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Joyner-Kersee's Beginning Turns Into a Sad Ending

Heptathlon: Longtime great drops out after first event because of an injury in her final Olympics.


ATLANTA — Jackie Joyner-Kersee was long gone by then, having limped through the rain and the mixed zone with her head down and her lips pursed, stopping for nothing or no one on her way to a waiting getaway car.

The Olympic Stadium scoreboard would have to provide official comment, then, and the last line of the women's heptathlon Group A high-jump results said all that was needed:


Did not start.

As in would not finish.

As in would not take her quest for a third consecutive Olympic heptathlon gold medal past the first event.

It was a coach's decision, a most difficult one, since the order to abandon the 1996 Olympic heptathlon after the 100-meter hurdles had to come from Bobby Kersee, to whom Joyner-Kersee happens to be married.

Joyner-Kersee began the morning with her right thigh camouflaged by a tight beige wrap, the best present-day medical science could offer the hamstring she strained during last month's U.S. trials.

The wrap was supposed to provide safe passage for Joyner-Kersee through four events Saturday, but it surrendered the mission after the first 90 meters.

Joyner-Kersee cleared her final hurdle with a grimace and a hobbled jog to the finish. She still won her heat with a time of 13.24, second overall to Germany's Mona Steigauf (13.22), but something obviously was wrong with the world's greatest heptathlete, even if she refused to admit it.

The last hurdle had aggravated the hamstring. Kersee feared the worst right away, and became convinced after he watched his wife try to limber up for her second event, the high jump, during a lengthy rain delay.

After a heated exchange near the high-jump landing pit, Kersee, against his wife's protestations, withdrew her from the competition.

"It was very hard to do," Kersee said later. "That's why I came out and got her. There was no way she was going to quit in the Olympics.

"I'm glad this was the one time in my life that I was her husband and not her coach. I've watched her for 12 years go through pain. There was no reason for her to go through more now."

Finally, Joyner-Kersee left the track in tears, being escorted by Kersee through the stadium tunnel without stopping to talk with a mass of reporters lined up in the mixed zone.

The Olympics' most decorated heptathlon career was ending with a whimper and nothing more. Joyner-Kersee, 34, owner of 1988 and 1992 Olympic heptathlon gold medals and the six best heptathlon scores in history, was retiring after one event.

As Kersee tried to explain it, he was planning for Joyner-Kersee's future--next week's women's long jump competition.

"In terms of the multi-events, she's proven enough," Kersee said. "In 72 hours, she's going to be pretty much ready to go out there with a wrap and long jump. The long jump is her baby."

Joyner-Kersee holds the women's long jump world record--24 feet 7 inches--and won the Olympic gold medal in the event in 1988 and the bronze in 1992. Along with her silver in the 1984 heptathlon, she came to Atlanta with five Olympic medals, hopeful for two more.

She also holds the heptathlon world record with 7,291 points. But since turning 33, the scores and the expectations have diminished. Joyner-Kersee was only sixth in the heptathlon at the 1995 World Championships, where she also withdrew from the long jump, and finished second in last month's trials to Kelly Blair.

Again, the right hamstring was to blame, but there was no such disclaimer in Saturday's pre-meet media notes, only: "Blair won the Olympic trials--the first time JJK has finished a heptathlon and and lost to another American since 1983."

Saturday, the Olympic Stadium public address announcer broke the news to the other athletes scattered across the track with a terse, "Jackie Joyner-Kersee has withdrawn from the heptathlon because of an injury."

Reaction ranged from shock to dismay to, perhaps, relief on the part of Joyner-Kersee's chief rival in the heptathlon, Ghada Shouaa of Syria. As soon as she heard the news, Shouaa walked over to Joyner-Kersee and kissed her on both cheeks.

Grace-Ann Dinkins, a 400-meter runner from Liberia, seemed shaken. "Don't tell me that!" she exclaimed. "I think that's horrible. She's my hero."

U.S. 400-meter runner Jearl Miles said she "was in the blocks when I heard it. I was shocked and surprised. The Games won't be the same without her.

"I don't want to call her the grandmother of track and field, but for as long as I can remember, I knew of Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She's someone to look up to. I'm sorry she can't compete here."

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