Genuine heroes of fools' Games

Overshadowed by the dross and the overblown the finest Olympic traditions were upheld by Atlanta's forgotten few
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The Independent Online
The trouble with Michael Johnson was that the Olympic Games did not deserve him, and in all modesty he knew it. If they have any contrition, so should the organisers who ended up with a fleet of broken-down buses, an equal number of lost drivers suing for nervous breakdowns, enough unsold T-shirts to fill every Oxfam shop in the world, a computer system that was state of the Ark - and one profound sporting memory which was Johnson. Last week he looked back on it all and confessed to being embarrassed by the fact that the Olympics were overwhelmingly about one man: him.

"At the end of it" he said, "I read all about the problems and I knew what I did was something I could be proud of but I wanted America to be proud of the Games as well as me. I wanted for track and field to become big. I didn't want to think it was all about me." But give or take a few dramatic moments in gymnastics and a world record by Donovan Bailey, it was. He regretted that the Games had been side-tracked by the disproportionate amount of attention given to administrative failings.

In that side track could be found the achievements of competitors who arrived virtually unknown, excelled, won medals but drifted home submerged under the dross of criticism that the International Olympic Committee's president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, could not address in his closing speech because he knew damn well that long ago he had not had the courage to say Athens should have been the site of the Centennial Games. Never mind that they overplayed their hand, that television in the States was offering fortunes and that they would have needed some of the IOC's huge funds to support them.

There were champions who almost got ignored, partly because of Johnson but mainly as a result of the media's understandable preoccupation with one organisational fiasco after another. Some of them were the sort of people who in other circumstances would have been acclaimed worldwide rather than simply in their home countries. The French sports press may have compiled the biggest headlines in the history of print to acclaim the wins of Marie-Jose Perec, but her victories in the 200 and 400 metres caused little more than a ripple elsewhere.

Look closer and even the biggest surprise of the Games, Michelle Smith's wins in the swimming, were at first eroded by the news of the bombing and then mischievously belittled by the jibes of the Americans who suggested that she had taken something more powerful than a glass of Dublin brewed stout. Look closer still and who remembers Vebjoern Rodal? He was the Norwegian who a few weeks before had run at Crystal Palace and said that for him the Olympics had arrived too early. Perhaps he was kidding. He arrived first in the 800m to become the first Norwegian ever to win a track gold medal. Not only that, he looked capable of attacking Seb Coe's long standing two-lap world record, though conditions and the lack of competition at Crystal Palace, where he runs this afternoon, are unlikely to see that potential quickly turn to reality.

Norway has promoted some of the best track races of all time, but how their crowds would loved to have seen Rodal run against Seb Coe when he was avoiding Ovett (or was it the other way round)? Rodal has always been an Ovett fan and says he thinks that a modest improvement in the world record is attainable, though this summer he is still a few metres off that pace. For the moment he is someone else who won a gold medal without proper acclaim partly because the Games now has far too many medal events over the whole overblown event.

Rodal revealed later that during the winter he trained in a quarter-mile tunnel built by a hydro-electric company, that he hated the cold and that was why he gave up his first sport, cross-country skiing, to concentrate on athletics.

Everyone said Johnson could win the double, but who suggested that Svetlana Masterkova could take the 800 and 1500m? Certainly not the Russians, who thought so little of her chances that they failed to include her name in their Olympic handbook. At 28, she had decided to make a comeback into athletics following three years' absence, during which time she had a baby.

Best of all the unheralded winners, though, was the South African Josia Thugwane, in the marathon. These were the Games of the ultimate professionals, Agassi, Christie, the Dream Team and even full-time beach volleyball players.

Thugwane was mysteriously different. It transpired that he worked as a security guard at a coal mine and did his training aferwards. Not only that, last March he was shot in the face by youths who were trying to steal his car. Naturally, there was no hint of that information on the computer, which was supposed to provide comprehensive details of every competitor in every sport. What was obvious - so obviously not worth mentioning on the fact-file - was that his previous best performance meant that he was capable of winning in the humidity of Atlanta, which he duly did.

So little was known about him that when he went into the interview room later, no one could think of much to ask him, so after a few bland questions about his tactics, he was allowed to wander off to his bus - which got lost on the way to downtown Atlanta, just like all the others.

The infamous computer was also fully clicked off on Davis Kamoga, who won a bronze medal in the 400m and also suffered the embarrassment of being ignored in the interview area because we all looked at each other wondering who would be the first to admit we had no idea who he was.

In the Olympics the pressure is such that to suggest that anyone wins by default is a nonsense. When Sergei Bubka, the world record-holder for the pole vault, failed to jump because of an injury, and the young pretender, Okkert Britts, of South Africa, no-heighted in qualifying, the gold still had to be won. Jean Galfione, of France, had the nerve to take advantage and clear 5.92m, which was better than the jump that made Bubka Olympic champion in Seoul. While the French made a lot of it, the rest of the world moved on to the next height.

Among the surprising medal winners, one or two perhaps should not even have been given the opportunity, and at least one would not have won gold if she had stayed in Britain, where encouragement is an unseemly word. Fiona May, winner of the silver in the long jump for Italy, said she would never have been so successful if she had stayed with Derby Ladies, yet with astonishing irony, Chioma Ajunwa, the Nigerian who won, said that she would never have obtained a medal of any colour if she had stayed in her home country. She now competes for Shaftesbury Harriers and says that facilities at their modern but modest stadium in Barnet are better than any in Nigeria.

According to May, and a lot of others, Ajunwa should never have been given the chance to compete in Atlanta because she had served a four-year drugs ban, which she vigorously opposed. May is one of a small but courageous band who keep fighting to have athletes who are caught cheating suspended for life.