Jane Saville thought she was gold medal-bound when she neared the stadium at the finish of the 20km walk at the Sydney Olympics.
Jane Saville thought she was gold medal-bound when she neared the stadium at the finish of the 20km walk at the Sydney Olympics.

Heartbreak kid: The red card that stunned Australia

Jane Saville was on the dance floor, bumping and grinding with her fellow athletes inside The Last Lap nightclub.

In the previous 24 hours she'd ridden almost every emotion imaginable on a rollercoaster that at one stage had her just 200m away from winning an Olympic gold medal.

But there was no medal around her neck as she tried to find some enjoyment after the most traumatic day of her life.

Jane Saville is distraught after being disaqualified.
Jane Saville is distraught after being disaqualified.

Then she heard her name. The band were introducing their next song and had called her out, saying: "This is for Jane Saville."

She knew the tune. Everyone did. It was the 1997 hit "Tubthumping" from British band Chumbawamba.

"I get knocked down, but I get up again. You are never gonna keep me down. I get knocked down, but I get up again …"

Twenty years on Saville is relaying the story about her dance moves from her home in Spain, which she shares with husband Matt White, a former pro cyclist and sporting director of the Mitchelton-Scott professional team, and their three children.

"It was an awesome night," she says. "And despite what happened to me, I still look at Sydney as a beautiful experience."

While Cathy Freeman lighting the Olympic flame and then sitting down on the track after winning the 400m gold medal are the two most iconic images of the Sydney Games, the anguish on Saville's face when she was disqualified in the 20km walk is a clear next.

Saville out in front during the early stages of the 20km walk in Sydney.
Saville out in front during the early stages of the 20km walk in Sydney.

She recently watched the video of it with her kids and they had plenty of questions.

"But why, mum?" was the overwhelming response.

Saville isn't bitter about what happened. She understands the vagaries of the sport - she has even been a judge herself - and knows that when you push the limit, mistakes are made.

Walkers are allowed two warnings but a third red card means disqualification, which is exactly what happened to her two main rivals late in the Sydney race.

Saville, who had come in hoping for a top-six finish because of an injury-interrupted preparation, found herself alone in the lead with only a couple of kilometres left.

"I remember a friend of mine who I grew up with was outside the parking lot just near the stadium," she said.

Saville is stunned by the decision..
Saville is stunned by the decision..

"I lifted my sunglasses up and smiled at her thinking, 'I'm going to do this'. I could hear the crowd and I was thinking, I can't believe this. This is incredible. I'm going to win this. I'm going to be like Cathy.

"I was going down the tunnel and I wasn't pushing because I knew I had a decent lead. I could see the chief judge looking at me and I was thinking, 'Oh yeah, you can look at me all you want'.

"It couldn't happen. I was thinking there is no way I could get disqualified here and then he came out and I was like, 'Holy sh.t'. I threw my hands up in the air. It was sheer shock. I was embarrassed. I was mortified."

It turned out Saville had actually been given her third strike about a kilometre beforehand, but the message had taken time to be relayed to the chief judge, Italian Lamberto Vacchi, who was waiting to DQ the race leader at the end of the tunnel.

Even in the immediate aftermath of being so close to an Olympic gold medal, Saville still found positives including the fact that at least a lot more people were talking about race walking because of what happened.

The hurt took a while to subside and the healing wasn't helped by another disqualification at the next year's national championship and again at the 2001 world championships, inside the 10km mark.

The moment that ended Saville’s gold medal chances.
The moment that ended Saville’s gold medal chances.

"The year after the Sydney Olympics was a disaster and after the world champs in Edmonton I was like, 'I don't think I want to do this'," she said.

In the end she persisted and listened to her favourite song, rode out the knocks and got up again.

It was a wise decision. Saville finally secured that magical Olympic medal three years later in Athens - albeit bronze instead of gold.

Originally published as Heartbreak kid: The red card that stunned Australia

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