One minute they were three Africans running in tandem, liquid motion, glistening in the late afternoon sun, irrevocably pulling away from a staggering field. Then came the surge. As the two Ethiopian runners, Gezahgne Abera and Tesfaye Tola, paused fractionally to grab water-soaked sponges 3� miles from the finish, Kenya's Eric Wainaina took off. "Eric can change any pace, anytime," the 25-year-old Tola later said. Exhausted by the swift early pace, worn down by the hills and relentessly gusting wind, Tola's legs couldn't respond to the challenge. "I'm tired," he said to Abera, a teammate who was competing in only his sixth marathon. "You go. You win."
Thus did the final event of the first Olympic Games of the millennium come down to two men. Wainaina, 26, who'd taken the bronze medal in Atlanta and had his heart set on winning the one title that had eluded all Kenyan distance runners, the Olympic marathon; and the man who chased him, the 22-year-old Abera, hoping to revive an Ethiopian tradition that had begun 40 years earlier when a barefoot runner named Abebe Bikila raced first into the Olympic Stadium in Rome. Bikila repeated in Tokyo four years later, winning his second gold medal only 40 days after his appendix had been removed. The Ethiopians made it three in a row in 1968 when Mamo Wolde won in Mexico City. Wolde got bronze in 1972, finishing behind Frank Shorter of the U.S. But in the next six Summer Olympics no Ethiopian man had climbed the marathon podium at the Games.
All marathons bring suffering, but the route through Sydney proved especially punishing. Beginning at North Sydney, the runners crossed the Harbour Bridge overlooking the Opera House and were buffeted by winds gusting from 25 to 30 mph. "Terrible, terrible winds," Abera would say. "Sometimes from the front. Sometimes from the side. Sometimes it slowed us to a walk."
It must have seemed that way to the young farmer who began running as a child while tending cattle on his family's farm. Nine miles into the race Abera fell to his knees, knocked down by another runner when a wind gust put the brakes on the pack. He lost about 25 yards, but quickly recovered his position at Tola's elbow. With six miles remaining, 10 runners made up the lead group, then eight; with five miles to go, only the three fluid Africans were left.
It had been a race of attrition, with the hills, wind and bright sunshine conspiring to sap the pursuers of their strength. When Wainaina made his final, killing surge and Abera responded, the Kenyan found he had fired his last round. The young Ethiopian passed him with two miles to go and, egged on by spectators who lined the route 10 to 12 deep, began to pull away. Abera had lost the Boston Marathon last April in a photo finish, and he wasn't leaving this outcome to a closing sprint. He increased his lead over Wainaina to 70 yards entering the stadium, finishing in 2:10:11, 20 seconds ahead of the Kenyan and 59 seconds clear of Tola. It was the Ethiopians' fourth gold medal of the Sydney Games—their best showing ever. But this was the marathon, which Ethiopia has now won more times than any other country. "The best gold," Abera said.
Nearly an hour after Abera made his entrance, a Cambodian runner, Rithya To, appeared wearing bib number 1308. The medal ceremony, which would mark the beginning of the closing ceremonies, was minutes away. He circled the track gamely, unsteadily, urged on by an encouraging roar. Pain was etched on his face. As he crossed the finish line 3 hours, 3 minutes, 55 seconds after he had started, he raised both hands and smiled in pride and relief. Then he collapsed. Not a muscle moved. He had fainted. The runner, who would recover from his exhaustion, was taken from the track on a stretcher.
A marathon. That's what the modern Games have become: for the host city, the volunteers, the athletes, the press, the broadcasters, even for television viewers at home. Within an hour of Mr. To's heroic finish, Sydney's race, too, was over. The Olympic flame was extinguished a few hours after outgoing IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch declared these "the best Olympic Games ever," not the first time he has bestowed that compliment upon a host city.
This time he was certainly right.