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The saddest silver

American wrestler breaks down after loss in final

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Latest: Saturday September 30, 2000 10:35 AM


SYDNEY, Australia -- I rode in an automobile with Len Bias' younger brother two days after the basketball star died of a cocaine overdose in 1986, so I'm not going to say what happened in Olympic freestyle wrestling tonight was the saddest thing I've ever seen in sports.

But, boy, it was close.

Minutes after the U.S.'s Sammie Henson lost a heartbreaking 4-3 decision to Namig Abdullayev of Azerbajian in the the 54 kg (119 pounds) final -- and at the risk of sounding like a homer, I say he deserved to win it -- he ran yelling and screaming down a hallway. All the hours of sweat and toil, all the dreams, all the mental pictures in which he saw himself on the top step of that magic pedestal. All gone. And Henson lost it. Lost it like nobody I've ever seen lose it.

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As his yells reverberated through one section of the arena, a few reporters, a handful of fans and several venue volunteers looked around to find out where the noise was coming from. Suddenly, Henson came bolting by, running at full-speed for the locker room with several of the volunteers in pursuit. They must have been thinking the same thing I was thinking: He's going to hurt himself. Or he's going to run out into the early evening air of Sydney and do something crazy or collapse somewhere. Henson continued yelling and screaming for at least five minutes, pounding his hand against a wall outside of the locker room until he finally collapsed on the floor. Now all we could hear was his agonized sobbing.

It wasn't a show. It wasn't an act. He didn't know there were reporters around. It wasn't his way of demonstrating that he thought he got screwed. Finally, U.S. national team coaches Bruce Burnett and John Smith reached Henson's side, pulled him to his feet and led him away from the stunned onlookers.

We waited around for another few minutes. Henson's father, Rob, a delightful man who had been his son's biggest cheerleader as he tore through the field, had tears in his eyes. "Anyone will tell you that Sammie's the hardest working one in that wrestling room," said Rob. "For him to lose like this, it just isn't right."

Worse, the medal ceremony -- and the dreaded second step -- still awaited Henson. For 99.9 percent of the world, a silver medal in the Olympics would be considered a career; for Henson, it was a nightmare. When Sammie was eight he told his father he would one day become an Olympic champion and he worked steadily toward that goal. Now, at age 29, it may not happen.

The medal ceremony was beyond sad. Henson sobbed almost uncontrollably throughout, and, when he was handed his ceremonial bouquet of flowers, he put his head on the shoulder of the man who presented it to him. No one at these Olympics needed a hug worse than Sammie Henson needed one at that moment.

Did he truly get jobbed? Well, he went after his opponent relentlessly for six minutes without picking up any passivity points. On one occasion when Henson was in control of the match, he started to work a hold that may have resulted in back points but the ref whistled a stalemate and put the wrestlers in the neutral position on their feet. And at least three times Abdullayev clearly grabbed Henson's singlet (a violation) to avoid being taken down, and the ref never called anything.

About a half hour later, another U.S. wrestler, Brandon Slay, lost his 76 kg match (167.5 pounds) to Germany's Alexander Leipold 4-0. Slay thought that he, too, had been jobbed by the referee, but I didn't see it that way. On this night, Sammie Henson was the only victim and rarely have I seen a sadder one.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and

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