She interrupted the night's clatter with a quiet, graceful
farewell, a gently resonating harp's chord played in the midst
of a rock concert. A mystery hung in the air at Olympic Stadium
last night: Will Carl run the relay? That answer waits another
day, but last night Jackie Joyner-Kersee asked one more favor of
her scarred body, offering in return the promise that this
Olympic competition would be her last.
This is an article from the Aug. 3, 1996 issue
Joyner-Kersee stood at the end of the long jump runway, sixth in
a field of eight, with only the last of her six attempts
remaining. Her right leg was wrapped from knee to mid-thigh, a
bandage supporting the same fickle hamstring that six days
earlier had forced her tearful withdrawal from the heptathlon,
an event in which she had won the gold medal in the previous two
Olympics. "The last two weeks have been very tough for me," she
would say later. And as she began her run, she looked every day
of her 34 years.
She had won five Olympic medals before this, the same number as
Evelyn Ashford and Florence Griffith Joyner, but since her
heptathlon gold and long jump bronze in Barcelona four years
ago, her body has slowly broken down. After her withdrawal from
the heptathlon, President Clinton phoned with his condolences;
the call took on the feel of a long-deserved goodbye. Last night
the longest of her first five jumps had been 22'6 1/4"--10
inches out of first place, 4 1/2 inches out of a bronze and far
off her American record of 24'7".
Yet it is chilling what deeds can be performed by a great
athlete at the edge of defeat, even at retirement's door. "I
said to myself, 'This is it, Jackie, this is it,'" said
Joyner-Kersee. "'This isn't the way you wanted it to be, but
this is your last shot. If the leg is going to pull, it's going
to pull.' I just wanted to give it my best effort." She tore
down the runway and left the takeoff board on her wounded leg,
reached back with her hands as she fell toward the sand and
desperately extended her legs. Her distance was 22'11 3/4", a
bronze medal by one inch. Her six medals are the most ever won
by a female U.S. track and field athlete, one fewer than only
Shirley Strickland de la Hunty of Australia (1948 to '56) and
Irena Szewinska of Poland (1964 to '76).
The long jump was won by Chioma Ajunwa of Nigeria, a 25-year-old
policewoman who became the third track and field gold medalist
at these Games to have previously been handed a steroid
suspension. (The others were U.S. shot-putter Randy Barnes and
Swedish hurdler Lyudmila Engquist). Ajunwa's suspension ended
only this year.
Yet even as Joyner-Kersee's bronze was won, as Portugal's
Fernanda Rebeiro rolled through the stretch to win the 10,000
and as France's John Galfione won the pole vault with an
Olympic-record leap of 19'5", the question of Carl Lewis's
possible inclusion in today's 4X100 relay buzzed about. The U.S.
sailed easily through yesterday's first two rounds with the team
of Jon Drummond, Tim Harden, Tim Montgomery and Dennis Mitchell.
The scheduled team for tonight's final is Drummond, Mitchell,
Mike Marsh and Leroy Burrell, but the possibility that Lewis
might join the team to seek his record 10th gold has shadowed
the relay since his victory Monday night in the long jump.
"If the top four can run, they'll run," U.S. coach Erv Hunt
said. "If one of them can't, chances are good that Carl will
run." Burrell is the most likely to drop out. He withdrew from
yesterday's early rounds with acute tendinitis in his right
Achilles tendon, prompting suspicion that he had stepped aside
for Lewis. Burrell bristled at the notion. "Would you give up a
Pulitzer Prize?" he asked a reporter. "It's ridiculous."
Yesterday morning, Mitchell, captain of the U.S. team, said that
he would give Lewis his anchor spot, but that it would crush him
to do so. The intrigue will continue into this afternoon. Hunt
said Burrell will run warmup sprints before the U.S lineup is
submitted. Lewis was scheduled to meet last night with Mitchell
and then with Mitchell, Hunt and assistant team leader Charlie
Greene. "I'd just like to hear from Carl that he supports us,
right here," said Mitchell, pulling at the portion of his track
singlet that covers his heart.
The issue has lingered through the week, clouding a remarkable
competition. Yet even in the murk of controversy, one never need
look far to find sweet clarity. Last night's reminder came when
Joyner-Kersee walked to the awards podium, wearing blue pants
that covered sore legs, a white top and a red bow in her hair. A
medal was draped around her neck for the final time, and bronze
has never looked more like gold.