One night in Atlanta...
Mike Rowbottom reflects on the pain, despair, glory, torn muscles and broken dreams on a pulsating Monday evening in the athletics stadium
Wednesday 31 July 1996
For Sally Gunnell, whose defence of the Olympic 400 metres hurdles title ended in injury, there was despair. For Colin Jackson, thwarted once again in his desire to win the 110m hurdles gold there was frustration.
For Kelly Holmes, running through an injury and narrowly missing a medal in the 800m, there was pain. And for Roger Black, who chased home the inimitable, uncatchable Michael Johnson in the 400m final, there was joy.
Standing in the changing area shortly after a race which had provoked 82,000 spectators to fill the Centennial Olympic Stadium with sound, Black began to get an idea of what his achievement will feel like in years to come. "I'm Olympic silver medallist,'' he said, as if trying on a new coat for size. "It's not bad, is it?" The accompanying grin was huge.
Black, who turned 30 in March, has earned his reward. After four operations on his legs - the last of them just before Christmas - and a debilitating, year-long encounter with the Epstein-Barr virus in 1993 which caused him to wonder if he would ever run again, he has discovered the form of his life.
In what was the biggest race of his life, he judged his effort perfectly. In the final 20 metres he came under pressure from the two men on the inside lanes Davis Kamoga of Uganda and Alvin Harrison, who was left as the United States' No runner after the withdrawl through injury of Butch Reynolds.
For a moment it seemed as if Black was going to lose everything, but he kept his form to the line to finish in 44.41sec, just 0.04sec off his own British record.
Ahead of him, Johnson completed the first leg of his intended 200-400m double, managing to look unruffled despite finishing a second ahead of the Briton.
"I made a decision that there was only one way to beat Michael Johnson and that was if Michael Johnson made a mistake," Black said. "I had to run my own race, and I was going for the silver medal."
In the back of his mind, he carried the memory of the 1991 World Championships, when he had gone out too fast over the first 250 metres and allowed Antonio Pettigrew of the United States to come through for gold on the line.
With the upright, golden-shoed figure of Johnson just ahead of him in the next lane, the temptation for Black to over-reach himself again was there - but he resisted it. "If I'd gone with Michael at 250 metres the same thing would have happened again, so I let him go. I said 'Right guys, you're not going to beat me over the last 100 metres'.
"Somebody told me on Sunday that I'd get silver because I had more experience than anyone else in the race but to use that experience, I had to use the mistakes I'd made in 1991. You learn from that day, from that mistake."
Johnson, meanwhile, is mindful of his own significant error as he starts his challenge for the 200m title today - the poor start in Oslo earlier this month which allowed Frankie Fredericks to end his unbeaten sequence of 38 races. "I will not make that mistake again," he said in his quiet, Texan drawl. "I had to hold it back in the 400m to make sure I was right for the 200. In the 400 I can't do what comes naturally to me. I can do now and I'll be ready."
The sight of Sally Gunnell being carried off the track after the 400m hurdles semi-final, her face working to hold back tears, was a desperate one. She had struggled all season to make good her comeback after a year's absence with an injury to her right heel.
But after breaking down earlier this month at the Lausanne grand prix with a similar injury in her left heel, the odds on her making up lost ground on her American rivals here lengthen still further.
Yesterday Gunnell insisted she would not be rushed into making a decision about her future, though retirement cannot be ruled out. "I won't be making any decision about whether to carry on running at the moment," she said.
"All my emotions are mixed. I'm obviously disappointed about losing the title in such circumstances. But at least I went out and gave it a go. I just want to be on my own for a while and get away from everything that has happened.
"I felt the foot during the warm-ups. It was sore but I tried to ignore it. I hit the fourth hurdle and that knocked me off balance almost into the next lane. I then rotated on the foot and that is what caused the problem. There is no way I could have gone on."
Gunnell missed last season with a serious heel injury in her other foot and her frequently painful rehabilitation included an operation. However if surgery is required this time Gunnell is likely to opt for retirement. "I just couldn't put up with it ," she said.
Thus the unhappy record for Britain's two defending champions in Atlanta reads: Linford Christie, DNS; Sally Gunnell, DNF.
Jackson, who seemed likely to earn Britain a third Olympic title four years ago until a rib injury contributed to his slide to seventh place in the final, suffered a similar combination of circumstances here as he missed out on a bronze medal by 0.02sec in a 110m hurdles final won in stupendous fashion by the American favourite, Allen Johnson.
Having finally got rid of the tendinitis which had undermined his training this season, Jackson suffered an injury at the start of the final, pulling the quadricep muscle above his right knee. "His quad went as he came out of the blocks" said Malcolm Arnold, Jackson's long-time coach and national coach for Britain. "It blew up like a balloon afterwards."
Jackson finished fourth, in 13.19, as Johnson literally battered his way through to the gold, leaving a trail of seven of his 10 hurdles upturned. The last hurdle was flung aside like deckchair in a gale and for a moment it looked as if the American might trip in sight of the line.
But Johnson, who won the world title last year and this season came within 0.01sec of Jackson's world record of 12.91, was not going to let anything deter him. He won in 12.95sec ahead of fellow countryman Mark Crear and Florian Schwarthoff of Germany.
Thus the 29-year-old Welshman is left to reflect on another huge disappointment. "The Games just came a month too early for me," he said. "It feels as if it is fated not to be for me at the Olympics. "I suppose that if I'd been able to show the form of 1993 and 1994 I'd have taken it" he added. "But that's life. This isn't then - it's 1996." Come 2000, however, he still hopes to return for one more Olympic effort: "I'm still the world record holder and I know that when I'm on my best form I'm unbeatable."
Holmes, too, must have longed to have been in her best form as she entered the finishing straight on the shoulder of the 800m leader, Svetlana Masterkova of Russia. The spirit of the army sergeant was, as always, willing, but the flesh was weak, despite the injection she had had to help counteract the pain she has experienced in recent weeks from a shin injury.
As Masterkova pulled away for a surprise victory in 1min 57.73sec, first Ana-Maria Qirot of Cuba and then the pre-race favourite Maria Mutola, suffering the combined effects of a cold and poor early positioning, came by the Briton, who rocked with effort, her face contorted.
"You can't come here carrying an injury and expect to leave with a gold medal," Holmes said. "I learned that the hard way. But I'm definitely going on to do the 1500 metres even if they have to drag me to the start on crutches. I'm not going to leave this damned place without a medal."
Marie-Jose Perec stated her claim to be regarded as one of the great Olympians as she defended her 400m title with utter grace. The Frenchwoman won in 48.25sec to become the third fastest woman in history behind Marita Koch of East Germany and the mighty Czechoslovakian, Jarmila Kratochvilova.
While Kratochvilova looked like a charging rhino - a side effect, she said, of working hard forking hay on her father's farm - Perec looks like a gazelle. Cathy Freeman, Australia's Commonwealth champion, was the only runner who could challenge her, taking silver in an Australian record of 48.63.
The final track event of the evening, the 10,000 metres, produced a far closer competition as Kenya's finest, Paul Tergat, tried everything he knew to prevent Ethiopia's finest, the world 5,000 and 10,000 metres record holder Haile Gebrselassie from completing the first half of what he hopes will be a double.
It was beyond the Kenyan, however, as Gebrselassie, baring his teeth with the effort, raced away over the final 400 metres to win in 27min 7.34sec.
Ethiopia's national stadium has a display of the five Olympic rings above its main stand. Four of them bare the likenesses of home runners who have become Olympic champions now the fifth and final ring will feature the face of the man Ethiopians call The Emperor.
On Saturday, he will attempt to extend his rule. The Games awaits.
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