Five finished under 10 seconds in 100

ATHENS, Greece -- When they come back to Olympic Stadium on Sunday night, the scorching intensity of another Athens summer's day will have yielded to the comfortable Aegean breezes that arrive at dusk. Then it will be left to the fastest men in the world to decide what the temperature reading on the track will be.

Somewhere between scalding and unbearable should do.

Saturday's second round of the 100 meters seemed to guarantee that, delivering five sub-10-second finishes, including a 9.89 clocking of American Shawn Crawford that ties the third fastest in Olympic history and gives Crawford the two fastest times this year. He turned in a 9.88 two months ago.

Now it's time for all of those spectators who've been hiding, or Greek island hopping, the first week of the 2004 Olympics to assemble, more than 72,000 of them, to witness the fury of Sunday's decisive 100-meter events -- semifinals followed by a final scheduled during the day's 24th hour.

When the stadium hosted the Olympic opening ceremony way back on Aug. 13, its floor was flooded with more than 570,000 gallons of water for the opening act. A drain in the stadium floor made it all go away in three minutes. That seemed fast eight days ago.

Sunday night, the special effects are to include reigning 2000 Olympic and 2004 Olympic Trials champion Maurice Greene, who won his first world title here in 1997, about two months before Athens was awarded these Games; his American teammates Justin Gatlin and Crawford, who earned trips to Greece with 100 times of 9.92 and 9.93 seconds (upstaged by Greene's 9.91), respectively, at trials; and the Jamaican, Asafa Powell, who has matched Greene's 9.91 this year and defeated him in meets in London and Zurich during the final weeks counting down these Games.

"That doesn't mean anything; what happened earlier this year, what happened now, doesn't mean anything," said Greene after posting Saturday night's second fastest time (9.93) behind Crawford while easing up at the finish, as did Powell.

"We're going to have a party (late Sunday) and everybody's invited. I'm buying."

There are several potential party hosts, actually. Others under 10 seconds in the second round were native Nigerian Francis Obikwelu (tying Greene at 9.93), who is competing for Portugal; Gatlin (9.96); and Powell (9.99).

"This time, I wanted to work on the end (of the race)," said Gatlin after his 9.96 showing and the night's collective performances prompted him to forecast that Tim Montgomery's 9.78 world record is in jeopardy. "I just pulled away. It felt great. I moved strongly throughout. If I leave a message, that's good."

Crawford, 26, who has emerged since the Sydney Games of four years ago, does not garner the attention of Greene, just past his 30th birthday. But he happens to own the world's fastest 100 time this year, 9.88, established last June at a Grand Prix meet in Eugene, Ore.

"I felt my start was better than it usually is," said Crawford after Saturday's stunning 9.89. "I went out and sent the message that I wanted to send."

Despite his, and other sterling credentials that are fueling high expectations of a riveting final, it was obvious Saturday that the reality of being an Olympian, or the mystique of competing as a runner in the land that first rewarded fleet-footed citizens, or maybe both, has a way of throwing even the most dominant performers a bit off center.

Crawford wore a cap in his morning heat race, something he says he's never done. When the oppressive warmth talks in Athens, you listen apparently. The accessory was not a deterrent as Crawford clocked the fastest morning time, 10.02.

"They can have the race at 6 o'clock in the morning, and I'll be there on the line and ready to run," he said, perhaps sharing his wishful thinking on a blistering morning.

Gatlin, third fastest in the morning heats at 10.07 behind Powell (10.06), echoed the emotions of a man who truly feels a spiritual connection to the city that hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896. Either that, or he desperately needed to find some shade.

"I had a strong feeling I have been here before," Gatlin said, after noting that he had not. "The track, the crowd, the stadium, they all felt familiar."

Greene also was smitten by the heritage of it all. But he seemed to confuse sports history with another period of humankind when those of certain religious leanings became snacks for hungry beasts.

"It's lovely to be here," Greene said. "The Olympics are historical, and I am happy to be a part of that history. I am the lion and this is the arena."

But he is one lion among many.