Win some, Lose some
The Athens Olympics yet again brought a clutch of surprises
The 28th Olympic Games, which in August returned to its homeland in Greece, changed the face of sports in Lithuania.
Until this year, independent Lithuania did not have a twice-over Olympic champion. After Athens, it now has one in the discus thrower Virgilijus Alekna.
The country also previously did not have any silver medallists. Now Austra Skujytė holds this title in the heptathlon, and Andrejus Zadneprovskis in modern pentathlon.
The basketball team has also turned a new page in its history, although not one that the country had been expecting. Winners of bronze medals in three successive Olympic Games, this year they broke the cycle. They took fourth place.
Not in a hurry
Alekna was also a silver medallist, but only for 24 hours. By the time he came back to his homeland he had a gold.
The world’s best discus thrower did not steal it from his rivals. He acted fairly, while Robert Fazekas from Hungary, who threw the discus the farthest during the finals, did not.
The Hungarian, who had tried to avoid a doping test, was disqualified several hours before the awards ceremony, which took place the day after the competition. The falsification of a sample is treated as drug abuse. And although Fazekas is still complaining that he was unlawfully stripped of the gold, it is actually Alekna who should feel cheated.
“I was denied the opportunity to do a lap of honour round the stadium with the national flag on my shoulders,” said Alekna.
It was Fazekas, robed in the flag of his country, who did the lap of honour immediately after the competition.
He was proclaimed Olympic champion and Olympic record holder. In the finals, his discus flew 70 metres and 93 centimetres.
The next day these same titles were awarded to Alekna. From now on, the Olympic record is 69 metres 89 centimetres. That is how far he threw the discus at his first attempt.
“It’s a normal victory. He broke the rules, just like stepping on the line or sending the discus into the net,” Alekna said before the awards ceremony.
“We expected this,” said Eugenijus Burokas, secretary general of the Lithuanian Athletics Federation. “The fact that Fazekas was not clean was an open secret.”
While waiting for the results of the doping test, the Lithuanians didn’t even put on a hero’s welcome for Alekna, who returned to the Olympic Village after the competition long after midnight. The celebrations took place after the awards, so that they toasted the gold.
The shine of a gold medal at least in part compensates for the long hours the athlete spends away from his wife Kristina and his sons Martynas, four, and Mykolas, two. The gold is a symbol not only of victory, but of Virgilijus himself. His country expects no other colour of him.
“I’m used to it,” said Alekna in a quiet voice when asked yet again if it hadn’t been a foregone conclusion.
A gold was forecast for him before the Sydney Olympics in 2000. And he won it. Before the World Athletics Championships in 2003, everybody believed that his hour had come. And they were right. For the first time he won the gold that he had aimed for more than once.
Tears of joy
Austra Skujytė’s heart and voice were trembling in Athens while she dialled, with shaking fingers, the telephone number of her parents in Biržai in the north of Lithuania.
When her mother answered, tears started streaming down her cheeks.
“Mum! Did you see it? I can’t believe it. I’m crying.”
Several minutes had passed since the last event, the finals in the 800 metres, while the final line-up for the heptathlon was being worked out. The time was not enough for Skujytė to get used to the idea that she had achieved what few had expected of her.
But the announcement was made. The gold went to Carolina Kluft from Sweden, the silver to Skujytė, and the bronze to Kelly Sotherton of Great Britain.
Her path towards the silver had started badly. After the hurdles race and the high jump, she was 21st out of 34 athletes in overall scoring.
The last event on the first day of the competition was the shot put, in which she achieved the best result and jumped to third position.
The second day started with the 200-metres sprint, after which she slipped down to fifth overall position.
The long jump put her in third overall position; and the javelin up to second.
She ran the 800 metres in two minutes and 15.92 seconds. It was a personal record, made her 14th in the event, and won her the silver medal.
With 6,435 points in the final scoring, this was a personal record too.
“The last time I cried with joy was in Hungary this year, when I won the bronze at the World Indoor Championships. But it is not the same here. This is the Olympics, a different level. There were more participants, too.”
She admitted that she had only occasionally dreamed of winning an Olympic silver, and had hardly believed she might become an Olympic medallist at all.
“It was immensely hard work. It took faith. And luck, which does not depend on you,” said Austra, who always carries a copy of the Bible with her wherever she goes.
Four years ago, Skujytė came 12th in the Sydney Olympics. For her achievement she is also grateful to America. Her present coach, Cliff Rovelto, noticed the young athlete in Sydney and contacted her. Austra went to the USA, graduated from Kansas State University last year, and has a BA in kinesiotherapy.
She carried on with her training independently and helped to train athletes at Kansas State University. When asked where her home was, she once quickly replied: “I go to my home in America, and home to Lithuania.”
When she recalls the beginning of her career, she says that after training in her home town, in a junior championships, she was second in the long jump and third in the shot put.
“Now just compare: shot put and long jump. Two totally different events. They tried to get me into discus throwing, but I didn’t like it. My coach and I decided I should take up round events.”
A medal is a present
“When you have an Olympic medal in your pocket, what better present can you expect?” laughed Andrejus Zadneprovskis. Just after the Athens Olympics, on 31 August, the silver medallist in modern pentathlon celebrated his 30th birthday.
Having won second place in the World Cup finals after the Olympics, Zadneprovskis is happy that the main hurdles of the season are already behind him. Due to the constant trips to competitions and training camps, he is away from home for 150 days a year, and he is unhappy that he is almost deprived of the opportunity to see his two-year-old daughter Anastasija growing up.
“The beginning was not too successful,” says the most titled Lithuanian pentathlete when he remembers Athens.
“But later I fought for each point, and gradually got better. The final result was fantastic.”
For a long time to come he will remember the number 5,428, which put him in second place.
“Although the results of the first event, the shooting, were rather poor, I believed in myself from the very first shot. I knew I could do better. I trained hard to prepare for the Olympic games, and all the work couldn’t be wasted. The pentathlon does not end with shooting.
“After my victory at the World Championships this year, many said that it was not possible to win at the Olympics, too. But I won the silver in Athens.”
Zadneprovskis would probably not hesitate to give part of his medal to Edvinas Krungolcas, who recently won the World Cup. At the Olympics, Krungolcas sacrificed the opportunity to come in the top ten and remained last but one (31st) in order to help his teammate, who was so much closer to the top.
The gold went to Andrei Moiseev from Russia (5,480 points), and the bronze to Libor Capalini (5,392 points) from the Czech Republic.
Moiseev, who after four events had almost secured the title of champion, was the first to appear on the track in the last event, the three-kilometre run. Zadneprovskis and Capalini set off together, after the leader had already spent 33 seconds on the track.
Krungolcas was the 13th on to the track; he had to wait for one minute and five seconds at the start. Soon he stopped and waited for Zadneprovskis, who had already done the first round, in order to help him in his struggle against the Czech.
“This tactic was a special safeguard, in case things went wrong,” says Zadneprovskis. “Then Edvinas could have helped me in the last few metres. It wasn’t necessary, because I was strong enough, but I’m grateful to my teammate for his sacrifice.”
The two Lithuanian athletes and Capalini soon left all their rivals behind, with the exception of the winner-to-be. When there were only a few hundred metres left to the finish, and Moiseev had already stopped running, Zadneprovskis leapt ahead, and, with his arms up, crossed the finishing line triumphally.
The International Olympic Committee is considering taking the modern pentathlon off the list of Olympic sports. If it takes this decision, Zadneprovskis will be very hurt.
“When the talk started, I thought of young athletes. What will they do? I was sad, too. I have given so many years to the modern pentathlon, and at the end of my sporting career it might no longer be an Olympic sport.”
According to him, the Olympics is the only chance for the modern pentathlon’s survival. A poor but expensive sport depends on the financing from Olympic events.
The modern pentathlon runs in Andrejus’ blood. His father was one of the best modern pentathletes in the former Soviet Union, a five-times Lithuanian champion. He would sometimes take his one-year-old son to training sessions.
“Running and swimming training take place five or six times a week; and riding, shooting and fencing, three times a week. All this takes considerable energy. And not only physical energy: shooting and fencing demand a very stable psychology. I think that the modern pentathlon is one of the hardest and most interesting sports.”
The small flat of the Olympic medallist, who is also a graduate of the Lithuanian Law Academy, can hardly accommodate all the awards he has won.
A disappointing result
Meanwhile, the members of the basketball team did not have to agonise over where to put their new medals, for the simple reason that they did not get any.
If in the semi-finals they had fought as they had fought for third place, they would have reached the finals. However, the level of playing that would have been sufficient to defeat the Italian team in the semi-finals was not enough for a victory against the USA.
Having won all six games, the Lithuanians lost to the Italians 91:100 in the semi-finals, and 96:104 to the Americans in the struggle for the bronze. The team, which in the last three Olympic Games had finished third, came fourth in the Athens Olympics.
“You can’t always win, and fourth place is good for a small country like ours,” said the leader of the team, Šarūnas Jasikevičius. “But to lose the last two games of the series was really annoying.”
There was not much joy in the plane that brought the team home from Athens. Some were wondering in their thoughts, and some aloud, how the country, famous for its love of basketball, would welcome the team from which everybody had expected a gold.
The faces of the players lit up when, at the welcome in Cathedral Square in Vilnius, they saw a banner with the words: “In our hearts, you are the champions!”
The two decisive matches did not detract from the truly exciting performance by the team. After defeating Angola and Puerto Rico, they won an impressive victory against the hosts, the Greek team, at 98:76.
Meanwhile, the fourth game is inscribed in golden letters in the history of Lithuanian basketball. It was its first victory over the USA, at 94:90. However, the European champions realised that it was still not yet time to celebrate. A victory against the Americans is glorious, but it was still a long way to go to the main goal.
“Nobody awards medals for this victory.”
The professional approach of Jasikevičius and the whole team overrode their emotions.
But still, emotions abounded. Any match with the US team taking part is an event. Any loss by the team is a sensation. Hundreds of Lithuanian fans in the Helliniko Arena, and hundreds of thousands in Lithuania, celebrated it.
Four years ago, at the Sidney Olympics, Jasikevičius had been the player who almost “killed” the US team in the semi-finals. He managed to outshine the NBA stars Jason Kidd and Gary Payton, missed a three-point at the last minute from a hopeless position, and the Americans were saved.
In Athens, the blow dealt by Jasikevičius on the American team was mortal. At the end of the fourth quarter, he won 12 points in succession in 90 seconds, and led the Lithuanians to a victory. In all, he scored 28 points.
“I’m a slow, fat white,” he said ironically to American journalists who were amazed that he is still not playing in the NBA.
“Yes, American basketball players are athletic and fast. But I can do other things for my team.”
Before that game, in the whole history of the Olympics, the American team had won 109 games and lost two. In Athens they lost three games.
Having secured first position in their group, the Lithuanians didn’t let up their speed. In the last match of the first stage they won against the Australians, at 100:85.
The Olympic quarterfinal is one of the hardest tests for any team. If you win, you go on to fight for a medal. If you lose, you’re left with nothing.
The team received a nice present for the quarterfinal match. The present had to be unwrapped, of course, but they did it.
Basketball experts were unanimous in saying that China was one of the best teams to confront among all the quarterfinalists. The Lithuanians confirmed this forecast, and won their sixth match in succession, at 95:75.
However, two critical matches followed, and, alas, two defeats: against Italy and against the USA, which could not bear to be humiliated twice by the same team.
Fourth place in the Olympics is good, but it was not the result expected by the players, nor by the hundreds of thousands of fans who had been spoilt by the victories.
Nobody had any doubt about it: the team was worth more. The coach, Antanas Sireika, was upset after the Olympics: “It’s sad. We broke a cycle. So far, we have always come third.
“But I can remember the figures. After big victories, our team always begins to slip, not because it starts playing worse, but because our opponents start looking at us differently.
“Last year in Sweden, at the European Championships, we somehow managed, like a dark horse that doesn’t attract too much attention. This year, we were the favourites.
“In a situation like this, a team has to be a superteam, to win the championships and then the Olympics. But whether these things had an impact on the players, only they know.
“I think that the semi-finals were fatal for our team. Although in the match for third place our boys were fighting a well-trained US team, the contest against the Italians had left its mark.
“After the last game, in the changing rooms, I told the players that I regretted that events had turned out like this. It’s really vexing that we lost, especially in the semi-finals, but I couldn’t be angry with them. I was grateful to them all.”
After the bronze match, the words of Larry Brown, the American coach, with his long experience of the NBA, came as a consolation to the team: “The game against the Lithuanians was the hardest game we have ever played.”
The different values of positions
For the basketball players, fourth place was equal to a defeat. Meanwhile, the cyclist Simona Krupeckaitė thinks that fourth place in the 500-metre track race was an extraordinary victory.
Alvydas Duonėla and Egidijus Balčiūnas, who were seventh in the 500-metre finals of the kayak doubles, were as upset as if they had come last. As world champions several times over, they had hoped for medals.
Vytautas Janušaitis, who took seventh place in the medley swimming finals, was welcomed home like a hero. So far, no swimmer from independent Lithuania has ever attained such a good result.
The rowers Kęstutis Keblys and Einaras Šiaudvytis took the last, 14th, position in Athens.
The clay pigeon shooting champion in the Sidney Olympics, Daina Gudzinevičiūtė, could hardly hold back her tears of disappointment at coming 14th in the event.
Meanwhile, the runner Živilė Balčiūnaitė, who came 14th in the marathon (42km, 195m) was as happy as if she had taken a place on the podium itself.
“I wouldn’t do it again,” she said.
Like other runners on the legendary route connecting Marathon with Athens, she had had to fight not only against the distance but also the heat.
The weightlifter Ramūnas Vyšniauskas and the boxer Jaroslavas Jakšto were both fifth in their events. But while Vyšniauskas in his weight category (under 105kg) had to beat more than ten rivals, Jakšto had only to win one fight to come fifth in his (over 91kg).
“If the basketball team had won a medal, then it would all have been very successful,” said Artūras Poviliūnas, the president of the National Olympic Committee, about the performances of 58 athletes at the Athens Olympics.
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