September 29, 2000

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Marion's leap of faith ends in pit of despair

The Rediff Team

When Marion Jones first made her dramatic announcement about going for five golds in Sydney, there must have been (we are assuming that she is human, here) one little niggle in the back of her mind -- and that niggle would have taken the shape of the long jump pit.

The two relays are not something she has any control over -- even Marion Jones can't run all four legs herself, and therefore a certain amount of trust in her team-mates was mandatory. But it was in long jump that she was most vulnerable, thanks in the main to a very poor technique.

Marion Jones In footspeed over the runway, in acceleration over the final few feet, she is unmatched -- it is when she hits the board and gets airborne that she is seen at her worst. For starters, her angle of elevation is lower than that of the best jumpers -- the names of Heike Dreschler and Jackie Joyner-Kersee come to mind -- which means a certain loss of distance right there. Further, unlike the top performers, Marion jumps with a very straight posture, without the leg extension at the end that adds valuable inches to the distance.

Marion knew that. She was aware that it could be in the sands of the long jump pit that her impossible dream could receive an impromptu burial.

"I am hoping my speed will carry me," she said, in the run up to Sydney.

In the qualifying rounds, Marion took just one jump -- a 6.78m that easily qualified for the final. Heike Drechsler of Germany led the field, with a qualifing leap of 6.84m, with Fiona May second in 6.81 and Marion in third.

IThe lineup for the finals on Friday afternoon read Heike Drechsler (Germany), Marion Jones (USA), Olga Rubleva (Russie), Dawn Burrell the younger sister of former US sprinter Leroy Burrell (USA), Elva Goulbourne (Jamaica), Lioudmila Galkina (Russia), Jackie Edwards (Bahamas), Tunde Vaszi (Hungary), Fiona May (Italy), Susan Tiedtke (Germany), Tatiana Kotova (Russia) and Olga Shekhovtsova (Ukraine).

For the record, the world record of 7.52m stands in the name of Galina Chistyakova of Russia, set way back in 1988, while America's Jackie Joyner-Kersee holds the Olympic record of 7.40m set in Seoul, also in the same year.

With the crowd divided between sentimental favourite Drechsler and Marion Jones, the American star sprinted down the runway to touch 6.68 in her preliminary jump, taking second position behind Fiona May with 6.76m. Edwards was in third place with 6.59m and Dreschler fourth in 6.48m.

Russia's Rubleva briefly took the lead with a jump of 6.79, but May responded well to the pressure to pull off a 6.82 in the second round to take back the lead. Tatiana Kotova meanwhile went 6.76, pushing Marion out of third place.

And then came the champion -- the 36-year-old Drechsler, responding brilliantly to the challenge with a 6.99m leap that would have won the perfect 10 for technical excellence. Marion Jones in her turn managed 6.92m -- and May promptly equalled her.

That was the position after three rounds -- Dreschler leading, May second (by virtue of having the better aggregate over the three preliminary jumps) and Jones third, with the top eight qualifiers getting three more jumps apiece to decide the gold medal.

It was all down to the wire, and with the crowd roaring her on, Marion gambled. Instead of concentrating on nailing good jumps, she went flat out down the runway, revving up to sprint speed in a bid to land one good, golden jump.

She took her first jump. And fouled. She took another. And fouled again.

She had only one chance left, to write herself into athletics history. You've got to wonder what she was thinking, as she stood at the head of the runway, poised for that third and final jump. Cut down speed, nail a good jump and hope she can manage a lousy 0.08m more than her best for the evening? Or fly down the track and hope that her incredible speed would propel her to gold?

She flew.

As she raced down the runway, Heike Dreschler stood a short way away, facing the other way, as if she didn't have the heart to watch. But how could she not? The German champion, thus, turned to look over her shoulder, as Marion took off.

The landing was good, the distance was good. Marion got up, brushed the sand off her long legs, turned -- and saw the red flag.

She winced. For one moment in time, her features froze into a grim mask. And then the crooked-tooth smile that, together with her undoubted athletic ability, has made her the world's highest paid salesgirl flashed again. She raised both arms above her head, and waved to a crowd that did not know whether to applaud, or commiserate.

Perhaps her smile did not have the wattage of the ones that lit up Stadium Australia after her wins in the 100 and 200m sprints -- but it was a smile.

To see a dream you've lived for two years vanish, scared away by the raised red flag of a pit official, and still to smile -- that took some doing.

But then, to be Marion Jones, to dream the impossible dream, to voice it out aloud and, in doing so, to risk the embarassment of failure, took some doing, too.

"The drive for five is not alive," she told reporters. "I didn't regret it at all, I had a shot at it and it didn't pan out. Inside I'm disappointed but she deserved the gold.

"Maybe I'll do it a little quieter next time," she said. "I know people will say 'I told you so' but I can look in the mirror and say I gave my best.

"I competed against one of the all-time greats. I can tell my grandchildren about it 30 years from now."

Meanwhile, a moment's pause to dwell on Dreschler (who took the gold with her 6.99 leap, with Fiona May taking silver with 6.92 while Marion, also 6.92, was beaten back to bronze on the basis of more fouls on the countback).

Heike Drechler Half an inch short of six feet, the Karslruhe resident is a symbol of athletic versatility. A product of the now-tarnished East German sports system, Drechsler was the youngest ever athlete to win a gold at the Worlds (1983, at age 18). Since then, she has competed, and placed in the medals, in every Worlds with the exception of the last one, in 1999, when a leg injury forced her to pull out of a projected showdown with Marion Jones.

The seeds of her fame, though, were sown two years before that, in 1981 when she set a world junior record in the heptathlon. In 1983, the year of her triumph in the Worlds, she also set the world junior long jump record -- and it is yet to be broken.

In her career, she has now won 207 of the 246 long jump competitions she entered in, and jumped over seven metres more than 400 times.

Which is not bad going for someone who at one stage also held the world 200m record, and was ranked one of the world's best sprinters in the Eighties. At the 1988 Olympics, Drechsler won bronzes in the two sprints to go with a silver in the long jump.

As age caught up with her, injuries proliferated. She missed the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with a knee injury which in fact kept her out of action for most of the season. In 1997, just as she was recovering from the knee injury, she needed surgery on the Achilles' tendons of both her legs. A year later, she stormed back to win the IAAF World Cup -- in the process becoming the only athlete to defeat Marion Jones that year. In 1999 a leg injury forced her out of the Worlds, and a much aaited showdown with Marion Jones.

All of which formed the prelude to Sydney 2000 -- the crowning glory of an extraordinary athlete's career.

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