Duels are not supposed to end this way. One of the gunslingers should have emerged from the smoke eyes narrowed blowing the cordite away from his gunbarrel. But the most extraordinary 100 metres in living memory, the race which should have established sprinting's hierarchy through to Athens in two years' time ended in victory for Kim Collins of St Kitts and Nevis and agony for the English pair of Dwain Chambers and Mark Lewis-Francis.
Lewis-Francis fell headfirst over the finishing line and lay with scarcely a movement of his strong frame until four stretcher bearers carried him off the track, his arms covering his face. Chambers, who was last of the eight finishers, at least managed to hobble over the line and straight through the interview zone and away from the insistent demands of his inquisitors. The narrative might be crucial to the controversy which will surely follow such an anti-climax.
"There was an enormous amount of pressure on them," said Jason Gardener, the only English sprinter left running flat out across the line. Gardener has struggled all championships to make an impression on the two favourites, but that would have been the last way in the world he would have imagined or wanted to have downed his English team-mates. The Bath athlete finished sixth. "I think the media tend to forget that there are a lot of great sprinters in the Commonwealth," said Gardener, an oblique criticism of the hype which fostered the most eagerly awaited 100m sprint since the retirement of Linford Christie. Not the least of the prizes at stake for the winner last night was the mantle of number one sprinter once owned by the controversial Christie. That particular inheritance will have to handed over on another day.
Lewis-Francis' injury seemed straightforward enough, though no less painful for its simplicity. Sprinters live with the nightmare of a snapped hamstring and depending on the force of the tear the 19-year-old might well have run his last race of the season. At such a young age, there would be no point in rushing back into competition. Chambers has had a history of injuries prior to major championships, but only a few days before the Commonwealth Games had been talking of the joy of arriving at a major event with all body parts in full working order. As he left the arena, his hand was clutching the back of his right knee, but later reports suggested that a calf injury first suffered in the AAAs championships two weeks ago was the most likely culprit.
Either way, the crowd were stunned into silence by the swift breakdown of both favourites. Only belatedly – and understandably – did they discard their disappointment and in keeping with the spirit of this whole meeting lavish due praise on the first athlete from the tiny Caribbean island more famous for its cricketers than its sprinters. "This will mean a lot to the country," the 26-year-old champion said.
Gardener's thoughts immediately turned to the welfare of his stricken team--mates and to the pressures which were piled on the young and inexperienced shoulders of the two protagonists. Lewis-Francis, in particular, was entering unknown territory in his first major championships, burdened not just by his own talent but by some injudicious taunting of the aggressive Chambers which proved grist to the media mill. Nothing stirs the blood as surely as a character clash settled in a straight line in under 10 seconds. But by the time the field settled on their blocks both athletes must have been mentally and physically coiled tight. The process of relaxation is not helped by the requirements of the schedule at major championships.
"It's tough," Gardener said. "There are no easy rounds. After the semi-final every one goes down there into the treatment room. You have to run three rough races and then they expect you to run under 10 seconds in the final. There was enormous pressure on both of them. I tuned in to a few television channels and they were all asking 'who's going to win, will it be Mark or Dwain' and all the papers. Believe me, we all wanted to do so well for the home crowd."
Gardener criticised the time the runners were kept in the holding area before the race, but for Chambers the chief worry is that his calf cramps seems to emerge at times of maximum pressure. "We spent an awful lot of time in the final call room and it was very authoritative," Gardener said. "It was too long." The hurt for Lewis-Francis might prove deeper. Though behind the quickfire Collins for the first quarter of the race, he was just easing into the lead when he felt the first twinge of agony from the back of his leg. Collins heard the scream.
"I don't know when it happened," Lewis-Francis said. "I felt a sharp pain in the back of my leg which felt much worse when I fell down. I knew it was bad so I stayed down. I felt I was in the lead when it happened. But I tried my best. It just didn't happen."
Neither injury, though, could detract from the performance of Kim Collins, who equalled his personal best time of 9.98 to confirm his composed form of the heats and the semi-final. "I didn't know what happened to the others, but their injuries obviously detract a little from my victory." On his left shoulder Collins carries a tattoo of his son's name, Kelly; underneath is a symbol he calls the running man. "Because I'm always running for my life."
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