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Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007

ODDS AND EVENS

CLEMENT EDGES SANCHEZ IN 400 HURDLES

Medalists look to Beijing '08


OSAKA — Politicians and athletes have more in common than many people may realize.

Ed Odeven

They don't face the ultimate test (the Olympics or election/re-election) every year, but during their "campaign" years — to keep their jobs and deliver long-winded speeches or claim global greatness in sports — they are under the public microscope.

In essence, the 2007 IAAF World Athletics Championships, which runs through Sunday in Osaka, is the warm-up trial to 2008, when the eyes of the world will be fixed on Beijing for two riveting weeks.

On Day 4 of this nine-day extravaganza at Nagai Stadium, 0.40 seconds was the difference between a gold medal and a silver medal in the men's final of the 400-meter hurdles. It was a dry run — well, not really due to the sticky conditions in Osaka — for eight athletes, beginning at 10:19 p.m., in their individual campaigns to be winners in China.

Kerron Clement of the United States won the gold in 47.61 seconds on Tuesday night. Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic left the stadium with a silver medal, finishing in 48.01.

For the two athletes with Caribbean heritage — Clement is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Sanchez's parents are from the Dominican Republic, but was born in New York — those 40 hundredths of a second produced drastically different reactions.

"I'm really thankful to come here and win a gold medal against the best, Felix Sanchez," Clement said.

"I'm still young," he added. "I'm 21. I have a few things to work on."

Such as?

"In 2005, I left Helsinki without a medal. I didn't run to the finish line," Clement admitted, speaking about his fourth-place finish at the 10th IAAF World Championships. "I learned from that experience. Today I just told myself to run through the line and that's what I did.

"I really didn't want to repeat that feeling," he said, telling the throng of reporters what was in the back of his mind for two long years whenever he stepped onto the track.

"I just stayed focus on my own lane," he added.

And he ran tremendously fast and completed his jumps over the hurdles with enough oomph to please the crowd.

"It's a tremendous feeling," the victorious Clement said as I stood a few meters away from the new world champ.

"The future is bright," he proclaimed.

Sanchez is eight years older and has already carved out his niche as one of the world's greatest big-meet performers. He picked up back-to-back golds at the 2001 and '03 World Championships. Then, in Athens, he zoomed to the finish and crossed the line ahead of the pack at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Since his remarkable effort in Athens, Sanchez has experienced the post-Olympic letdown, a condition almost as common as the common cold for hundreds of athletes.

This was underscored by his ouster from the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, when he missed the cut for the final with a time for 48.24.

"I had lost my rhythm the last couple years," Sanchez said. "I had speed in 2005, but didn't have conditioning.

The story didn't change much in '06 for the great Sanchez.

Naturally, Sanchez knows how to win, what it takes to win and the emotional exuberance that comes from winning, but as many people have stated over the years, it's harder to repeat as a champion than it is to win for the first time.

So maybe winning a silver was the best thing that could've happened to Sanchez after his long journey to Kansai.

Now he's been reminded he has what it takes to be the best, but still has room for improvement in the months to come.

"It's the best I had today," Sanchez said. "I'm happy with the silver medal."

And he should be. To be No. 2 in the world in anything is a great addition to one's resume. It's a natural starting point for any conversation, too. To wit: A man walks into a restaurant. He sits down to order a cup of coffee near Shin-Osaka Station. Nearby, a rabid sports fan spots the fellow and says, "Hey, aren't you Felix Sanchez? Didn't you win the silver medal in 2007 in Osaka?"

Sanchez shakes his head and feels proud that he's recognized for being the silver medalist.

"I'm excited," Sanchez concluded. "I feel the fire again. I gained the fire I lost after the Olympics."

When he returns to the United States, Sanchez's training, barring major injuries, will be more intense than ever.

This can mean only one thing: The heated countdown to Beijing has officially begun.



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