Athletics: THE SURVIVORS: Six athletes who have become legends in longevity
Sunday 15 August 1999
She will be wearing a yellow vest rather than a yellow jersey in Seville, but Ludmila Engquist's story promises to be an inspirational tour de force in the Lance Armstrong style. Just making it to Seville is an achievement in itself for the 35-year-old who won the 100m hurdles title as a native Russian representing the Soviet Union in 1991 and regained it in the colours of her adopted Sweden in 1997. In April she was told she had breast cancer. Four months on, having undergone a mastectomy and still receiving chemotherapy, she has returned to competition in the form to challenge for a medal. Her rivals include Gail Devers, the American who has overcome the life-threatening Graves' Disease.
Sergei Bubka's injury-enforced withdrawal has deprived the event of the one athlete who has struck gold at all six World Championships to date. Heike Drechsler, however, is a gold medal-winning survivor from the inaugural championships. As 18-year-old Heike Daute she won the long jump gold in Helsinki in 1983 and now at the age of 34 will be challenging for her third title. The four-times European champion will be a leading contender in what promises to be one of the most closely contested events. She will not, however, be leading the double life she once lived on the international circuit - informing on her colleagues as an agent (codenamed "Jump") for the Stasi, the East German secret police.
Marion Jones may be planning to collect four medals from Seville to add to the two she won in Athens two years ago, but she would still have a long way to go to match the most decorated athlete in World Championship history. Merlene Ottey started her collection in Helsinki back in 1983 with the silver in the 200m, behind Marita Koch and ahead of Kathy Cook and Florence Griffith. The 200m bronze she won behind Zhanna Pintusevich and Susanthika Jayasinghe in Athens took her medal haul to 14. The only other athlete in double figures is Carl Lewis with 10. Now 39, having placed second to Jones in the Stockholm grand prix 200m, Ottey may not return from Seville empty handed.
In July last year Steve Smith was lying immobile in a Liverpool hospital staring up at the ceiling and wondering whether his career as a world-class athlete was over. Thirteen months on, he is gazing down upon his rivals from the top on the world rankings. Thanks to his 2.36m clearance in the CGU Classic at Gateshead in June, the 26-year-old Liverpool Harrier heads for Seville as the world No 1 in 1999. It's a position he could not have envisaged when he spent 10 days in the Liverpool Royal Hospital after suffering a prolapsed disc during a practice jump at the Wavertree Athletics Centre. A World Championship medal of any colour would be a fitting reward, though gold is no less than he deserves.
It was not just Jan Zelezny's career that was left hanging by threads when he suffered a freak training track accident in May last year. The throwing arm that won the former army colonel two Olympic and two World Championship titles, and set five world records, almost ripped from his right shoulder when he got caught around the ankles by an elasticated rope. The collar-bone snapped and was torn away from the breastbone. Alone at the time, Zelezny managed to drive himself, in excruciating pain, to the nearest hospital. The broken clavicle was pinned and re-connected to the breastbone in a series of operations and Zelezny has made an impressive return, standing fourth in the world rankings with 89.06m.
The 800m world champion of 1995 and 1997 has already beaten his biggest rival as he prepares for his attempt to complete a hat-trick of titles. The naturalised Danish citizen suffered a serious malaria attack during a trip to his native Kenya last year. "I did not realise how serious it was," he said. "It was only when I was getting better and saw the analyses that I realised how dangerous it could have been. I am just so happy to be here and healthy, and not in another world." Kipketer, who eclipsed Sebastian Coe's long-standing world record two years ago, finished last in the European Championship 800m final on his return last summer but has been in world-beating form in 1999.
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