Falling at the final hurdle by both the mighty and the humble

How the mighty have fallen. Poor Paula Radcliffe. The renowned British distance runner dropped out of the marathon (won by Japan’s Mizuki Noguchi) near the end, and five days later, from the 10,000 meters as well. She led both races early on, faded and flailed, then stopped. She owns two of the best three women’s marathon times ever, yet remains without a medal after three Olympics appearances. Alexander Popov, the Russian swimmer who tore up the freestyle sprints for more than a decade and is still world champion at 50 and 100 meters, didn’t make the final in either race in Athens. Svetlana Khorkina, who narrowly missed gold in the women’s all-around gymnastics, finished eighth and last in the women’s uneven bars final – an event she has so dominated there are moves named after her. Allen Johnson, 1996 Olympic gold medalist and still a top hurdler, ended up his first heat in Athens face down on the track in front of the final hurdle. Gail Devers of the US, now 37 and one of the greatest ever women’s hurdlers, didn’t even make it over her first hurdle in her preliminaries before bowing out as well. Marion Jones of the US, winner of five medals at Sydney, was shut out in Athens. After qualifying strongly in the long jump, she managed only fifth; within the hour, she had become part of a botched relay handover on the backstretch that disqualified the US team from the 4×100 relay. Roger Federer of Switzerland, tennis world No. 1 but fourth at Sydney, vowed but again failed to make the medals stand. So did world No. 2, Andy Roddick. Were both minds on this week’s US Open? The US men’s basketball team, unassailable all these years, lost in the semifinals – as did Lithuania. The two teams, everyone’s bet to replay their nail-biting final at Sydney, met for the bronze, which the US won. With a prior Olympic record of 109-2, Team USA lost more games here (three) than in all their previous Games combined. Blinkered US basketball officials said the team selection system still worked fine. Afraid to win? Home-team pressures stimulated many Greek athletes to victory, but were harder on some. The men’s volleyballers had the US on the ropes at two sets to one and way ahead in the fourth set before folding. The women’s water polo team, a surprise finalist, had gold in their hands before losing to Italy in an overtime that shouldn’t have been. Still, it was their best-ever performance. The Greek men’s basketball team, leading Argentina, had the semifinal game in their sights and a medal on their minds before it lost. Payback of sorts had come in the diving pool, where China’s and Russia’s men’s 3m synchronized teams, leading the competition, both botched their final dives, opening the door to Greece’s Nikolaos Siranidis and Thomas Bimis, who took the country’s first gold medals of the Games.

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