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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | TRACK AND FIELD

U.S. Learns You Can't Win 'Em All

Track and field: Devers fourth in hurdles, Gray seventh in 800. Johnson advances in 200. Bubka out because of injury.

August 01, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — More countries than ever are entered in the 26th Summer Games, and Wednesday night in Centennial Olympic Stadium it appeared as if each would win a track and field medal. Actually, only 13 did. But considering that there were only 15 awarded, it would not have been inappropriate for organizers to change the musical fanfare accompanying medal ceremonies to "We Are the World."

For the first time since competition began in this sport last Friday, no U.S. athletes earned victory laps. The only medals won by the home team were Kim Batten's silver and Tonja Buford-Bailey's bronze in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles. The same countries can't dominate every night.

Neither can some athletes. Gail Devers, the 100-meter champion, did not achieve her rare double, finishing fourth in the 110 hurdles. But at least she started--and finished--her race.

That is more than can be said for the male and female track and field athletes of the year from 1995, Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie and Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan.

They were no-shows for qualifying races Wednesday. Favored to win the 10,000 and 5,000, Gebrselassie won the 10,000 Monday night but was too worn down from it to enter the 5,000. O'Sullivan dropped out late in the 5,000 final Sunday, then, claiming illness, never dropped in for the first round of the 1,500.

More stunning was the failure to arrive for the start of pole vault qualifying by Ukraine's Sergei Bubka, who excused himself because of an Achilles' tendon injury.

The most accomplished athlete in the history of his event, Bubka, 32, probably will retire with only one Olympic gold medal. The man who has set 17 outdoor world records and won five world championships did not compete in 1984 because of the boycott and failed to clear a height in 1992.

"I couldn't fight with myself," he said after deciding not to vault Wednesday. "It is, for me, a big tragedy."

Among the sport's superstars, a couple of others had better days. The United States' Michael Johnson and France's Marie-Jose Perec advanced through the first two rounds of the 200 and by the end of tonight could have added gold medals in that event to ones they won Monday in the 400. Johnson would be the first man to achieve that double, Perec the second woman. The United States' Valerie Brisco did it in 1984.

Johnson is a bigger favorite than Perec.

"He's vulnerable in the 200 if he loses his shoe," said one of the leading challengers, Ato Boldon of UCLA and Trinidad & Tobago.

"I'll make sure to tie up my shoes good then," Johnson said.

As for the finals Wednesday, a world atlas was more valuable than a track and field record book. Also useful would have been a guide to citizenship rules in Scandinavian countries.

Even though she has lived in Stockholm for only three years, Russian native Ludmila Engquist won the 100-meter hurdles for Sweden after she was allowed to become a citizen in late May. Even though he has lived in Copenhagen for six years, Kenyan native Wilson Kipketer did not try to claim his rightful title in the 800 after he was denied citizenship by Denmark.

What a long, strange trip to the medal stand it has been for Engquist. She won the world championship in 1991 under the name Narozhilenko, was suspended for four years after testing positive for a steroid in 1993, was reinstated in 1995 after her jealous husband--now her former husband--admitted that he mixed in anabolic pills with her vitamins, married her Swedish agent/coach Johan and was granted citizenship six months before she was supposed to be eligible.

After those hurdles, the ones she faced here were a breeze. She won in 12.58, just ahead of Brigita Bukovec of Slovenia (12.59). France's Patricia Girard-Leno was third in 12.65, just ahead of Devers (12.66).

Thinking positively, Devers said it was a better finish for her than four years ago in Barcelona, where she appeared on her way to a gold medal before she clipped the last of 10 hurdles and stumbled across the finish line in fifth place.

"I'm fourth here and I got over all my hurdles," Devers said.

Kipketer, the 1995 world champion, is unquestionably the best of the world's half-milers, but without him in the race, the final was wide open and it went to another Scandinavian. Norway's Vebjoern Rodal won in 1:42.58. The first black South African to win a medal, Hezekiel Sepeng finished second in 1:42.74. Then came a Kenyan, Fred Onyancha in 1:42.79.

The United States' Johnny Gray believed that after finishing seventh in 1984, fifth in '88 and third in '92 that he was destined for first this time. But he returned to where he started, seventh in 1:44.21.

"I'm Johnny Gray," said the 36-year-old from Agoura. "I take a licking and keep on ticking. I'll be back."

Batten and Buford-Bailey, who both went under the world record in finishing one-two in the world championships last year, were supposed to battle again here in the intermediate hurdles. They did, for second place. Batten again came out ahead, 53.08 to 53.32.

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