U.S. track stars see gold medals slip away

Harper wins hurdles

August 19, 2008

BEIJING (AP) -- It was theirs to lose, and they did.

Sanya Richards led in the stretch but was outrun to the finish in the 400 meters, Lolo Jones clipped the ninth of 10 barriers in the 100-meter hurdles Tuesday night -- and just like that, two of America's top runners let Olympic gold medals slip away.

Richards still won bronze, but a woman who has dominated the distance -- save for the biggest races -- looked crushed during the medals ceremony. Afterward, she was sitting in a hallway beneath the Bird's Nest stands, crying into her cell phone.

In the next race, Jones was in the lead and seemed to be pulling away when she hooked her right foot on the ninth hurdle and broke her stride, falling from first to seventh. The late blunder opened the door for teammate Dawn Harper to win the U.S. track team's third gold medal of the games.


"It was like racing a car at max velocity. When you hit a curve, you either maintain control or you crash and burn," Jones said. "Today, I crashed and burned. I'm shocked and sad. But I'm happy for the girls."

Earlier, Usain Bolt of Jamaica overtook defending Olympic champion Shawn Crawford in the 200-meter semifinals, setting up his chance Wednesday night for the first Olympic 100-200 double since Carl Lewis did it in 1984.

After the 100-meter hurdle race, Harper did a victory lap carrying the American flag, while Jones kneeled on the track, her face to the ground in stunned disbelief -- a marked contrast from the starting blocks, where she could be seen mouthing "I can win this race" when she was introduced.

Instead, she'll be remembered along with Gail Devers, who was winning at the Barcelona Games in 1992 but crashed on the final hurdle and finished fifth.

"I kind of felt like she was me for a minute there," Devers said. "It's heartbreaking, because I saw her face afterward. I know the feeling. I know how she felt."

Minutes before the hurdles final, Richards was ahead in the 400, looking to write a successful closing chapter to a year of illness and setbacks, but settled for third after being beaten badly over the last 80 meters by Britain's Christine Ohuruogu and Jamaica's Shericka Williams. She told reporters her hamstring started tightening up in the last 80 meters.

"More than snakebitten," she said. "I don't want to tell you what I'm thinking right now because it's not positive. I mean, I feel so betrayed by my body once again and it's just such a tough break for me."

Richards lost most of her 2007 season to Behcet's syndrome, a rare and painful disorder that causes chronic inflammation of blood vessels throughout the body.

This month, at U.S. training camp in Dalian, China, she and coach Clyde Hart were talking about how the splotches on her legs -- a final remnant of the disease -- were fading and how she was feeling as close to 100 percent as she could, knowing the disease had not gone away.

Ohuruogu, the 2007 world champion, was recently cleared to compete in Beijing after winning an appeal against a lifetime Olympic ban for missing three doping tests in 2005 and 2006.

She won in 49.62 seconds and fashioned a comeback story of sorts.

The other gold medalist, Harper, grew up in East St. Louis, was a member of the UCLA track team and is coached by Bob Kersee, who added another Olympic champion to his long list. She grabbed the last spot on the American team at the Olympic trials by 0.007 second.

"I kept saying, 'What? What?' I was hoping no one could read my lips," Harper said of her victory lap around the track. "I couldn't believe I was holding the flag and getting a medal. It was amazing."

"This is a kid nobody knew," Kersee said. "Now she's an Olympic gold medalist. It's breathtaking."

Still, it wasn't one of the big stories being told back home in the States.

Those belonged to Richards and Jones.

Jones was the kid who lived in a church basement, worked at a hardware store and as a waitress to pay bills as an adult and was looking to cap her classic American comeback story with a gold in Beijing.

The story was going to form until she struck the ninth hurdle, then stumbled toward the finish. Her eyes opened wide when she hit that hurdle -- yes, that really happened -- and then, after she crossed the finish line, she thrust her fists to her sides, fell to the track, removed her sunglasses and glared up at the scoreboard in disbelief.

"You hit a hurdle about twice a year where it affects your race," Jones said. "It's just a shame that it happened on the biggest race of my life."

Like Harper and Ohuruogu, another of Tuesday's gold medalists easily could not have made these Olympics.

Andrey Silnov of Russia won the men's high jump -- but only got into the games based on a late decision by Russian track and field officials after he did not qualify through Olympic trials.

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