Night of the thoroughbreds

On an evening of amazing feats, an Australian hero and an American legend shone the brightest.



Gary Kamiya
September 25, 2000 9:39PM (UTC)

Cathy Freeman, the shy Aborigine runner who has been embraced by all Australia both as an athlete and a symbol of racial reconciliation, dashed to victory in the 400 meters Monday night and sent the largest crowd in Olympics history into a frenzy.

Four years after his historic double gold in the 200 and 400 in Atlanta, Michael Johnson staked his claim as one of the greatest track athletes of all time when he blasted home in the men's 400.

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Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie, the world record holder, won the 10,000 meters, beating out longtime rival Paul Tergat in one of the most exciting finishes in Olympic distance-race history.

American Stacey Dragila soared 4.6 meters to win the first-ever Olympic women's pole vault competition.

Gabriela Szabo, a diminutive blond Romanian who says Count Dracula has been unjustly maligned, drank the blood of/drove a stake through the heart of/bit the neck of/your vampire metaphor here/ her competitors in the 5,000 meters.

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And the finals of the 110 meter hurdles, the discus and the men's triple jump were contested.

Throw in some important semifinals I haven't even mentioned and what seemed like about 10 medal ceremonies, and you could say they had a little track and field last night at the old barn. No wonder there were dozens of plaintive-looking fans holding up signs saying "I need tickets" on the vast main boulevard that runs through the Olympic site.

Every day at the Olympics is a full-course meal, but this was athletic gluttony -- an all-you-can-eat sports buffet, an absolute pig-out of speed, power and endurance. In fact, it actually got ridiculous a few times. As with gymnastics, track and field events take place simultaneously, giving the whole proceedings the appearance of an enormous three-ring circus. At one point, while a crucial pole vault attempt was taking place 300 yards away on the north side of the stadium, runners in a qualifying heat for the women's 400-meter hurdles were blasting around the west side of the track and the discus finals were unfolding on the south side. Every now and then the announcer would point out something worth looking at (which frequently had something to do with an Australian athlete), but most of the time you were on your own.

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As with gymnastics, it takes practice to learn what to watch and when. If you dawdle too long scoping that toothsome Ukrainian 800-meter runner (when did female track stars, especially from Russia and Eastern Europe, suddenly all become drop-dead gorgeous? This is not the way I remember them looking at all), you may miss a crucial attempt in the men's triple jump.

Actually, I think this is why the triple jump was invented. Five hours straight of watching tense, gripping athletic showdowns is too much: From time to time you need to be able to ogle Ukrainian middle-distance runners (a pastime which also adds important spectator interest to the events by establishing a rooting criteria). Something has to give, and it might as well be the triple jump. I'm sure the triple jump is a great measure of athletic ability (although I liked it better when it was called the hop, step and jump), but let's face it, it's a little weird. It might be a useful skill if you have no boat and need to ford a 50-foot-wide river that has one or two flat rocks out in its middle, but other than that its application seems extremely limited.

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The same, alas, holds for the discus. I was heavily predisposed toward the discus, both because I'd seen the famous Greek statue and wanted to have an archaic rush and because of years of playing Frisbee, but when the chips were down, when barrel-chested men right below me were spinning around and around and letting the silver disc fly, I found myself up to my old tricks, "rooting for" Austrian pole vaulter Doris Auer.

Maybe it was just overload. The night before I'd watched the hammer throw, another event in which barrel-chested men spin around and around and let a heavy object fly, and although my appetite for demonstrations of centrifugal force is healthy, it has its limits. The hammer is actually a wilder and more addictive event: The competitors spin with such incredible speed and force that you really do get this scary feeling that someday, sometime, the 16-pound ball is going to go the wrong way, rip through the cage and take out five rows of spectators, like chained shot fired in an 18th century sea battle.

Freeman's race was the big event of the evening, of course, easily overshadowing Michael Johnson's. Among the international track fans in attendance (and there are a lot, people who can tell you runners' split times from 1999), Johnson was the superstar, and deservedly so -- there's no comparison between their achievements. But the home crowd had been waiting for this race for four years, after Freeman finished second to disgraced French kook Marie-Jose Perec in Atlanta, and her cathartic lighting of the torch had made her even more the focus of excited attention -- and the catalyst for a lot of well-meaning but perhaps sentimental expectations about "reconciliation." (As long as the government continues to deny the reality of the so-called "Stolen Generation," in which for decades Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents so as to be assimilated into white society, why would Freeman's winning a race do any more than give everybody a feel-good buzz?)

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But mostly, the crowd just wanted her to win. Australians are far more passionate about sports than they are about politics, which is another of the numerous signs of their good mental health. A lot of people on the train going to Olympic Park were carrying little Aboriginal flags, but I don't think they had much deep ideological significance: They were just go-Cathy-go emblems.

There was never much doubt in my mind that Freeman would win, especially after Perec fled. I'd watched her run several times, Sunday night racing through the rain to win in the semis, and she looked unbeatable. Lots of runners are fast, but Freeman is just beautiful to watch: Her stride is pure quicksilver. Silver 100-meter medalist Ato Bolden, who trained with Freeman, said, "I just think it will take somebody in a vehicle to beat Cathy come Sydney."

Freeman delivered. Running a commanding race from the gun, she faced down a challenge by Jamaica's Lorraine Graham and pulled away on the home stretch to win in 49.11. When she was finished running, she stayed kneeling for a long time, and it took her a while to smile. Then she finally beamed, and as the crowd of 112,524 roared she picked up both the Australian and the black, red and yellow Aboriginal flags and carried them on her victory lap around the track -- a gesture she had made before at the Commonwealth Games. The Australian Olympic Committee once threatened to strip the medals from any athlete who wore the Aboriginal flag. It seems unlikely they will do that to Freeman.

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After that orgy of emotion and affection, Johnson's race almost felt anticlimactic. The only real suspense concerned the semis the night before, when Johnson was beaten by Alvin Harrison. Was it possible that Johnson's teammate could beat him? But Johnson had appeared to slow up purposefully at the end, as if saying to Harrison, "You didn't really beat me -- I'm not even trying."

The 400 is one of the most electrifying of races to watch, because it's run almost at top speed and yet for a comparatively long way. And Johnson, with his unorthodox upright running style, makes it even more electric. He looks like he's fighting his own body as he runs: He would almost look silly, like a windup toy, except that he's going faster than anybody else. There's something viscerally satisfying, and almost a little dangerous, about watching Johnson run: He makes you feel like you've put your finger in a really cool socket.

Johnson was never challenged, his trademark gold shoes and gold chain flying, barreling out of the last turn and holding his leg-pumping form to win easily over Harrison. As soon as he crossed the line a big, country-boy grin crossed his face, the grin of someone who has achieved something that can sometimes be harder than it seems, especially when you have to wait four years to do it and then the whole thing only lasts 44 seconds: done what he's supposed to do. His flag-draped victory lap was slow and sweet, as if he was savoring every moment. As well he might: After the race, the 33-year-old said, "This is my last major competition. I was here to defend my last individual race in the Olympic Games."

The two 400s offered high drama and big names. But the best race of the evening, in fact probably one of the most exciting 10,000 meter races ever, was the showdown between old adversaries Haile Gebrselassie, from Ethiopia, and Kenya's Paul Tergat. It was a slow, tactical race until the very end, when Tergat began his kick 200 meters from the finish. Gebrselassie answered the move, but was still slightly behind Tergat as the finish line loomed. Over the last 50 meters both men just flat-out floored it, sprinting with everything they had to the finish. Gebrselassie only caught Tergat a few paces from the line and just nipped him crossing it, winning by 27:18.20 to Tergat's 27:18.29. The two men had just run six miles and the finish was much closer than the finish in the women's 100 meters.

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I haven't even gotten to the Australian women's beach volleyball duo, who I saw knock off the top-ranked Brazilian pair, amazing themselves and sending all of Rio into mourning, or the soaring feats of Stacey Dragila. More on them later.


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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