The only way Nadzeya Ostapchuk could win

BEN STANLEY
Last updated 05:00 19/08/2012
Nadzeya Ostapchuk
IAIN McGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
CAUGHT OUT: Disgraced Belarusian shot putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk.

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Ben Stanley traces the colliding worlds of Nadzeya Ostapchuk and Val Adams and pinpoints the event where the Belarusian athlete made her fateful decision to cheat.

It started in Rome. It started in front of tens of thousands of people in the Stadio Olimpico. In front of dozens of flashing photographers lenses and journalists' pens.

For Nadzeya Ostapchuk, it started with the realisation that she could not possibly beat Valerie Adams. There was no way.

Adams was just too good. The Kiwi shot-putter had just beaten Ostapchuk again at their May 31 Diamond League in Italy, throwing 21.03m to beat the Belarusian best by 50 yawning centimetres.

Fifty centimetres? Might as well have been a lifetime. Ostapchuk was aware of what she was about to miss out on.

At 31, London was going to be her last chance to really win Olympic gold, a recognition that earns athletes a US$150,000 payday in Belarus.

What could she do? The reigning Olympic champion had Ostapchuk's number, beating her in 24 straight track and field meets.

What did she do after Rome? According to Adams' coach Jean-Pierre Egger, she panicked. Certainly, she headed home and went to ground. Disappeared.

Adams meanwhile headed back to her base in Switzerland and, with Egger, went back to work training.

She was in the form of her life, with regular throws of over 21 metres in the Swiss mountain hideaway.

Ostapchuk was quiet, until she appeared again six weeks later in mid-July in a track and field meet in Minsk, the capital city of Belarus.

It was like a different woman was at the shot-putter's circle.

Ostapchuk started throwing two metres further than she had over the previous 12 months, with the majority of her throws soaring past the 21-metre mark, the largest being 21.32m.

More meets and more big throws continued: 21.39m in Grodno in Belarus. Then a massive 21.58m in Minsk just before the Olympics. That throw dwarfed Adams' personal best by a whopping 34cm.

Astute observers within the athletics world were scratching their heads. Ostapchuk? Really?

They knew the Belarusian was capable of the odd big throw, the one-off outlier, but what was this? Where did these throws come from?

A magic Belarusian measuring tape perhaps, or something else?

Adams, who had a healthy respect for her rival - her only real threat for London - was rattled. She and Egger were not sure what to make of what they were hearing.

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Just a fortnight out from London and the "Pride of South Auckland" was shaken.

Though she never admitted it publicly then, privately she was wondering how a woman whom she had consistently bettered for years had suddenly taken the lead in a one-horse race.

She steeled herself. Belarus isn't London, Adams told herself. We'll show the world at the Olympics who the real Queen of Shot Put is.

But there were two further travails ahead for Team Val. New Zealand's version of Usain Bolt, our "certain" gold, faced an uphill battle, no thanks to the very people who should have been looking after her.

First there were dramas with her clothing. Adams had been working with Athletics New Zealand since March to have custom-made competition gear for her shot at gold, but when she arrived in London, the kit was too small.

Next was her room. Adams had requested one of her own at the village - surely a reasonable request given her status within the team and medal prospects.

But when she turned up in the village, she found she had a room-mate: young 1500m runner Lucy van Dalen. Meanwhile, the likes of javelin thrower Stu Farquhar, decathlete Brent Newdick and heptathlete Sarah Cowley had rooms on their own.

OK, said Val. I'm a big girl, I can cope. Then came that start confirmation balls-up by Athletics New Zealand the day before the qualification round of throws.

If Adams had been shaken by Ostapchuk beforehand, she was spooked now. When the competition started, her worst fears were realised.

Ostapchuk heaved a 20.76 whopper. Adams immediately knew she was in trouble. She had all that day to ponder her fate. After that one heave, Ostapchuk smugly packed her kit bag and forfeited the rest of her throws, knowing she was already in that evening's final.

The final duly came and went, with Ostapchuk nailing 21.36m. A desperate Adams fought hard and proudly, throwing 20.70, 14cm more than her effort in Beijing. But all she had to show for it was silver.

A man who has seen much come and go in four decades within the world of track and field, Egger knew what had just unfolded. The self-described "old fox" wanted to say what he thought. He wanted to scream it from the rooftops of London. But he bit his lip, offering silence as an answer when asked about Ostapchuk's throws.

Ostapchuk had her moment on the podium. She had beaten the unbeatable. But the world would soon hear a different story. Adams was back in Switzerland when the news broke. Sitting in her car, alone, she heard from Dave Currie: you've got the gold.

Ostapchuk had tested positive twice for metenolone. There wasn't much, but there was enough.

Nor did it seem like it was a sleek and smooth operation - no, this seemed like a crude rush job. A panic reaction possibly triggered on that night at Stadio Olimpico more than two months earlier?

Said Egger: "I am sure this is the situation. Nobody will say [it] to you. But some countries are not clean. Not only the athlete, but countries. Sports people must learn to be clean."

As for Adams, she just wanted to call her family. The ones who had travelled across the world to see her denied by a cheat.

It started in Rome. It ended in a car on the side of the road in Switzerland, and a phone call to Mangere.

- Sunday Star Times

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