of The World 0 box score since '84 is seriously imperiled, with a global surge led by the astoundingly prodigious/ talent-packed 2011 Daegu World Championships winner, the University of Alabama-trained Kirani James of Grenada.
James appeared in total command in Korea. But now that command is shaking badly.
Merritt seems ready to run in the mid-43s, and maybe-just-maybe threaten MJ's world record of 43.18, dating back to the Seville World Championships of 1999. A flock of other rising performers from around the globe - young blokes like Luguelin Santos of Dominican Republic - figure to be in that London mix, too.
But listen to JW and you come home convinced there's life left in this six-foot Texan's bones, too.
Wariner has run a 44.96 best this year - Merritt (44.19), Santos (44.45), American Tony McQuay (44.67) and Grenada's James (44.72) occupy the top four spots on the world list - but JW knows he can do a whole lot better than he has thus far.
"Sure, there's all kinds of talent out there, but anybody who is counting me out is making a big mistake," said Wariner, whose 2011 season was cut short by injury and then surgery.
"Any time I hear that (over-the-hill line of thought), it only gives me more fuel."
His Waco "killer" workouts under Coach Clyde Hart are more intense than ever before. The 450-meter interval run is a key phase of those drills and the "old" JW used to begin them in about 54 seconds, with a 10-minute respite between.
Well, the "new" JW cruises them in 53s, then down to 51s, and the rest period is cut to nine minutes.
All this is designed to build the strength vitally needed in the championshjp meets - i.e. Olympic Games and Olympic Trials - where "getting through the rounds" is a vital element of survival.
"The way we practice is the way we run (in meets)," said Wariner. Inherent mental message right there: every
workout is a dress rehearsal for the biggest tests just ahead.
One thing he has noticed, though, is that, at age 28, "it takes a little bit longer for my thought process to do all the work, a little bit longer for things to get to my brain."
Wariner, now a married man with a seven-year-old stepdaughter and his first son on the way (October), relishes this brand of family life.
"My (step)daughter (Isabella), " she plays tennis and she's more competitive than I am," he says, smiling. "I'm learning a lot from her."
Having two world-class training partners (ex-Baylor Bears Reggie Witherspoon and Marcus Boyd) is another boost to his daily workout regime. They're following in the footsteps of another ex-Bear running mate, 2004 4x400 gold medalist Darold Williamson.
The sport's biggest races are just around the corner and Wariner appears to be rounding into the prime mental/physical fitness of old. He still considers "the mental mistakes" he made at Beijing in 2008 as the price of the silver medal he earned in the 400, as the gold went to Merritt.
He vows not to let such things transpire again. He tells you that "just executing" is all he needs to run his way onto a podium position. He pledges "I'll be ready." And he bottom-lines the obvious - "it's going to be a very exciting year." To Michael Johnson and every other one-lap fan the world over.