Best of times, worst of times


OUT of a cast of 12,000 of the world's top athletes, it is neither chauvinistic nor inappropriate to cite the experiences of two Irish women as embodying the drama of the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta.

From different backgrounds and vastly different perspectives, Michelle Smith and Sonia O'Sullivan made their play for sporting immortality.

O'Sullivan, Europe's top woman athlete since 1993 and the best in the world in the year preceding the Games, could scarcely fail to win either, or both, the 1,500 metres or 5,000 metres titles.

Smith, a bit player in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and in Barcelona four years later, could, in the estimation of even the most charitable, scarcely succeed in the frenzied competition of the swimming championships.

Now, at a remove of some six months, the stark reversal of those roles in days which filled the country first with elation and then anguish is still a subject of intense debate.

The enormity of Smith's achievement in winning the 200m and 400m individual medleys, the 400m freestyle and supplementing it with a bronze medal in the 200m butterfly was such that many have found it a cause for scepticism.

Was it a product of a new training programme devised by her husband-coach, Erik de Bruin, or was there a darker side to the fairytale?

The second supposition, orchestrated by vested American interests and later to gain currency in sections of the Irish media, flies in the face of the best medical opinion available to the world's biggest sporting organisation, the International Olympic Committee.

Smith, like every other athlete, was subject to routine drug testing. And in the intervening period not one jot of evidence, not one informed voice has emerged to substantiate the allegations of cheating.

To disregard this fact is not merely to do a grave injustice to the Irish swimmer but to impugn the integrity of every medallist in the Games, every athlete who produced career-best figures in the course of the festival.

in the absence of evidence to the contrary, let us savour Smith's extravaganza for what it was and admire the talent and the dedication which made it possible.

Of Sonia O'Sullivan, her failure to see out the 5,000m final and her subsequent collapse in the 1,500m was one of the biggest shocks of the track and field programme. As in the case of Smith, it was followed by recrimination, fuelled in this instance by an apparent breakdown in communication in monitoring the medical condition which was advanced as the primary cause of her failure.

O'Sullivan, one of the most experienced athletes on the international circuit, deliberately distanced herself from the back-up facilities available in the Olympic village by choosing to live in private accommodation in the city.

Many other star athletes took the same option, but in her case the wage.5 of that decision were to prove ruinous.

O'Sullivan will be 30 when Sydney plays host to the Games. It is asking much of an athlete, even an exceptional one to stay at the top for that length of time but surely, she deserves a better epitaph than Atlanta provided.

Elsewhere, the tales of joy and woe were emotive enough to move even the most cynical. Muhammad Ali lit not only the flame in the stadium but later our sense of nostalgia when he was presented with a gold medal to replace the one he threw into the Ohio river in protest at the racism to which he returned after he had won the light heavyweight championship in Rome in 1960.

Not even Ali in all his excesses, could script an Olympic story to compare with that of Carl Lewis after he had reached back into the distant past and pulled out one last stunning performance in the long jump.

Lewis hadn't beaten his compatriot Mike Powell for four years, had struggled to make the American team and, midway through the competition, was toiling to qualify for the last three jumps. But when destiny beckoned, the finest Olympian of them all was supple enough and ambitious enough to break the sand at 8.50 metres, 21 centimetres ahead of the Jamaican, James Beckford, in second place.

The 100 metres, once the exclusive preserve of the Santa Monica athlete, went to Canada's Donovan Bailey after Britain's Linford Christie had been disqualified for two false starts. After a poor start, Bailey hurtled across the line in 9.84 seconds, a world record.

There was more to come as Michael Johnson, cheated by fate at Barcelona, eyed an historic 200m and 400m double. Nobody seriously doubted Johnson's ability to run down his 400m rivals. And even after Frankie Fredericks' early season heroics, the 200m, too, looked well within his compass.

Less predictable was the finest performance of running a bend anyone had seen as the Texan, in gold laminated shoes, kept his rhythm and composure to set a world record of 19.32 seconds.

Further down the programme, Africa ruled with as much authority as ever. Helped by El Gerrouj's misfortune, Nourredine Morceli won the 1,500m, Venuste Nyongabo saw off all challengers in the 5,000m and at the end of a fascinating 10,000m Ethiopia's Halle Gebrselassi had prevailed against Kenya's Paul Tergat.

The women's equivalent provided drama of equal grandeur as Fernanda Ribeiro reined in China's Wang Junxia, Russia's Svetlana Masterkova usurped Sonia O'Sullivan's domain with a 800m and 1,500m double and Merlene Ottey was again relegated to silver as Marie Jose Perec added the 200m championship to her earlier success over 400 metres.

There were, of course, other achievements to fire the imagination and none more so than Nigeria's win in the football championship.

If the Atlanta Games were, at times, big on fun, there was tragedy, too, when two people were killed by the bomb explosion in Centennial Park.