Smith wins friends and the bronze

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The Independent Online
It was when the conversation moved on to Olympic history, and the accumulation of names which would remain forever medal winners, that the sheer joy of his achievement a few hours earlier on Sunday night registered with Steve Smith.

Setting down to a well-earned beer, he stuck his arms in the air, threw back his head, and exulted. Four years after failing to take an Olympic high jump medal by the brush of a calf, the 23-year-old Liverpudlian had succeeded. A clearance of 2.35 metres earned him the bronze behind Artur Partyka of Poland and the American winner, Charles Austin, who responded to the cheers of an 80,000-strong crowd to go over at 2.39m.

Smith's delight was matched by that of Denise Lewis, in the heptathlon, who gained Britain's second bronze of the night after recovering from a start so bad that she seriously contemplated withdrawing. A time of 2min 17.41sec for the 800m, last of the seven events, secured her third place by a margin of five points over Urszula Wlodarczyk of Poland. Ghada Shouaa became Syria's first Olympic champion in winning the event.

Wlodarczyk won the final race, but Lewis, despite being forced into an outside lane on the run-in, managed to restrict her lead sufficiently. It was close, though - five points represents just 0.38sec. Lewis's performances on the opening day had been well below her best.

The rain that arrived just before her 100m hurdles heat - won by the defending champion, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, before she was forced to retire with a hamstring injury - made a mockery of Lewis's preparations. She had spent 10 days at Tallahassee drinking fluids and practising her starts with the world 200m champion, Merlene Ottey. "Then, lo and behold, when I get on to the start line it rains. I should have done my work in England."

She dropped still further to eighth after recording 6.32m in the long jump - the first event of the second day and one in which she has managed 6.67m. With only the javelin and 800m remaining, the 23-year-old from West Bromwich was wavering.

"She was going to pull out," said Kevin Lidlow, the physiotherapist who has helped Lewis through the high points of her career - the 1994 Commonwealth Games victory, and her British record performance in Gotzis, Austria, two months ago. "She was really down and complaining about everything and saying she wanted to go home. I said we should talk about it again after the next event."

When Lewis returned to the treatment room, she had set a personal best in the javelin of 53.68m. "To say I was disappointed after the first day - DNF [Did Not Finish] was ringing through my brain," Lewis said. "But anything is possible - that's the beauty of the event."

Smith was pretty satisfied with his event, too, after becoming the first British man to win an Olympic high jump medal since Cornelius Leahy in 1908. "It was just a relief. I said I was coming for the gold and I could have got it. It was that close. But I'm very happy. I'm taking something away from the greatest event in the world.

"I finished 12th in Barcelona and ever since then I've looked forward to Atlanta. I know I can build on this. I'll only be 27 in Sydney so time is on my side. I feel I can take the title back from the 2000 Games."

Smith has completed his set of medals from every major event - he won bronze at the 1993 World Championships and silver at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships the following year. That record is testimony to one of Britain's best competitors.

Smith recalled a moment he had shared with Austin after the Crystal Palace meeting on 12 July. "We both turned to each other and couldn't say anything. It was as if we both understood how important the next two weeks of training would be. It was something I will always remember."

He will remember, too, the lap of honour which all three medallists completed after Sunday's final. "That was something special," Smith said. "It was good for sport and good for the event." The same could be said of Britain's two bronze medallists.

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