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Swiss celebrate successes as Sydney Olympics close

The sun sets on the Sydney Games

(Keystone)

IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch has officially closed the Sydney Olympics, describing them as "the best Games ever." As fireworks erupted into the sky, Switzerland celebrated its greatest medal haul in 48 years.

The Swiss tally of nine medals (one gold, six silver and two bronze) has not been bettered since the Helsinki Games of 1952.

On the down side it could be argued that the quality of the Swiss medals is less impressive than their quantity. Four years ago in Atlanta the country struck gold on no less than four occasions.

But while Brigitte McMahon's victory in the women's triathlon was clearly the highlight of Switzerland's campaign, the Swiss delegation says it is more than happy with the overall performance of its athletes.

"The team's results have earned us a great deal of recognition here in Australia," head of the Swiss mission Hansjörg Wirz told swissinfo. Wirz admitted that the country's position in the international medal table had suffered because of the relative lack of gold medals, but argued that other values had to be considered too.

"If you make an international comparison then it doesn't look that good, because nowadays the medal table is based first of all on the number of golds that are won."

"But there's a very small difference between gold and bronze," he continued. "And that's why we're happy with our results. We are also looking at other factors - places in the top eight are very important as well. And such considerations give a very different picture."

Looking further down the field, Wirz also pointed out that more than half of the 102 Swiss athletes competing in Sydney had finished in the top 12 of their disciplines.

If there is any sense of disappointment in the country's inability to win a second gold medal, the cause lies perhaps in the dramatic fashion in which the first gold was won.

On the very first day of the Games while most of Switzerland was still fast asleep, Brigitte McMahon won the women's triathlon. The explosive start to the Games was further magnified by the performance of Magali Messmer who crossed the finish line seconds later to take the bronze.

The success of the two Swiss women was an unexpected one, coming at the expense of the Australian favourites. With Switzerland making its best ever start to any Olympic Games expectations had suddenly rocketed.

The next few days did little to dampen those expectations. Swiss fencer Gianna Hablützel-Bürki took a surprise silver in the women's individual épée tournament on the second day of the Games, before winning another silver in the team event alongside Diana Romagnoli and 15-year-old Sophie Lamon.

Perhaps the greatest shock of them all was the silver medal won by Michel Ansermet in the men's rapid-fire pistol event. The 35-year-old business advisor from Obwalden had only made it to Sydney thanks to a wild card entry, after a number of countries failed to fill their allocated places.

But as the first week of the Games came to a close, the Swiss were to be reminded that sporting surprises can also be of the unwanted kind.

Flavia Rigamonti told journalists she was happy to have swum well to take fourth place in the 800 metres, and rower Xeno Müller was delighted to have won silver in the men's single sculls after thinking he had lost out on even the bronze. But, through no fault of their own, both had come to Sydney with hopes high that they would do even better.

On the second weekend of the Games, mountain biker Barbara Blatter won Switzerland's fifth silver medal, but it was her inability to hold on for the gold after leading for more than half of the race that captured the public imagination.

Twenty-four hours later Swiss sports fans had to relive the agony of gold slipping away, and again the disappointment came in the mountain biking. Atlanta silver medallist Thomas Frischknecht appeared to be set to go one better in Sydney, again building up a huge lead and even waving to the cameras on his way to what seemed like a comfortable win.

Like Blatter though Frischknecht had mistimed his attack and was eventually forced back into sixth place. A bronze for fellow Swiss rider Christoph Sauser offered consolation but again Switzerland had been led into a premature celebration of gold.

Undoubtedly the biggest disappointment came on the athletics track, where André Bucher failed to live up to his pre-Olympic billing as Switzerland's best hope in years to win the country's first ever athletics gold medal. After jostling elbows with Italian competitor Andrea Longo, Bucher appeared to lose his rhythm, eventually finishing in fifth place.

The second week of the Games finally saw success for Switzerland when the showjumping team won silver to end a 76-year wait for an equestrian team medal. But while the showjumpers, the fencing team and Xeno Müller had been tipped to win medals, it seemed to some as if the country's stars had disappointed, only to be saved by the surprise success stories.

Hansjörg Wirz, though believes that such a portrayal overlooks the very nature of sport.

"It proves that you never have the guarantee of a medal," he told swissinfo. "If you go as a team to a competition you will get expected results and you will get surprise results. That is how sport works."

The Swiss Olympic Association will now look closely at the lessons of the last 17 days in an effort to build on the successes of Sydney and avoid repeating any mistakes. Hansjörg Wirz though insists that the former easily outweighed the latter at these Games.

"We had an excellent Games here. The spectators generated a great atmosphere. The weather was wonderful and in addition we had a Swiss team which fought very successfully on an international level. Everybody will think back on the good days we had here in Australia."

Wirz at least can look back to the Sydney Games without worrying about preparations for the 2004 Olympics. He plans to step down as head of the Swiss mission after the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in two years' time.

His successor will have the hard task of following on the heels of what have now been two generally successful Summer Games. Combining the gold rush of Atlanta with the medal mountain of Sydney will be a mighty challenge indeed. The countdown to Athens has begun.

by Mark Ledsom








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