RIO DE JANEIRO — Rain threatened to end David Rudisha’s reign, but the Maasai warrior from Kenya prevailed. Rudisha defended his Olympic medal in the 800 meters, crossing the line in 1:42.15. Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi finished second in 1:42.61, and U.S. Clayton Murphy took the bronze in 1:42.93.
The weather in Rio on Monday night was less than ideal, with rain coming down in sheets at times and soaking the track. Athletes ran for cover when competition at the Olympic Stadium was suspended for about 30 minutes around 9 p.m. local time and rumors about Rudisha’s ability to race in the rain flowed.
However the rumors weren’t completely misguided. From 2009 to ’11, Rudisha won a span of 26 race finals at 800 meters before the streak was snapped on a rainy day in Milan. The Kenyan also lost in the 800-meter final of the 2014 Commonwealth Games on a wet track in Glasgow. Just two months ago, he had one of his worst performances of the season at a Diamond League meet in Stockholm, where the damp conditions sunk Rudisha to a fifth place finish in 1:45.69.
Before the delay, Rudisha was talking to his manager James Templeton. “He says to me ‘My body just feels stiff. I can't get into my normal flow. It just feels different when it's cold and wet,’” Templeton said.
But after the delay, Templeton sensed a shift in Rudisha’s mindset. “We talked about [the rain.] He warmed up nicely and said, ‘This one is going to be different.’”
So by the time the men’s 800-meter final stepped onto the track at 10:45 p.m. local time, the track was dry and the gun went off without a hitch. Rudisha’s compatriot Alfred Kipketer took the field out in 23.2 seconds for the first 200 meters and 49.3 for the 400-meter split. But Rudisha took control heading into the final lap and never surrendered the lead despite a late charge by Makhloufi, the 2012 Olympic 1,500-meter champion.
“My plan today was to run from the front as usual, in fact I talked to my colleagues and I told them I am going to lead the race,” said Rudisha in his post-race press-conference. “But after the gun Alfred [Kipketer] decided to run the first 200 meters like a bullet, and when I saw the time was too fast I decided to settle behind and slow down a little bit so I could get my rhythm. Sometimes if you start too fast it can cost you, that was something I wanted to be aware of. It’s unfortunate they did not follow what I said.
“London [Olympics] was one of my special races, running that night, breaking the world record—it was one of the greatest 800-meter races. But today was special to defend my title. Nobody since 1960 and ’64 has done that.”
Murphy, an Ohio native and NCAA champion, surged with 150 meters remaining and clocked the third-fastest time by an American in history. The 21-year-old, who broke out as a junior at Akron and decided to turn professional before July’s Olympic trials, is the first U.S. medalist in the event since American record holder Johnny Gray won a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
The women’s 400 meters saw a new champion crowned as Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas dove at the finish line to hold off American star and 2012 Olympic 200-meter champion Allyson Felix from adding a fifth gold medal to her collection. Miller led coming into the final 100 meters before lunging her body and extending her arm—but most importantly, her torso, by which the judges determine finishes—across the finish line to stop the clock at 49.44 to Felix’s 49.51. Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson settled for bronze in 49.85.
With about 20 meters remaining in the race, Miller may have seen Felix coming but can not recall much as she showed off her battle bounds from hitting the Mondo of the track with her dive…or fall. She doesn’t know which it is either.
“My mind just went blank,” Miller said. “The only thing I was thinking was the gold medal. Next you know, I was on the ground.”
Despite the loss, Felix’s silver medal makes her the most decorated U.S. female track and field athlete in history. It may not have been the desired hue but she still has a chance to add two more golds, if she is a part of the United States’ 4x100-meter and 4x400-meter relay teams.
To close out the medal events on the track Monday night, Brazil’s Thiago Braz da Silva won the pole vault in thrilling fashion before his home crowd, hitting 6.03 to set an Olympic record. France’s Renaud Lavillenie attempted 6.08, but settled for silver (at 5.85) after not clearing at that height. American Sam Kendricks rounded out the podium with 5.85.
Before the blue track became soaked with rain on Monday evening, athletes put up another fresh batch of speedy times and high marks in the day’s morning session, surpassing the previous greats of athletics.
Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk eclipsed her previous world record of 81.08 meters not once but twice in the hammer throw competition. Her first toss of 76.35 meters gave her the lead off the bat before improving to 82.29-meters on her third throw for the new world record. Her final tosses of the day—traveling 81.74 meters and 79.60 meters—were both better than China’s Wenxiu Zhang’s 76.75-meter throw for silver or Great Britain’s Sophie Hitchon’s 74.54-meter hurl for bronze.
Bahrain’s Ruth Jebet, a Kenyan-born 19-year-old who switched allegiances two years ago, nearly snapped the world record in the women’s steeplechase. She broke away from the field of 18 women earlier than expected and crossed the finish line in 8:58.97 for gold—less than a second off the 8:58.81 world record that has belonged to Russia’s Gulnara Galkina-Samitova since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Kenya’s Hyvin Jepkemoi finished second in 9:07.12, and while USA’s Emma Coburn surged late to close on Jepkemoi, she finished in third in 9:07.63—the first medal by an American woman in the event and a new American record.
We’ve known for days that there is something in the water in Rio de Janeiro but there’s something special on a blue oval in the Engenho neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.