A Toe in the Water

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There was something odd about Michellie Jones' tears after the Australian won silver at the first Olympic triathlon. She wept not when she reviewed her courageous performance-which ended with her narrowly losing a wrenching sprint finish to Switzerland's Brigitte McMahon-but when she considered the prospects for triathlon. "I love this sport," she declared to the world's press. And no one doubted it.

For triathlon's passionate supporters, these are joyous but tense times. Years of lobbying by the International Triathlon Union and its handful of powerful friends in the Olympic movement resulted in triathlon's introduction as a medal sport in Sydney, but its place is provisional. The International Olympic Committee is expected to decide soon if triathlon will reappear in Athens four years from now, applying such criteria as crowd numbers and excitement, "universality" (number of countries represented and the spread of medals) and the fairness of the races.

Well, here's the unofficial report card-and it's covered in superlatives. Sydney- siders, high on Olympic spirit after the Sept. 15 opening ceremony, embraced triathlon with a fervor that touched the competitors. Over two warm, clear-skied mornings, some 400,000 people lined the course, with the most splendid of Sydney's landmarks as background. The women's bronze medalist, Magali Messmer, also of Switzerland, spoke English hesitantly but was lucid when describing the course: "All was beautiful." Saturday's crowd, especially the several thousand in front of the Opera House, made a din that was still ringing in Jones' ears an hour after she'd staggered across the finish line, after two hours and 51.5 km of slog (1.5 km in the 16°C water of Farm Cove; 40 km on the bike; 10 km on foot.) "I can barely find the words to describe the crowd," Jones said. "They were fabulous. Unbelievable."

So, too, were the finishes. With 2 km left, McMahon and Jones had shaken off the rest of the 48-strong field. The leggy Jones-world No. 1 and famous for her lethal finishing kick-appeared to be in control. But McMahon, mother of a three-year-old son, had prepared for precisely this scenario. "Every time I practiced sprinting, I pictured running the last kilometer to the Opera House, with Michellie or one of the other girls beside me," she said. "Today, I thought to myself, 'It has happened. Time to do what I practiced.' With 150 m to go, McMahon decisively increased her pace. Jones said she would have nightmares about the 2.03-sec. losing margin, but knew she'd done everything she could to win.

The men's race the next day ended just as dramatically, with a duel between Canada's Simon Whitfield and Germany's Stephan Vuckovic, neither of whom had been considered a contender. The elfin Whitfield, 25, recovered from a spill on his bike and "my little hissy fit" to loom within 10 m of the German just 500 m from the finish. Burly for a triathlete, Vuckovic had been running with a sprightliness that bordered on exuberance. But when he saw Whitfield, he knew the race was over. Sure enough, the Canadian ran the last 150 m as though he'd done nothing more strenuous that morning than take a shower.

The results might have disappointed the home crowds hoping for a clean sweep by the Australians, but they were good for triathlon's future. The I.O.C. was adamant new sports should not be the domain of one or two countries. Jones' compatriots Loretta Harrop and Nicole Hackett finished fifth and ninth respectively. Best of the Australian men was Miles Stewart. In contention for most of the race, he finished sixth out of 52. Craig Walter won the swim and was third when he discarded his bike, but melted on the run for a 27th placing, seven spots in front of an exhausted Peter Robertson. Still, local journalists seized on Whitfield's Down Under connection: an Australian father and a spell at Sydney's Knox Grammar School. Whitfield, as gracious a champion as these Games will produce, attributed his competitiveness to his exposure to Australian culture, adding: "I am a deeply proud Canadian, but part of my heart is here in Australia." The only complaint was from Canada's heartbroken Carol Montgomery. A pre-race favorite, she was so badly hurt in a four-bike pile-up that she didn't finish and may not be able to compete in her other event, the 10,000-m foot race. "I've never thought this was a safe course," she said. "Too narrow." An i.t.u. official was sympathetic but said, "The crash happened on one of the widest sections of the course. No one else has complained yet."

Nor are they likely to. A good report is expected from the I.O.C., boosting fans' hopes that the Olympic Games will find a permanent home for a sporting spectacle that tests its exponents like few others.