Publish date:

Sticks and Groans

The vaunted 4x100 relay teams both came up short for the first time in Olympic history, but the U.S. still reached the top of the medal heap

Just before midnight last Friday on the floor of the Athens Olympic Stadium, U.S. pole vaulter Toby Stevenson looked up between jumps and saw a fleet of runners tear past him on the final leg of the women's 4√ó100-meter relay, the crowd in full throat. The U.S. team was missing, and Stevenson was briefly confused. Aren't we in this race? What happened? The blur passed, and Stevenson saw U.S. sprinters Marion Jones and Lauryn Williams standing together behind the pack, disconsolate after missing their baton exchange. "What are the odds?" Stevenson would say much later, after he had won silver behind teammate Tim Mack's gold. "This sport is so unforgiving."

The lessons from Athens were these: Olympic track and field reserves no medals for past champions (like Jones), honors no favorites for simply showing up (like the U.S. men's and women's 4√ó100 relay teams), but it does offer second chances to those who have failed and find the passion to try again (like the brilliant Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco). It permits renewal and celebration (like the United States' 24 medals, four more than it earned in Sydney), but also provides daily reminders that the drug-bust frenzy of the past year is not over. (Three track gold medalists were stripped, more than in all previous Games combined.)

When all was said and done in the final week of the Games, the U.S. men had won eight of the nine medals in the 100, 200 and 400 meters; Dwight Phillips had held off U.S. teammate John Moffitt for a one-two in the long jump; and in the dying sunlight on Sunday, Mebrahtom Keflezighi of the U.S. took silver in the marathon, running the race of his life.

A 29-year-old born in war-torn Eritrea and a graduate of UCLA, Keflezighi became a U.S. citizen in 1998. He won the United States' first men's marathon medal since Frank Shorter's silver in 1976; Keflezighi's silver, combined with Deena Kastor's bronze, marked the first time the U.S. has won a men's and a women's marathon medal in the same Games.

Two nights earlier Mack and Stevenson had staged a riveting duel that closed the evening's show. "I looked around at one point and thought, Hey, we're the only thing going on," said Mack. Beneath the towering Olympic cauldron, Mack cleared an Olympic record 19' 6 1/4" on his third and final attempt and watched as Stevenson barely missed at that same height. A modest, 31-year-old journeyman whose only international title had come in 2001 at the now-defunct Goodwill Games and whose e-mail address is GOLDNATHENS, Mack took a victory lap--and a half--in celebration.

Jones knows from victory laps. She had been the athletic and corporate heroine of the Sydney Games, winning five medals. But on Friday her tumultuous Olympiad--in which she has been divorced, given birth to a son, been implicated, though not charged, in the ongoing BALCO steroid case (she has denied using banned substances), and, this year, fallen from dominance deep into mediocrity--came to a crashing end.

On a breezy Athens night she finished a dull fifth in the long jump, each of her last three legal jumps landing shorter than the previous one after she had leapt 22' 53/4" on her second attempt. The 4√ó100 relay seemed certain to produce a medal, salvaging something for Jones's efforts, even though her inclusion on the team was controversial for three reasons: first was the possibility that she could receive a drug ban, imperiling any relay medals; second, the finals in the long jump and the 4√ó100 relay were on the same night; and third, 200-meter silver medalist Allyson Felix, 18, had been running faster than Jones.

In the Athens final Jones ran the second leg and was to pass to Williams, the 20-year-old 100-meter silver medalist. However, deep in the 20-meter passing zone, Jones desperately extended the baton toward Williams, who flailed at the air but didn't get the stick until too late. The handoff might have been botched because Williams did not wait for Jones, but the more significant factor was that Jones was staggering into the zone exhausted--"I was out of breath," she said after the race--and running slower than in the previous night's semifinals, when there had been no long jump to sap her energy.

The U.S. men's 4√ó100 team seemed an even bigger lock than the women's. Three of the top four finishers in the Athens 100 meters--Gatlin, bronze medalist Maurice Greene and fourth-place finisher Shawn Crawford, all of whom broke 9.90--were on the squad. Crawford, who once raced a giraffe and a zebra on television (beat the giraffe, lost to the zebra), had won the 200-meter gold on a surreal Thursday night, when the start of his race was delayed four minutes by Greek fans chanting the name of Konstantinos Kenteris, the 2000 Olympic champion and national hero who withdrew from the Games after missing a drug test, and Hel-las! Hel-las! (literally, Greece in Greek). The fans also booed whenever U.S. sprinters were shown on the big screen in the stadium. "I stayed cool," Crawford said a day later. "I was just saying to myself, Please start this race."

Crawford led off the relay on Saturday and completed a mediocre pass to Gatlin, whose pass to Coby Miller was so bad that Miller nearly had to stop. He restarted and passed to Greene, who missed catching Great Britain by only .01 of a second. It was the first time in the Games (excluding those held in Moscow, which the U.S. boycotted) that the U.S. won neither of the 4√ó100 relays.

El Guerrouj would understand their failure. At 29 he came to Athens as the world-record holder in the mile and 1,500 meters, yet he had fallen short in the latter at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. He outkicked Bernard Lagat to win the 1,500 here on Aug. 24 and on Saturday night sat patiently as the 10,000-meter gold medalist--and 5,000 world-record holder--Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia set a sluggish pace in the 5K. "[Bekele] must have thought he could outkick the greatest miler in history," said Rich Kenah of the U.S., a former world championship bronze medalist in the 800 meters who was at the stadium.

That was a miscalculation. "I said to myself, Hicham, for people to look at you as a legend, you have to win this race," El Guerrouj would say later, and he easily floated past Bekele in the final 50 meters to become the first 1,500--5,000 double gold medalist since Pavvo Nurmi in 1924. El Guerrouj wrapped himself in a Moroccan flag and high-stepped down the homestretch in celebration, his second chances seized, his legend secure. ■




Greene (center) closed the gap but couldn't overtake Great Britain as the U.S. lost by .01.




Mack vaulted to record height to take gold.