Devers a class act on and off the track

Ken Jones salutes an American champion who has learned to take disappointment in her stride
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The Independent Online
In her blocks at the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday night, brown eyes still, finger nails like talons, Gail Devers was again looking at history.

As in Barcelona four years ago when she fell at the last while leading, Devers was within sight of becoming the first woman since Fanny Blankers- Koen to win the 100 metres and sprint hurdles at one Olympics.

In accord with that fact, an audience made up mostly of Americans gave Devers a warm and encouraging reception. She smiled, just briefly, and went to her mark, lost in concentration.

You could not help wondering what was going on in Devers's mind. The tumble in Spain, overcoming the disease that crippled her for more than a year and almost led to the amputation of a foot?

Five places to the left of Devers crouched the favourite, Ludmila Enquist, once of Russia, who was given permission only three weeks ago to race in Sweden's colours. A roar went up at the gun but it was quickly clear that Devers would not be the winner. The tall, 32-year-old Enquist lasted longest, edging out Brigita Bukovec of Slovenia in 12.58sec. Devers, running stride for stride with the French contender, Patricia Girard-Leno, finished out of the medals, beaten for the bronze in a photo-finish.

Nobody has ever been able to lay down a rule determining how much disappointment sports performers must take before it becomes an excuse for childish behaviour. In any case, Devers proved herself a class act, offering nothing but amiable acceptance of failure. "No excuses,'' she said. "It wasn't meant to be.'' Having long since got life into perspective, she added, "I can't even say that I'm disappointed."

''I did better than Barcelona. I crawled [literally] into fifth there. I was fourth here, and I finished on my feet. Believe me I wanted to get over 10 hurdles. I did. I didn't hit one.''

Probably, the last time Devers shed real tears was when the disabling effect of Graves disease meant that she even had to drag herself to the bathroom. So, nothing to embarrass anyone. Unlike Linford Christie, who churlishly brushed aside interrogators after failing to qualify for the 200m semi-final, Devers stood around for 10 minutes, flashing her smile and famously long fingernails.

In truth, Devers was never really in contention. Her coach, Bobby Kersee, said: "Because Gail has been short of competition this season, she was floating over hurdles rather than driving over them.''

Enquist had the technique off pat, the threat of her presence confirmed by a driving finish. As Ludmila Narozhilenko, she was world champion in 1991 before testing positive for steroids. The scandal would have a unique twist. By then in the midst of an acrimonious divorce, she claimed that her ex-husband had spiked her vitamins.

As excuses go it seemed pretty far-fetched but last December a four-year ban imposed in 1993 was lifted by the Russian courts and Enquist was reinstated by the International Amateur Athletic Federation under the exceptional circumstance rule.

On Wednesday night, Enquist established herself fully as an outstanding athlete. "I went through a lot to get here,'' she said, "and I knew I could take the gold medal.''

The break up of Enquist's first marriage involved the man who is now her husband, manager and coach. "To begin with I was Ludmila's agent but the relationship developed into something deeper,'' Johan Enquist said.

Officially granted Swedish citizenship only two months ago, Ludmila repaid the favour by winning her new country's first gold medal in 20 years. With her fingernails painted blue and her long blond hair drawn tight by a blue and yellow band, Enquist looked the picture of Nordic womanhood, but Sweden is divided over her right to appear in the national colours.

There is something manipulative in all this as there appears to be now in most things Olympic. However, Swede or Russian, nothing can devalue the fact that Enquist ran the race of her life.

It was all that mattered to Enquist and her husband. "It was only on the fifth of July that Russia granted Ludmila the right to represent Sweden, so it's been an anxious time for us,'' Johan Enquist said. They kissed for the cameramen and went off happily.

What Devers left us with was a sense of maturity not always evident in Olympic competition. After beating Merlene Ottey in a photo-finish to take the 100m gold she heard hurtful suggestions of a home decision. But more than most athletes today, Devers is able to look on victory and defeat as merely events in the wider scheme of things. She fits Kipling's poem perfectly.