PROVO — One of the enduring memories I have of the 1996 Summer Olympics is the disappointment of Frank Fredericks. I was standing in the tunnel where the athletes exited the track shortly after the 100-meter dash, and the BYU alumnus stopped to talk briefly. He had just taken second place in a tension-filled race that featured two false starts — it had taken a world record by Donovan Bailey to beat him by five-hundredths of a second — but already he was wondering how his performance would be received in his homeland of Namibia, where he is a national hero.

"Unfortunately, in sports it's only the gold medal that counts," he told me gloomily. " . . . I don't know if this will be enough for people in Namibia."

Fredericks said he was happy with a silver medal, but . . . there was the burden of expectations. More than anyone else, he put the country on the international map when the ban was lifted barring South African athletes from competing abroad. He was given a parade after his second-place performance in the Barcelona Olympics, but more was expected this time. After the Atlanta race, instead of being able to enjoy the moment, he was full of doubt.

Fast forward 3 1/2 years later. Fredericks returned to BYU last month, seeking treatment for injuries before he makes another run at the Olympics in Sydney this summer. Standing in the BYU Field House this week, he was asked what remained for him in the balance of his brilliant career. After all, he has collected four silver medals in the 100 and 200 in the last two Olympics. Only Carl Lewis has won as many Olympic medals in the individual sprint races as Fredericks. Competing in events in which athletes' staying power at the top is short-lived, he has been ranked first or second in the world in the 100 or 200 10 times since 1991.

"At this point, it's just the Olympic gold medal," Fredericks said in answer to the question. "And to see how fast I can push this body."

At the age of 32, he will go to Sydney to make a bid for an unprecedented fifth, or even sixth, medal, and he hopes it will be a different color this time. But that would mark a dramatic change in what seems to be his fate.

Silver is his color. Fredericks has finished second four times in four Olympic races to four different sprinters — Linford Christie in the Barcelona 100; Michael Marsh in the Barcelona 200; Bailey in the Atlanta 100; Johnson in the Atlanta 200. He finished second in the 200 at the World Track Championships in 1991 (to Johnson), 1995 (Johnson), and 1997 (Ato Boldon), his lone victory coming in 1993. That's eight silver medals and one gold medal in Olympic and world championship races.

The difference between first and second is a matter of hundredths of a second, but it's much more than that in other ways. Johnson's record against Fredericks is 8-8 since 1992, but the former is a household name and a legend. The difference: two Olympic gold medals, two world records.

Fredericks' missed opportunity was the 1996 Olympics. He was the favorite to win the 100. He beat Bailey twice before the Games (and in three of their five races that year), but lost to him in the Olympic race. He could well have put a stop to Johnson's historic double in the Atlanta 200 — he had beaten him in their only pre-Olympic meeting. In the Olympic race, Fredericks ran a sensational time of 19.68 — only one man has run faster — but Johnson produced a world record to win. After the Olympics they met one more time and Fredericks won again.

"I don't like pressure; I can't handle it," said Fredericks after losing the '96 Olympic 100. "I realized that in the 100. There was so much pressure. It was very emotional for me. . . . I let the pressure get to me (in the 100). I wanted to win too much, and that's not my style."

Looking back now, Fredericks thinks it wasn't the pressure that cost him; he simply lost. "If it was pressure, I wouldn't have run 9.89," he says. "The only disappointment I have is that in the biggest race of my life I didn't run my best race. Before the Olympics I ran a 9.86 slowing down (at the end)."

In 1997, Fredericks ranked No. 1 in the world at 100 and 200 meters, despite failing to win the world championship races.

Fredericks is now trying to rebound from the worst year of his career. In 1999, after running world-leading times early in the year, he fell victim to injuries and his performances suffered (he dropped out of the World Championships). For the first time since 1990, he didn't rank first or second in the 200 (he was fourth).

Fredericks returned to Provo a couple of weeks ago to receive treatment for various physical ailments from trusted BYU trainer Ollie Julkunen, who took care of him during the Olympics, and to reunite with his college coach, BYU's Willard Hirschi. He will leave Provo in a couple of weeks but might return in May for another training session with his coach.

"It's good to work with coach Hirschi," he says. "He's a good person to put you back together mentally."

Fredericks' training since coming to Provo has been limited to running in a pool and lifting weights; he hopes to begin training on the track next week for the long push to Sydney.

Aside from his athletic career, Fredericks continues to serve as a consultant for his long-time benefactor, Rossing Mining Co., which helped sponsor him in his formative years, and to work on the Frank Fredericks Foundation. The purpose of the foundation is to help young Namibians receive opportunities for athletics and education (Web site: www.fff.org.na). Eventually, Fredericks plans to expand the foundation's work to all of Africa.

"It's my way to give back," he says.

Meanwhile, the Olympics loom, and the burden of being the sole hope of a nation rest again squarely upon his shoulders.

"They're spoiled in Namibia," says Fredericks. "They've never been to a major games (world championships or Olympics) and gone home without a medal. Once I retire, maybe they'll go to a couple of Olympics and won't get a medal, and then they can see that it's difficult."