Work in Sports
Ekimov wins gold at the expense of a famous teammate
SYDNEY, Australia -- Lance Armstrong's dream of finally winning a gold medal in his third Olympics came to an end Saturday, but America's top cyclist didn't go home empty-handed. The two-time Tour de France winner took bronze in the 29 1/4-mile individual time trial, finishing 26 seconds behind Germany's Jan Ullrich and 34 seconds behind the surprise winner, Russia's Viacheslav Ekimov, who completed the so-called "race of truth" in 57 minutes, 40 seconds. Armstrong was only mildly disappointed by his third-place finish, the sting of defeat dulled by the curious fact that the winner, for much of the year, is his teammate.
Both Armstrong and Ekimov ride for the U.S. Postal Service Team. (And you wondered what was behind that first-class letter rate hike?) During Armstrong's 2000 Tour de France victory the 34-year-old Ekimov served as one of U.S. Postal's worker bees, supporting Armstrong by whatever means was necessary during the three-week, 2,276-mile ordeal, blocking his wind, chasing down opponent's breakaways, offering him his tire in the event of a blowout. "Ekky put it all on the line for me at the Tour," Armstrong said after Saturday's race. "As disappointed as I am not to have won, I'm equally happy he was the winner. We're roommates. I love the guy and I'm honored to be with him on the podium."
The 29-year-old Armstrong, who overcame testicular cancer in 1997, offered no excuses after the race. On August 31 he'd suffered a fractured vertebrae in his neck after being hit by a car during a training ride in France, but after taking 10 days off, he was able to resume training. He wasn't able to put in the total miles he'd have liked to had his neck been 100 percent, but on balance his legs felt good. He'd enjoyed his time in Australia and the Olympic experience. And he made no bones about the importance of winning the gold medal, especially after finishing 13th in Wednesday's road race. He was, as athletes say when they're mentally prepared, "right in the head." His plan was to go out as hard and as fast as he could and see if he could keep up the pace. "I wish I could tell you I had a problem," he said. "That I had a flat, or felt bad, or my neck bothered me. I gave everything I had and I got third place. The two riders ahead of me were faster, stronger, better."
Ekimov, who had never won a major time trial, led Armstrong by one second after the first of the three laps, by eight seconds after two, then, in the final lap, blew him away as Armstrong faded. Even Ullrich, who's known for his strong finishes, couldn't keep up with Ekimov at the end, slipping from five seconds ahead to eight seconds behind in the last five miles. It was, quite simply, the race of Ekimov's life. "Today I'm gold and Lance is bronze," the Russian said with a smile. "Okay. But next year we're going to be a unit, no problem. He can win more Tours, no question about it. Lance is the most respected rider in the pelaton. He's a hero. And I'm just real proud to be on his team." The feeling, clearly, was reciprocal.
Sports Illustrated senior writer E.M. Swift is in Sydney covering the Games
for the magazine and CNNSI.com.