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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Last Jump Is Really Last Jump

Track and field: Joyner-Kersee finishes her career with leap of 22-11 3/4, giving her the bronze. Nigerian wins gold.

August 03, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — An era is ending in American track and field, an era when U.S. athletes were expected to win with ease and style. Winning was taken for granted. So were the athletes.

The figurative passing of Carl Lewis is one reminder of those glory days. The end of Jackie Joyner-Kersee's long Olympic career is another.

She ended it in near-Lewis fashion at Centennial Olympic Stadium on Friday night, leaping from sixth place to third on her last attempt in the long jump, and winning her last Olympic medal.

Joyner-Kersee, world-record holder in the heptathlon, has won six Olympic medals. Only two other women have done more in track and field.

She leaves the Olympic stage injured, not at full strength. She was not expected to do much more than grace us once again with her presence.

She did more than that Friday. The four-time Olympian showed why she has, for years, been called the greatest female athlete in the world. Nursing a chronically injured right hamstring that caused her to pull out of the heptathlon, Joyner-Kersee had little speed down the runway and little lift off the takeoff board.

She was in danger of not making the finals. Joyner-Kersee was eighth after the first round, then settled into sixth until the final round. On her last attempt, she sailed 22 feet 11 3/4 inches for the bronze medal.

Chioma Ajunwa of Nigeria won the gold medal on the strength of her first jump, 23-4 1/2. World champion Fiona May of Italy won the silver with a jump of 23-0 1/2. Ajunwa became the first African woman to win a gold medal in a field event and the first Nigerian to win a gold medal in any sport.

Joyner-Kersee, 34, has won three gold medals, one silver and two bronze.

"Tonight is very special," she said. "Of all the medals I've won, this one I had to work the hardest for. This one tested me, as far as my determination and my will to want it. I really don't like pain and I was in lot of pain. I had to block that out. I'm very proud of this medal."

She was the sentimental favorite before 82,916 on a muggy night, a night when other favorites lost. Moses Kiptanui of Kenya, the world-record holder and three-time world champion in the 3,000-meter steeplechase was beaten by teammate Joseph Keter.

The event long has been dominated by Kenyans. Kenya won the steeplechase in 1968 and 1972, boycotted the Games of 1976 and 1980, then won again in 1984 and 1988. In Barcelona in 1992, Kenya swept the medals.

So, it's no surprise that a Kenyan won. But which Kenyan?

Three Kenyans took the lead at the start but Matthew Birir dropped off the pace into fourth, being replaced by eventual silver medalist Alessandro Lambruschini of Italy.

Keter and Kiptanui ran together until Keter sprinted ahead on the home stretch. The winning time was 8 minutes 7.12 seconds.

The women's 10,000 meters provided the night's other upset. World-record holder Wang Junxia, who had already won the 5,000 here, was overhauled by Fernanda Ribeiro of Portugal in the final 50 meters. Wang had the lead but unwisely ran in Lane 2, giving Ribeiro room to pass on the inside. Ribeiro's time of 31:01.63 was an Olympic record.

Jean Galfione of France won the pole vault and broke the Olympic record at 19-5. Silver medalist Igor Trandenkov of Russia and bronze medalist Andrei Tivontchik of Germany both also cleared 19-5. The winner was determined by who had fewer misses.

The U.S. easily qualified in all four relays, the finals to be held tonight.

The long jump offered drama in a heavy dose. May was the favorite and Ajunwa a total surprise. The Nigerian was suspended from track from 1992 until this year after testing positive for steroids. A versatile athlete, she was a member of Nigeria's national soccer team that played in the first women's World Cup in 1991.

Ajunwa said she didn't train during her suspension and was trying to make the Olympic team solely as a sprinter until she jumped 20 feet at her country's Olympic trials.

Joyner-Kersee was applauded warmly by the crowd at each opportunity. When the competitors were introduced and Joyner-Kersee's resume was read, the cheers began to build even before all her achievements had been cited. She laughed and apologized to the other jumpers for the fuss.

She only consented to put herself through four years of training because the Games are in the United States and Joyner-Kersee is a proud American. And a special one.

She has found a way to compete against but respect her competitors. Her great rival, Heike Drechsler of Germany, watched Joyner-Kersee warily for several years before the American's good nature and kindness won her over. They now are fast friends.

Her legacy in the sport has much to do with determination and performing well under duress.

"Before my final attempt, I said to myself, 'I don't know what I'm doing wrong,' but I knew there was more there," she said. "I told myself to forget about the leg. If it was going to pull, it was going to pull."

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