Don't think the Olympics can be cruel? Just ask Richards, Jones

BEIJING -- American women were the face of heartbreak at National Stadium on Tuesday night.

Twice in the span of 20 minutes, they were flying down the straightaway with a gold medal within reach. Two strong favorites were close enough to feel it. Years of unstinting effort were about to pay off.

Twice they crossed the finish line beaten, shocked and devastated.

Two athletic moments of a lifetime ended in bitter tears.

First, Sanya Richards in the 400-meter dash. She was well clear of the field with a mere 80 meters to run when she suddenly lost her momentum, shortening up and finishing third. She was shaking her head in obvious dismay at the finish and complained afterward of a tweaked hamstring.

Richards was the saddest bronze medalist in Beijing, describing herself as "more than snakebit."

"I don't even want to tell you what I'm thinking right now because it's not positive," she said. "I feel so betrayed right now by my body. It's so discouraging."

Then, Lolo Jones in the 100-meter hurdles. Jones, the dominant hurdler in the world, was four-fifths of the way to the finish line and well ahead when she clobbered the ninth of 10 hurdles, staggered through the rest of the race and finished seventh.

Jones collapsed to the track, curling into a bereaved ball for what seemed like an eternity. She lifted her head and looked at the scoreboard through teary eyes, then pounded the track with her fist and crawled forward, then curled up and cried some more.

"About twice a year, you hit a hurdle and it affects your race," Jones said. "Unfortunately, it was the biggest race of my life."

These are the flip-side faces of the Olympics. Dreams come true for some, and we see their joy often -- at the finish line and on the medals podium. But dreams shatter for others.

They shattered in duplicate here, in stunning succession.

Richards had fought so hard to put herself back in position to win a gold medal. In 2007, she endured an immune-system disease called Behcet's, which left her with lesions on her body and ulcers in her mouth. For a period of time, she lived on little more than chicken broth.

After seeing a specialist, she got the disease under control heading into 2008, when she re-established herself as the dominant quarter-miler in the world. The fiancée of New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross was the fastest qualifier in the semifinals and exploded through the first 80 percent of the race.

Blasting into the straight, Richards was so far in front that the race appeared over. There seemed to be no way to catch her.

"I knew that gold was mine," she said. "I was already feeling a bit elated coming off the turn."

Then, she says, she felt a twinge in her right hamstring. The finish line beckoned, but her stride shortened. Christine Ohuruogu of Great Britain and Shericka Williams of Jamaica sailed by.

"I was totally out of control on the straightaway," Richards said. "I was all over the lane."

Richards barely held on for third, her dismay evident at the finish. After the medal ceremony, she glumly shared her feelings with the media before walking off in tears.

"The thought of waiting another four years is really too much," the 23-year-old University of Texas graduate said. "I have a strong faith. Everything happens for a reason, but I don't know what lesson I have left to learn."

Not long after, Jones was immersed in her own struggle to accept the cruelty of Olympic fate.

She'd posted the fastest time in the world in 2008 in the semifinals, recording a personal-best 12.43 seconds. She appeared to be in a different class from her competition, needing only a clean trip over 10 hurdles to win gold.

Jones had been tripped up by a hurdle in the 2004 Olympic trials, falling after hitting a late hurdle in the preliminaries. She entered an emotional and financial dark period after that, losing sponsorship and briefly losing motivation. She worked two jobs to pay the bills and ran the air conditioning in her Baton Rouge, La., apartment only when absolutely necessary.

But Jones got her career back on track, signed a sponsorship deal with Asics and rose to the top of her discipline. She was dominant at the U.S. trials in Oregon and again here.

And she was dominant for the first 80 meters Tuesday night, moving well clear of field. Then her speed got the best of her and she hammered the penultimate hurdle with her leading foot.

"It's like driving a car at maximum velocity and coming to a curve," she said. "You can either maintain control or crash and burn. Today, I crashed and burned.

"It's the hurdles. If you can't finish all 10, you can't be a champion."

Jones regrouped and cleared the 10th hurdle, but was clearly out of the race and visibly distressed by the time she hit the finish line. Fellow American Dawn Harper was the gold medalist, in a time more than a tenth slower than Jones' semifinal clocking.

Harper set off in a delirious victory lap and never bothered to look back at Jones, stricken on the track. Neither did the surprise silver and bronze medalists, Australian Sally McLellan and Canadian Priscilla Lopes-Schleip. American fourth-place finisher Damu Cherry placed her hands sympathetically on Jones' shoulders as she sat on her knees and cried.

"Today's hard, tomorrow's going to be harder," Jones said. "But what can you do but try again?

"It's the hurdles. We're supposed to be the toughest ones. So I'm going to be tough and try again."

As Jones was making her way through the mixed zone, she briefly cut her eyes to the flat-screen TV to her right. Then she looked away.

There, on the screen, was Harper preparing to accept the gold medal Jones knew belonged to her.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.