Twenty years ago today, the Sydney Olympic Games enraptured the world with what is widely regarded as one of the most thrilling nights in athletics history.
‘Magic Monday’ elicits so many special memories for track and field fans: from Stacy Dragila to Michael Johnson, from Haile Gebrselassie to Paul Tergat. Rarely, if ever, has the sport experienced an evening of such rich emotions.
One week before he took to the start line for the men’s 10,000m final, Haile Gebrselassie was far from confident he could mount a successful defence of his Olympic crown.
The charismatic Ethiopian had been troubled by a long-standing inflammation in his right achilles tendon, and when he arrived in Sydney he described himself as just “75% fit”. Besides the injury concern, he also faced the formidable threat of long-term rival Paul Tergat, who was determined to halt a trend of three successive global 10,000m silver medals behind the all-conquering Gebrselassie.
“I did not expect to win the race,” Gebrselassie recalls. “The problem was that my achilles was bad – it hurt.”
Three days earlier, Gebrselassie has successfully navigated a route to the final via the heats, but on the night of the men’s 10,000m final it was impossible not to be lifted by the extraordinary atmosphere generated by the sell-out crowd.
A little under two hours before the start of the race, Gebrselassie removed himself from the warm-up track to watch the women’s 400m final from the athletes’ seating area inside the Olympic Stadium.
“That was special,” he adds. “Everybody wanted to see that race. The crowd was amazing. But the whole evening was super special; Jonathan Edwards, Michael Johnson, the American pole vaulter Stacy Dragila. People today still talk about that night of athletics. It was exceptional.”
In a race which, predictably, became a battle between Ethiopia and Kenya, five athletes were in contention at the bell, but it was the long-limbed Tergat who struck first, surging to the front with a wicked acceleration down the middle of the back straight.
Gebrselassie responded, but entering the home straight Tergat was still in pole position, holding a three-metre advantage.
“When I watch the video back of that final 100m, I still think, did I win?” says Gebrselassie. “I honestly did not know what (strength) I had in my body that day. That gold was from God.”
Read more at: World Athletics