YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


U.S. Learns You Can't Win 'Em All : Band of Gold Pounded Into Medal

August 01, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — Her husband drugged her. Her own husband.

Ludmila remembers.

It was 1993. Her name was Lyudmila--the Russian spelling--Narozhilenko then. She was not a citizen of Sweden, as she is now. She was not Ludmila Engquist, the woman with the yellow ribbon in her hair who won an Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles here Wednesday night.

"You can speak Russian if you like," a man offers.

"No," she says. "My English, it is not so good, but I will do what I can."

What happened to her was like something from a John LeCarre novel. It spanned the fall of communism. It made her a woman without a country. Maintaining her innocence, Engquist endured 2 1/2 years of suspicion, suspension and exile, until one day Nikolai, the husband, stood before a Russian courtroom and confessed.

Remarried now, Ludmila kisses Johan, her agent, her husband, her coach.

"He is very, very hard as coach," she says.

"He is very, very nice as husband."

Go back all the way to 1991. She was still running for Mother Russia. The world championships were in Tokyo that year, and at the finish line, Lyudmila Narozhilenko just did edge the great American hurdler, Gail Devers.

For the young woman born in Tambovskaya Oblast, everything was changing.

First came the Soviet Union's breakup. Running for the U.S.S.R. in the Olympics was something she had yearned to do since childhood. By the parade of nations in Barcelona, however, there was no U.S.S.R. There was only something called a "Unified Team," one with no national anthem. Whenever a compatriot was victorious, a generic Olympic theme was played, an Olympic flag flown.

Lyudmila was not victorious.

A hamstring went pop during a semifinal race. When her rivals, Devers included, lined up for the gold-medal race, the Unified Team's runner's lane was vacant.

Upon returning home, things got worse.

Her relationship with Nikolai became strained. He too was coach as well as husband. And then, late in 1992, another coach, a woman, accompanied several athletes to Sweden for a meet. Customs officials at the Stockholm airport found steroid pills in the coach's handbag. Her entire party was refused admission into Sweden.

That apparently hatched Nikolai's scheme.

Lyudmila had decided to leave him. It just wasn't working out. She indicated to her husband that she wanted a divorce, shortly before a track meet in February 1993.

The drug test she took after that meet turned out positive. Nikolai Narozhilenko had mixed steroids into her protein supplements, which Lyudmila had unknowingly swallowed. That was her claim then, it's her claim now.

Nobody swallowed it.

A four-year ban from the International Amateur Athletic Federation soon followed. The case of Lyudmila Narozhilenko was, in her homeland, not unlike that of Butch Reynolds, the record-breaking American runner who claimed he had been wrongly accused.

To have everyone look askance at her, be suspicious, that was hard to take. Something similar had happened at these very Olympics to an Irish swimmer, who had never even tested positive.

"I train," Engquist says. "I never train so hard."

She is 32 now, and married to a Swede who started out as her agent.

A man asks, "How did you meet?"

"I can answer that," Johan Engquist says. "At first I was her agent, but soon it was clear that something more was between us."

Ludmila laughs, looks him in the eye and says, "I say, it is different now. He says, 'How is that?' And I say, 'You must not pay my money to no one else. Money is for family now.' "

Late last December, a guilty plea by Nikolai was all the grounds she needed for IAAF reinstatement. She had a new name, and on June 19 of this year, she got a new passport.

"The only question then was an OK from the Russians," Johan says. "They had final say for Ludmila to run for Sweden.

"The OK came on the fifth of July."

That was four weeks ago. The woman without a country got one.

Her lane wasn't vacant Wednesday night. To her left ran Brigita Bukovec, her very good friend from Slovenia. Two lanes to her right ran Devers, already the champion of the 100-meter dash.

The race was so close, no one knew who won.

Ludmila asked Brigita, in English.

"I think you did," Brigita said.

At 32, with a ring on every finger and a ponytail tied with a bow, Ludmila Engquist slipped into a gray shirt promoting Stockholm's bid for the 2004 Olympics. Inside a pen where athletes can cool off after a race, TV cameramen from Sweden called out to her: "Ludmila! Ludmila, over here!"

Johan rushed up and kissed her.

"Was that her husband?" a man asked a cameraman.

"I hope so," the cameraman said.

Los Angeles Times Articles