The medal that got away

Britain's Olympic athletics embarrassment deepens as Fiona May wins silver for Italy in the long jump
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The Independent Online
As Linford Christie lost his last opportunity to appear at these Games when the 4x100 metres relay squad dropped the baton, British athletics began to ask where it had gone wrong, and how Fiona May could become a silver medal winner after turning her back on Britain.

May, who was born in Slough, competed for Britain up to 1993 but with limited success. After marrying an Italian pole-vaulter, Gianni Iapichino, she moved to Florence and her career took off. Whereas in 1991 she failed to qualify for the World Championship long jump final, competing for Italy in Gothenburg last summer she became world champion and relegated Jackie Joyner-Kersee of the United States to sixth.

Here she again beat Joyner-Kersee to win the Olympic silver medal behind Nigeria's Chioma Ajunwa, who served a four-year suspension for taking stimulants and only began long-jumping this year. May, who cleared 7.02 metres compared with Ajunwa's first and best leap of 7.12m, said: "Since moving to Italy, I've found the whole atmosphere different to Britain. There's plenty of back-up and you always feel appreciated."

Joyner-Kersee, 34, also felt appreciated here as the crowds tried to lift her to defy the hamstring injury to her right leg which she suffered earlier in the week while competing in the heptathlon. "Tonight is very special. Of all the medals I've won, the long jump gold here was the one I wanted most of all but I don't endure pain very well," she said.

As she stared down the runway one last time, Joyner-Kersee said to herself, "Forget about the leg. This is it, Jackie. This is it. All week, you've trained for this. It's not like you want it to be, but this is your last shot. So get down that runway and attack the board, or don't jump at all."

When she landed, she crawled from the pit with a look of disgust. A few seconds later, she allowed herself a grin and waved to the crowd when it was announced that she had come third. "It was definitely a medal of courage," said Bob Kersee, her husband and coach. That last excruciating jump measured 7.0m, and means that she retires with a collection of three golds, a silver and two bronzes.

Less than two months after returning to competition, the 25-year-old Ajunwa won Nigeria's first Olympic title ever. The former international footballer was banned in June 1992 after testing positive for steroids which she claims she did not know she was taking. "I never knew how it [the positive drugs test] happened," she said. "I was very sick in the training camp and started taking some medication. But I never knew something I was taking was a steroid. I never knew I was on something. After I was banned, I did not train and I got a bit fed up." She returned to training only in March last year and has spent most of her time since concentrating on sprinting.

Many officials believe four-year doping suspensions are as tough as life bans as it is so hard to return to the highest level after such a long period out of competition. However, Ajunwa disproved the theory and her performance here was even more remarkable because this was only her third long jump competition since the end of her ban.

Thoughts that the women's distance races might be totally dominated by the Chinese were in part dispelled when Wang Junxia failed to add the 10,000m gold to her win in the 5,000m. Such a double would have been unprecedented but Wang's past performances as a record-breaker had also been unprecedented. She was helped in the early stages on Friday night by her team-mates but Portugal's Fernanda Ribeiro took up the challenge and gave the Games yet another outstanding race. A sprint over the last 20 metres brought her victory in an Olympic record time of 31min 1.63sec and overcame a powerful Ethiopian challenge.

African compensation came in the 3,000m steeplechase when predictably a Kenyan won, but not Moses Kiptanui, three times world champion and the world record holder. His training partner, Joseph Keter, had been with him for most of the race but charged ahead over the last lap. Kiptanui is still searching for his first gold. He said later that he had been ill and not trained well. He was still well enough to take the silver.