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

October 08, 2000

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 4x100-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
Tomas Dvorak 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 1/2", 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 1/2" 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 4x100
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 4x100 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 4x400, 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 4x100 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."

Confronted with the criticism, Drummond and Greene backpedaled.
"I take responsibility," Drummond, 32, said. "I never won a gold
medal before, and I got emotional." Lewis was less contrite. "The
Australians didn't want us to win," he said. "That's O.K. We're

Favor Hamilton had been content for months leading to the women's
1,500. After missing all of 1999 following Achilles tendon
surgery, she had dedicated her performances to the memory of her
brother, Dan, who committed suicide last fall. She had also
restructured her training to include more distance work. After
finishing second to Regina Jacobs in the U.S. trials in July
(Jacobs dropped out of the Games in August, citing a respiratory
ailment), Favor Hamilton ran 3:57.40 at the July 28 Bislett Games
in Oslo, the fastest time in the world this year.

Only two weeks before the Games, Favor Hamilton ran a sensational
4:23 mile in a training run on a bike trail near her home in New
Glarus, Wis. Her coach, Peter Tegen, pedaled alongside Favor
Hamilton on a bicycle, and as she accelerated, told her she was
going too fast. "No, I'm not!" she shouted back at him. At 32,
Favor Hamilton felt that she was in the best condition of her
life, physically and emotionally.

All this makes what happened in the 1,500 final inexplicable.
Favor Hamilton went to the front with slightly less than two laps
to go, off a slow pace (70 seconds at 400 meters, 2:15 at 800),
and began pushing. It was a strange race, with odd shifts in
tempo and heavy jostling. "The toughest race I've ever been in,"
said Britain's Kelly Holmes. Favor Hamilton was shoved once by
Portugal's Carla Sacramento and gave up the lead before taking it
back with 300 meters to run. Entering the home stretch, she faded
and began tightening. Five runners passed Favor Hamilton before
she suddenly flailed her arms and fell to the track. The entire
field went by before she rose, jogged and then walked across the
finish line.

Favor Hamilton was taken to a medical room at the stadium. She
didn't recall finishing the race, which was won by Nouria
Merah-Benida of Algeria in 4:05.10. "She was like a boxer who had
been knocked out," said a person familiar with Favor Hamilton's
treatment. As her head cleared, she cried in her husband Mark's
arms. She was neither sick nor injured but apparently beaten by a
combination of nerves and exhaustion in a race she wanted badly
to win.

El Guerrouj could relate. At the 1996 Olympics he was on the cusp
of winning the 1,500-meter gold medal when he was tripped and
fell in the race. In the ensuing four years he obliterated the
world records for the 1,500 (3:26 flat) and the mile (3:43.13),
and he won a world title in the 1,500 last summer in Seville. In
Sydney, however, he felt such pressure that he began crying en
route from the warmup track to the main stadium. In the race his
countryman and rabbit, Youssef Baba, fell off after a fast 800
meters (1:54.77) and hung El Guerrouj out on the lead. Kenya's
Noah Ngeny followed closely and, in the final 50 meters, easily
ran past El Guerrouj.

In defeat El Guerrouj was impossibly hard on himself. "I am not
Olympic champion today," he said. "Perhaps in four years I will
strengthen my skills."

Capel will surely do the same. He looked much the fastest
200-meter runner through three rounds preceding the final, but
when the gun was fired, he stood up and nearly stopped. "I
thought I false-started," he said. "I know I false-started. They
should have called it back." While Capel chased hopelessly,
27-year-old Konstadinos Kederis, an unknown Greek--"A guy whom
I've never heard of, and I'm a 200-meter runner," said Michael
Johnson--raced to a gold medal in 20.09, the slowest Olympic
winning time in 20 years. Capel's failure was Kederis's reward.

In the end there was also comfort in knowing that some wishes,
like Kederis's, are fulfilled. Nick Hysong, a 28-year-old born in
the rock and roll town of Winslow, Ariz., who first pole-vaulted
at age six with a broomstick and pillows, won America's first
vault gold medal since Bob Seagren's in 1968. Ethiopians won an
amazing eight medals (four gold) in the six events of 5,000
meters and longer.

Yet the final image of the Games belonged to the venerable
Johnson, running through the artificial light and a moth invasion
as the anchor of the 4x400-meter men's relay, the last Olympic
race of his career. He earned his second gold medal of the Games
and his fifth in three Olympics. His performance unfolded
precisely as he had planned when he came to Sydney, and nothing
happened to alter it.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER DUSTED By the time Jones got the baton from Perry in the 4x100, the U.S. was well back of the Bahamas and Jamaica. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES OUT OF HAND Greene (left) was all business as 4x100 anchor, but then the runners (from left: Williams, Lewis, Greene, Drummond) made a star-spangled spectacle of themselves. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Gebrselassie (1658) nipped Tergat to repeat as 10,000 champ. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Her Airness Drechsler had the longest jump, 22'11 1/4", winning her second gold in the event while ending Jones's drive for five. COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN GREEK MYTHOLOGY With the slowest winning time in 20 years, the unknown Kederis was the upset special in the 200.

"Foreigners think [Americans] are rude, anyway. This just
confirms what they think of us," said Perry.

"I thought I false-started," said Capel. "I know I
false-started. They should have called it back."