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Running Amok
Tim Layden
October 09, 2000
The best-laid plans of some of track's best performers blew up in Sydney, and the reasons weren't always easily explained
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October 09, 2000

Running Amok

The best-laid plans of some of track's best performers blew up in Sydney, and the reasons weren't always easily explained

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Just past the finish line Paula Radcliffe stopped, frozen by disappointment and too exhausted to express it. What more could she have done? A 26-year-old Briton, Radcliffe had led last Saturday night's Olympic 10,000-meter final for nearly all but the last of 25 laps, forcing a brutal pace in swirling winds, trying to grind the finishing kicks from her pursuers. But she had been passed in a blur over the final 300 meters, first by Ethiopia's Derartu tulu, who would sprint to the gold, and then by two others during a magnificent race in which the first six finishers would break the Olympic record. "I ran as hard as I could," Radcliffe said, weeping, after she had found the energy to walk off the track. "Perhaps I deserve a medal for the way I tried to win."

She knows better. Every Olympian knows better now. The Games make a mockery of blueprints and dreams; they promise nothing. "You could write books about people who made it to the Olympics but then something happened? said sprinter Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago, who took bronze and silver medals in his third Games.

Something happened to Marion Jones. After spending more than two years preparing to win an unprecedented five gold medals in Sydney, she found that her reach exceeded her grasp. Something happened to the U.S. men's 4 x 100-meter relay team. After winning the gold medal, it made good on anchorman Maurice Greene's promise to "put on a show," turning Olympic stadium into WWF SmackDown!, with an over-the-top celebration that drew whistles from the self-effacing Australian hosts and rebukes from some U.S. teammates. Something happened to milers Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco and Suzy Favor Hamilton of the U.S. Either could have won a 1,500 meters, but neither did. Something happened to U.S. 200-meter champion John Capel, one of the gold medal favorites, who was left standing, literally, in the blocks. "Olympic Games, we never know who will win," said decathlon world-record holder Tom�s Dvor�k of the Czech Republic, who competed with a torn abdominal muscle and finished sixth.

We knew the 24-year-old Jones would win gold medals, but we didn't know how many. In the spring of 1998 she raised the bar on her aspirations by predicting that she would win five Olympic golds. No woman had attempted as much in a single Games. Under ideal conditions her task would have been difficult, and conditions for Jones in Sydney were less than ideal.

Two days after Jones won her first event, the 100 meters, on the middle Saturday of the Games, International Amateur Athletic Federation officials announced that her husband, U.S. shot-putter C.J. Hunter, who had withdrawn from the Olympics on Sept. 11 with a knee injury, had tested positive for a steroid following a meet in July. That disclosure cast a 330-pound shadow over Jones's quest. She answered with a consummate, almost regal calm. She and Hunter never went into seclusion and never asked for additional security. When the public-address announcer said at the start of last Thursday's 200-meter final that Jones was from the Bahamas, she laughed. Shortly thereafter she cruised to her second gold in a time of 21.84 seconds and by a margin of .43 of a second, the biggest margin since Wilma Rudolph's victory in 1960. Asked about the effects of l'affaire C.J. on her performance, Jones said, "I didn't come here to let one event ruin things."

In fact, one individual event did ruin her plans, and it came as no surprise. On Friday night Jones got a bronze medal in the long jump, finishing behind 35-year-old Heike Drechsler of Germany and Fiona May, 30, of Italy. Jones made six jumps, fouling on four of them, and produced a leap of 22'8�", nearly three inches short of Drechsler's winning effort and four inches under her season's best. It was a typical long jump competition for Jones, who had a succession of chop-step takeoffs and jarring landings, and got off a tantalizing jump on her last attempt. "It was seven meters, 45 centimeters [24'5�" inches], at least," said German jumps coach Wolfgang Killing. However, it was an obvious foul by half the length of Jones's foot. "Had to go for it," she said.

Actually, she had hoped to luck into a gold medal. With her lack of technique, she can't find the takeoff board consistently without slowing to look for it. "She's too fast and too competitive," says her coach, Trevor Graham, who, backed by Jones and Hunter, has refused to hire a long jump adviser for her.

Of her five events, Jones had the least control over the two relays. Gail Devers and Inger Miller each fell out of the 4 x 100 with an injured hamstring, prompting talk among the media and fans that their absences were drug-related. (Both women strongly denied it.) Jones was left on the 4 x 100 with Olympic veteran Chryste Gaines and Olympic rookies Torri Edwards and Nanceen Perry, a collection that even Gaines called "a B team." With slick passes they might have given Jones a shot at running down the defending world champions from the Bahamas. "But we didn't practice [as a foursome] until just before the race," said Gaines, who ran leadoff. Predictably, two of the team's three baton passes—Edwards to Perry and Perry to Jones—were horrible, and Jones had to torch the straightaway just to get a bronze behind the Bahamas and Jamaica, respectively.

Less than two hours later came the 4 x 400, but in that relay Jones was asked to run the third leg, a clever strategic maneuver by coach Karen Dennis because it pitted Jones against runners who are slower than most anchors. She blazed through a brilliant 49.4 split, opening a 20-meter lead on Jamaica and essentially locking up her third gold, to go with two bronzes. Those prone to belittle her for not achieving an otherworldly goal should acknowledge one fact: No woman before Jones had won five medals in track and field in a single Olympic Games.

Greene got two golds but made far more noise after bringing home the 4 x 100 relay team to an easy victory than he had after winning the 100 meters a week earlier. Following more than a month of bickering among the sprinters and their coaches over who would run, and after the sprinters ultimately dictated who would take part in the final, it was a formality for Jon Drummond, Bernard Williams, Brian Lewis and Greene to get the stick around the track in 37.61 seconds for their win over Brazil. Afterward the four U.S. runners spent 20 minutes circling the floor of the stadium, using U.S. flags as capes, turbans and veils, pulling the tops of their unitards down to their waists and, in Williams's case, embarking on a one-man tribute to professional wrestler the Rock. The group's antics were silly and juvenile, if harmless, and the crowd booed and whistled. Later, U.S. 400-meter runner Antonio Pettigrew scolded the sprinters. "I'd like to tell Bernard Williams to sometimes not live in the moment," he said. "Always remember you're representing the U.S.A. for all the world to see." Perry spoke more strongly, saying, "Foreigners think [Americans] are rude, anyway. This just confirms what they think of us."

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