Johnson endures 10 events on fractured ankle for bronze

METTLE TO MEDAL

August 07, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- It ended with seven of the strongest men in the world sprawled across the track. Some wept. Others were so exhausted they simply rested their heads on the cushioned Tartan surface as the crowd roared and camera flashes popped like fireflies in the night.

But Dave Johnson of the United States would not fall. His last race, the 1,500 meters, was over, but still he limped around the track on a right ankle that was throbbing because of a stress fracture.

He stripped off his shirt and gave it to a fan. He signed autographs. And then he wrapped an American flag around his shoulders and made one last tour of a stadium atop a hill.

Johnson did not win the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1992 Summer Olympics last night. He won the bronze. Yet in defeat, he was triumphant, reminding not just himself, but the world, that the victory goes to those who endure.

"If I would have quit, there would have been a lot of kids who would think, 'That's OK to do,' " he said. "That is not what I am about."

This was not some television commercial for athletic shoes. This was the real thing, the decathlon, the 10-event test that determines the world's greatest athlete.

The title belonged to Robert Zmelik, a 23-year-old Czech with a crew cut and a friendly face, who scored 8,611 points.

Spain's Antonio Penalver, urged on by a singing, flag-waving crowd, won the silver with 8,412 points. And Johnson took the bronze with 8,309 points.

For the United States, Johnson's finish ended a night of glory. Five events, nine medals, four of them gold.

Carl Lewis, the most decorated Olympian of his generation, claimed his seventh gold medal was his most precious. He beat world record holder Mike Powell to lead an American medal sweep and win his third successive gold in the long jump.

Gwen Torrence and Mike Marsh blazed to golds in the 200-meter dashes.

And Kevin Young crashed into one last hurdle, raised his right index finger to the sky and finished the race of his career, winning the 400 intermediate hurdles in a world-record 46.78 seconds.

But it was Johnson who gave the day and the night touches of greatness and drama.

He did not quit.

The 29-year-old from Missoula, Mont., a reformed juvenile delinquent who discovered the decathlon and religion at Azusa Pacific College, was favored for the gold.

He carried that burden for nearly six weeks, ever since his rival and partner in TV advertising, Dan O'Brien, failed to clear a height in the pole vault and was eliminated at the U.S. trials in New Orleans.

But Johnson harbored a secret. He had a stress fracture in his ankle that prevented him from training the last 2 1/2 weeks.

Yet for 24 hours over two days, through searing mid-afternoon heat and nights made sultry with soft breezes off the Mediterranean Sea, Johnson ran, jumped and tossed implements in a bid for gold.

Wednesday he nearly fouled his way out of the shot put, receiving a reprieve and an extra toss that he turned into a personal best and a chance at a medal. Afterward, he called it, "the shot heard 'round the world."

But the crowd would never let him forget the added throw, whistling and jeering him every time he appeared in the competition.

"If they left me alone, then maybe I'd quit," he said. "But they're making me mad."

Yesterday morning, in a nearly empty stadium, he ran one of the worst 110-meter hurdle races of his life, finishing in 14.76 seconds. It was then, he said, that he came closest to packing his equipment bag and leaving the field of play.

"I realized, though, that I had to keep it going," he said. "I talked to my family, my friends, my coaches, and they reminded me the real purpose is not to win, but to give it all you've got."

After throwing the discus, he walked under the stands and told a cluster of reporters, "When my foot falls off, I'm going to stop."

But there would be no rest. He competed in the pole vault for nearly four hours. And then he threw the javelin, the pain cutting through his injured ankle every time he planted his foot.

And then at 5 minutes past 10 at night, with darkness dropping in, and the crowd singing for Penalver and waving striped blood-red-upon-yellow Catalonia flags, Johnson ran the 1,500.

He had no chance for the silver or the gold.

It was for the bronze. And it was for himself.

He finished in 4:36.63. And all around him were bodies scattered like logs. But Johnson walked on, clasped arms with Zmelik and Penalver, and found greatness in the night.

"It was a miracle to get through this," he said. "A miracle."

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