Michael Johnson will be here. So will Donovan Bailey, Haile Gebrselassie, Gail Devers, Jonathan Edwards and Marie-Jose Perec.
With the chance that many stars wouldn’t be at the World Track and Field Championships, the International Amateur Athletic Federation took an unprecedented step to make sure they could attend the nine-day meet, which begins Saturday.
The IAAF, the sport’s governing body, instituted wild-card entries, allowing defending world champions to compete even if they failed to qualify for their national teams. That paved the way for Johnson, Devers and Gwen Torrence of the United States, Edwards of Britain and Ismael Kirui of Kenya.
“It’s in the interest of track and field to have the best athletes in the world competing at the world championships,” IAAF spokesman Giorgio Reineri said. “Most sports provide their world champions with the opportunity to defend their world titles… . Why shouldn’t we?”
Johnson, the 1995 world champion and 1996 Olympic gold medalist at 200 and 400 meters, will defend only his 400 title.
“I haven’t had enough time to get ready for both races,” Johnson said. “There is no reason for me to try to double again.”
Johnson pulled a muscle during a 150-meter match race against Bailey on June 1 and missed the USA Championships later that month in Indianapolis.
He has run only once since then and finished fifth in a 400-meter race in Paris, snapping his 58-race winning streak in the event. From Paris, Johnson returned home to Dallas and began two-a-day workouts and a weightlifting program.
“I’m feeling very good now,” he said. “I’m feeling very confident. I wouldn’t be going if I wasn’t 100 percent healthy. Now, if I can run a smart race I can’t be beat.”
If Johnson wins, he will receive $60,000, and if he breaks Butch Reynolds’ world record of 43.29 seconds, he will get an additional $100,000. The competition award and world-record bonus are new for 1997. In the last world championships, winners got new cars.
Other stars allowed to compete as wild cards include Devers, the two-time defending world champion in the 100-meter hurdles. She was injured during the semifinals of the 100-meter dash at the USA Championships and did not compete in the final.
Torrence is the 1995 world champion in the 100 and also finished first in the 200 but was disqualified for running out of her lane. She missed the USA Championships because of injury but will run the 100 at the worlds.
Edwards, who became the first triple jumper to surpass 60 feet at the 1995 world championships in Goteborg, Sweden, also will be able to defend his title, although he did not compete in the British Championships because of a nagging heel injury.
Kirui, the two-time world 5,000-meter champion, did not make the Kenyan team at the trials but will be able to defend his title at the worlds.
Perec, the 1991 and 1995 world champion in the 400 and the Olympic gold medalist in the 200 and 400, has been slowed by a stress fracture in her foot but decided to compete in the 200.
Bailey, world and Olympic champion and the world record-holder in the 100, was unimpressed with himself at the Canadian trials. He won in 10.03 seconds, far slower than his best of 9.84.
Bailey also injured his right hamstring about a month ago and recently had a virus.
“I shouldn’t feel like this two weeks before the worlds,” he said. “I just don’t feel like me.”
That led to speculation that he might not defend his world title.
“He’s going, and, of course, he’s running,” his agent, Ray Flynn, said.
Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian who holds world records at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, had indicated he might skip the world championships because he doesn’t like Athens.
“I’ve heard there will be many difficulties for the athletes,” he said. “It will be a very hard track, it will be very hot and humid.”
Nevertheless, he will defend his title in the 10,000.
Under IAAF rules, athletes can face a two-month suspension if they are healthy and skip the world championships, then compete in an invitational meet a short time afterward, like the big-money meet in Zurich, Switzerland, three days after the worlds.
John Godina, the 1995 world champion in the shot put, made the U.S. team only in the discus, but will be allowed to compete for a double. And pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, the only athlete to have won at all five world championships, will be aiming for his sixth gold medal.
“It will give me once again the happiness which I missed in Atlanta, where I didn’t have the chance to compete for a second Olympic victory” because of injury, Bubka said.
One athlete who definitely is out of the worlds is Dan O’Brien, three-time defending champion in the decathlon, and the Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder. He has a stress fracture in his right leg and will not compete for the rest of the year.
Carl Lewis, the winningest athlete in world championship history, will attend the meet but won’t compete.
Lewis, winner of eight gold medals, one silver and one bronze, is among 16 athletes invited for the IAAF’s 85th anniversary ceremony. The others include Emil Zatopek, Kip Keino, Valery Brumel, Grete Waitz and Fanny Blankers-Koen.
The IAAF Congress will meet Wednesday and Thursday, with the major topic of discussion reducing the ban for drug offenders from four years to two. The measure was rejected two years ago, but with strong support from the European federations, it is expected to pass this time.
IAAF president Primo Nebiolo has said Athens’ chances of being host for the 2004 Olympics might depend on how well it can organize the championships.
He called the worlds “the biggest athletics event for Athens since the 1896 Olympics.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.