Bubka's medal hopes poleaxed by injury

Sergei Bubka, the world's greatest pole vaulter, walked slowly from the Olympic arena yesterday after an Achilles tendon injury prevented him taking part in the qualifying competition.

The 32-year-old Ukrainian who has set 35 world records, said: "For me, it is a tragedy." A desperate blow to the Games.

Bubka was clearly unhappy in the pole vaulting area and held an animated conversation with his brother, Vassily, who is taking part in the first qualifying group.

A few minutes later, still wearing his red and white tracksuit, Bubka strode towards the stadium tunnel accompanied by an official. The PA announcement that he had withdrawn did not come until he had disappeared from view. Speaking at a press conference, Bubka explained that he had put his injury to the test earlier in the morning.

"When I started to jog there was pain," he said, struggling to contain his emotions. "I knew I could not run and if you can't run you can't jump. I'm a good fighter but the pain was just too big. For me it is a tragedy. I have pain in my ankle and in my heart as well."

He incurred his latest injury a month ago, and had been having injections and pills in an effort to counteract it. Bubka who won the Olympic title in 1988, was anxious to erase the memory of his last Olympic performance in Barcelona where he failed to clear a height. It was not to be.

The man who has come closest to Bubka's world record of 6.15m, the South African Okkert Brits, went out after three failures at 5.60. Brits, whose best is 6.03, buried his face in a towel and sat with heaving shoulders.

The Welsh vaulter Neil Winter was unable to reproduce his Commonwealth Games heroics on the Olympic stage as both he and the new British No 1, Nick Buckfield, failed to qualify for the final.

Winter, who surprisingly won in Victoria two years ago, and his team- mate both cleared 5.40m but they failed with their three attempts when the bar was raised to 5.60m.

Ireland's Games, which began with a startling shower of gold from their swimmer Michelle Smith, have taken a dramatic turn for the worse on the track. Sonia O'Sullivan, who came into these games with the prospect of winning gold at 5000 or 1500 metres, or even both, left with nothing yesterday.

Ireland's world 5000m champion trailed home 10th and last in her 1500m heat, still suffering from the stomach bug which caused her to drop out of the 5000m final on Sunday night. "I just had no energy," she said. "I suppose it's all over now." Asked if she was disappointed, she replied: "That's the understatement of the year," before leaving the stadium.

O'Sullivan said she was suffering from the beginning of a stomach upset when she ran in the 5,000m heats on Friday night, and had woken repeatedly on Sunday night soaked to the skin with sweat. With 450 metres of her heat remaining, she had been well placed, but then the field streamed past her in the space of 50 metres. It was a desperately sad end for a runner who appeared on the brink of greatness.

Kelly Holmes confirmed she was suffering from a hairline fracture in her left leg, but she is determined to pursue the 1500m gold medal. The injury, initially diagnosed as the early signs of a fracture, did not prevent her from qualifying for tomorrow's semi-finals.

The 26-year-old army sergeant again needed a pain-killing injection in her leg before running just as she did before, finishing fourth in the 800m on Monday. "The leg was hurting when I was warming up so I had another injection," the fitness instructor said. "But I will give it my all. These are the Olympics and I have been training for them for four years so I am not going to pull out of them now."

Holmes, a world championship 1500m silver medallist last year, added: "I have got as good a chance of winning as anybody. My season is over after this anyway so I might as well carry on. I feel a lot more confident about the 1500 after coming through the 800."

Holmes cruised into the next round after finishing second in her heat behind Romania's Gabriela Szabo in a time of 4min 07.32sec. Her hopes of winning a first Olympic medal were helped by the absence of two of her main rivals, O'Sullivan and Mozambique's Maria Mutola, who took the bronze medal in the 800 and decided not to compete in the longer event. However, Algeria's defending champion Hassiba Boulmerka - the woman who beat Holmes to the world title last year - is still favourite after comfortably negotiating her first race.

Britain's Olympic 400m hurdles champion, Sally Gunnell, will make no immediate decision on her future after failing to finish in Monday's semi- finals. Gunnell was to have a bone scan yesterday on the left foot which she injured in Lausanne this month.

Asked if she intended to retire, Gunnell, who was 30 on Monday, said she was keeping her options open. "I really don't know," she said. "I can't sit here and say one way or the other. I really have to go away and look at my options.

"Five minutes after it happened I thought, `that's it'. I had had two years of injury problems, but that was the closest I came to calling it a day. I still love the sport, but at the moment I just don't know if I can cope with fighting my way back again."

More reports, pages 26 and 27, Results, page 27