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Her Olympic Experience Is Sweet but Too Short

SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | TAEKWONDO

September 28, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Fairy tales bring happy endings.

It's such a drag when real life intrudes.

Kay Poe, 18, of Houston got to compete at the Olympic Games in taekwondo only because her best friend, 20-year-old Esther Kim, had forfeited to her in the U.S. trials last spring. Kim's extraordinary act of sportsmanship was prompted both by their special bond and the feeling it wouldn't be fair to fight an injured pal--Poe had suffered a dislocated knee shortly before they were due to meet in the trial finals.

Sound again, Poe came to the Sydney Games acclaimed as the world's No. 1 flyweight. But in her first match Wednesday, she lost, 4-3, to Denmark's Hanne Hoegh Poulsen.

That fast, she was out of the running for the gold medal.

Later in the day, without getting the chance to compete again, Poe was eliminated from the tournament. Poulsen lost in the semifinal round, which, under taekwondo's complicated draw, eliminated Poe from the loser's bracket--and a chance to at least try for bronze.

"I lost," Poe said. "It happens to the best of athletes."

She lost after leading, 3-1, after two rounds of a three-round bout. Poe allowed Poulsen four points in the third period. A referee's penalty erased one of the points, making the final score 4-3.

Taekwondo is one of the martial arts, akin to karate but with an emphasis on kicks instead of punches. It is making its debut as a medal sport at the Sydney Games.

"I really was just trying to play it safe," Poe said. "That's not my game."

The outcome at Sydney Sports Center spoiled the made-for-Hollywood ending that so many Olympic officials had hoped for after Kim's gracious gesture.

When he heard of what Kim had done at the U.S. trials in May, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch offered Kim and her father--Jin Won Kim, who coaches both women--an all-expenses-paid trip to Sydney. They have been here for nearly two weeks.

Samaranch, meantime, made plans to preside over the medal ceremony in Poe's class. On Wednesday night, he presented the gold to Lauren Burns of Australia, who defeated Urbia Melendez Rodriguez of Cuba. Chi Shu-Ju of Taiwan took bronze.

Kim said she felt "a little guilty" about Poe's performance. "Maybe it was my fault," she said. "A lot of media attention was because of me."

Poe, however, said the pre-Games build-up didn't affect her performance. Their story of friendship and sportsmanship was chronicled in virtually every major U.S. newspaper, even featured on Oprah Winfrey's talk show.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has received at least four inquires from movie companies about the rights to the story, and two book inquiries, spokesman Cecil Bleiker said.

"I came out here to fight," Poe said. "I tried to play a little safer than I normally do and then it ended up biting me in the butt."

Kim was on hand, of course, to watch what turned out to be Poe's only bout in the Olympic Games. After it ended, the two young women sought out each other.

"We really didn't say much of anything," Poe said. "We just cried."

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