LONDON – When American Morgan Uceny went down, she did not get up.
Not until after the race was over and her heart was shattered.
The rest of the finalists in the women's 1,500 meters completed the race. Still, Uceny was curled up on the track in grief, maybe 20 meters past the finish line, where she had been for a minute or more. Nobody came to her side. Nobody helped her up. The other women jogged around her as if she were roadkill, someone to be avoided rather than consoled.
Finally, Uceny forced herself to her feet, still sobbing. She held her left hand over her face, then both hands. She was the saddest sight of the Olympics for American track fans.
A minute earlier, before the dejection, there had been disbelief and rage. If you're old enough to remember Mary Decker's anguish after tangling with the bare feet of Zola Budd and falling in the 3,000 meters in 1984, you have seen this before. And you know it isn't pretty.
The right foot of Russian Tatyana Tomashova appeared to clip the left knee of Uceny, sending the American sprawling to the ground with less than 400 meters to go.
"I heard a big splat," U.S. teammate Shannon Rowbury said. "I think I could tell it was Morgan."
It was Morgan, and her reaction was visceral – a two-hand slap of the track surface. Then, as the reality sank in, another two-hand slap, harder this time. And another, her ponytail flying up behind her prone body.
Well-positioned to win the first American women's medal ever in the 1,500, Morgan Uceny got nothing. Nothing but scrapes, bruises, and a broken dream.
"Horrifying," Rowbury said. "My heart goes out to her. If you lose a race, it's supposed to be because you didn't have it, not because you fell."
It's bad enough that this happened in the last lap of the final of the Olympics. It's doubly cruel when you factor in that Uceny also fell in the 1,500 final at the world championships last year.
No wonder she was inconsolable on the track Friday night – not that anyone tried to console her. Having that happen has to be a runner's worst nightmare, and here it was happening again in the biggest meet of the 27-year-old's life.
This time, a slow pace bogged down the race, bunching the runners into a contentious pack. David Woods of the Indianapolis Star, who knows track, tweeted after one lap, "This could be a mess."
It was a mess, all right. And Uceny was the victim.
Uceny left the stadium without speaking to NBC or other media outlets. The moment was too raw, the outcome too cruel. Whereas Decker went into the interview room after her debacle in '84 and blamed Budd – who went on to face death threats – Uceny simply said nothing to anyone.
In another Decker parallel, Uceny had risen to No. 1 in the world in the 1,500 in rankings by Track and Field News. It was the first time an American had occupied that spot since Decker in 1983.
A year after attaining that ranking, Decker had her catastrophe in Los Angeles. A year after Uceny went to No. 1, down she went on the biggest stage.
This was no Liu Xiang moment for Uceny, nothing to make anyone feel better or bring people to their feet in applause.
After Liu, the Chinese hurdling star, shockingly crashed out of his second straight Olympics in the preliminaries earlier in the week, there was an ennobling postscript to the trauma. Liu hopped on his good leg, putting no weight on the injured one, to the last hurdle. He bent down and kissed it, then hopped to the finish line. His competitors helped him off the track, and one of them raised Liu's arm in the air as a sign of respect.
Nobody did a thing for Uceny, a product of Plymouth, Ind., and a 2007 Cornell graduate. The postrace scene looked like something out of "Mean Girls."
This is the hard reality of the Olympics and sports in general: For everyone it lifts up in victory, it dashes others to defeat. For every storybook ending, there is a nightmare finish that undercuts years of work. For every thrill of victory, there is the agony of defeat
In 2012, the face of American Olympic agony is Morgan Uceny. Tripped by fate, robbed of fame, doomed to frustration. Saddest sight of the Games.
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- Mary Decker
- Morgan Uceny