The images of panic and fear burned into the soul of the Atlanta
Games in yesterday's early hours were replaced last night by
those of athletes in celebration, in disappointment and even in
the throes of controversy, which seemed almost quaint by
comparison. From the awful wreck of tragedy and the betrayal of
ideals rose one of the most memorable track and field evenings
in the history of the Olympics.
This is an article from the July 28, 1996 issue
Such is the peculiar and wonderful power of sport, that it
pushes forth greatness when it is needed most, changing nothing
in the world outside its walls, yet giving relief. It gives us
U.S. sprinter Gail Devers becoming only the second woman to win
the 100 meters in consecutive Games and then taking a delirious
victory lap with teammate and bronze medalist Gwen Torrence, her
bitter rival of four years ago. It gives us Kenny Harrison,
Devers's longtime cohabitant, winning a gold medal in the triple
jump, twice breaking the Olympic and U.S. records, and beating
world-record holder Jonathan Edwards of Great Britain in the
process. And it gives us Donovan Bailey, the ebullient Canadian
who not only won the men's 100 meters but also won it in 9.84
seconds, breaking Leroy Burrell's two-year-old world record by
.01 of a second.
Last night's session at Olympic Stadium was one to rival Oct.
18, 1968, the epochal evening in Mexico City when Bob Beamon
shattered the world record in the long jump and Lee Evans did
the same in the 400. It even came rife with controversy, as
36-year-old defending Olympic 100-meter champion Linford
Christie was disqualified after two false starts and then had to
be almost physically removed from the track. All of this on a
day when a total of 150,398 spectators packed Olympic Stadium
for morning and evening sessions, not in fear but in frenzy.
It was Harrison, the oft-injured 31-year-old 1991 world champion
in the triple jump, who on his opening attempt first set the
stadium buzzing, with a leap of 59'1/4", breaking Willie Banks's
11-year-old U.S. record (58'111/2") and Mike Conley's '92
Olympic record of 57'101/4". Edwards struggled badly, fouling on
his first two jumps and needing to land a respectable one on his
third attempt to make the final eight. But once that was done,
he sailed 58'8" on his fourth jump, making a fight of it and
walking away with the silver.
Harrison responded brilliantly. His fourth jump-59'41/4"-was
even longer than his first. The time was 8:38 p.m., and even as
the intense Harrison strutted along the backstretch, Devers
pulled off her sweats at the starting line of the 100. "I told
him not to mess up my concentration, but of course, he did,"
said Devers. The two have lived together for several years,
sharing tales of their many injuries and celebrating when Devers
won any of her many titles. But if Harrison dented her readiness
last night, it did not show in the least.
Devers had run the 100 meters only sparingly early this season,
but she began to rally last month, when she finished second to
Torrence in the Olympic trials in this very stadium. She stroked
through the preliminary rounds here and looked much the
favorite, but it would not be easy. In this group of sprinting
peers--Devers, Torrence, Jamaica's Marlene Ottey--it never is.
Devers, squat and powerful, popped free from the line first and
was a meter clear at the halfway point. But Ottey, who came into
her fifth Olympics with four bronze medals and expected nothing
less than gold this time--"It's the only reason I came here,"
she said--began closing. And so did the redoubtable Torrence,
who as recently as mid-May was the prohibitive favorite in the
race but has since battled a thigh injury. The three of them
crossed the finish line as one, much as five women, including
these three, had in Barcelona four years ago. They waited at the
end of the track, hands on hips, staring at the huge scoreboard.
For one minute, for two, for almost three. Finally Devers was
declared the winner, in 10.94 seconds, the same time as Ottey.
Torrence was third, in 10.96.
Bobby Kersee, Devers's coach, streaked from the stands and
caught Devers in his arms. It was the culmination of a
bittersweet day for Kersee, whose wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee,
had been forced by a stubborn hamstring injury to tearfully
withdraw from the heptathlon earlier in the day.
In the sweet aftermath of the women's 100, Devers and Torrence,
who four years ago stood apart after Torrence spoke bitterly in
defeat, ran a victory lap together, embracing, bowing, laughing.
"I'm very happy with what happened today," Torrence said. As the
years have passed, she has learned a quiet class.
And there was more. Ottey announced after the race that the
Jamaican federation had filed a protest over the interpretation
of the finish photo. "I don't know if it's the torso or the head
[that has to cross first]," said Ottey, who believed that her
own torso beat Devers's head to the line. It was oddly
reminiscent of the spat that ensued after Devers was declared,
by photo finish, the 100 winner at the 1993 World Championships.
The protest was disallowed.
There was no doubt about Bailey's victory, and there is no
longer any doubt about his talent or his courage. While the
track world debated whether Namibia's Frankie Fredericks or
Trinidad's Ato Boldon would win the 100, Bailey ground through
his rounds. Then he ran wildly fast in the final.
The race was agonizingly slow getting started. First Christie
was charged with a false start. Then Boldon. Then, shockingly,
Christie again. "The first was definitely mine," Christie said.
"The second one, I don't know." He argued with officials.
"He demanded to be put back into the race," said U.S. sprinter
Mike Marsh, who finished fifth. "Linford was immature." After
the race, after Christie took his own victory lap and after
Boldon said he thought the stunt was unprofessional, Christie
went after Boldon and had to be restrained by Mitchell. It was a
tasteless ending to a brilliant career.
The three false starts tightened the screws of pressure. At the
gun Mitchell was out free, but he was caught by Boldon and
Fredericks. At 70 meters Bailey shot past them all, his thighs
rising, his feet clawing in front of him. "When he's in that
zone, in the middle of the race, very few people can play his
game," said Dan Pfaff, Bailey's coach. And very few can catch
him. Fredericks took the silver and Boldon won the bronze; it
marked the first time since 1976 that the U.S. had been shut out
of the medal picture in the 100. The timer stopped for Bailey at
9.84. The stadium quivered.
And the words of Jonathan Edwards came sweetly to mind. "The
last 24 hours have been very tough," he said last night through
soulful eyes. "I'd have been happy to get on a plane and go home."
He stayed. So many others stayed. And salved the open wounds.