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Italian hurdler Antonella Bellutti had been prevented from making her Olympic debut in Barcelona four years earlier when a knee injury scuppered her preparations. As part of her recuperation she had taken up cycling. Such was her affinity with the sport that by the time Atlanta 1996 came around it was on wheels rather than running spikes that she lined up to compete.
In 1995, she had won her first cycling medal at the World Championships, taking silver in the pursuit behind the American Rebecca Twigg. In the run-up to the Olympic Games, she adopted the new riding position, known as “The Superman” that had thus far only been used by a handful of track cyclists, and promptly set two world records. She arrived in Atlanta to compete in the 3,000m individual pursuit brimming with confidence.
After a run of successes that extended back nearly 15 years, Twigg was the favourite, but it was Bellutti who turned out to be the star turn. She won her first race by five seconds, then overtook Australia’s Kathy Watt in her quarter-final and comfortably beat Great Britain’s Yvonne McGregor in the semi-finals. By that point, Twigg was already out of the competition, so the final pitched the Italian against another in-form rider – the experienced Marion Clignet of France.
However, momentum was firmly now on Bellutti;s side. Her sheer speed and power proved too much for Clignet. The woman who had seen her dreams of winning gold in the hurdles shattered was now an Olympic cycling champion.
She won another gold medal four years later in the women’s points race. Remarkably, the Italian then changed sport yet again, competing in the women’s bobsleigh at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, finishing in a creditable seventh place.