RIO DE JANEIRO — Silver and bronze Olympic medals look much the same here at the Rio Olympics. Both are round and heavy and hung from a multi-colored ribbon that is placed ceremonially around an athlete’s neck. The silver medal is lighter in color and the bronze duller. They also share a common value: Neither is gold. They are medals awarded for not winning something. Along this scale, bronze and silver can represent towering success or gutting failure.
On Monday night at the Rio Olympic Stadium, where punishing daytime heat gave way to heavy winter rains, which in turn gave way to a cool, dark stillness, 30-year-old U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix, one of the most accomplished American Olympians in history, won a silver medal in the 400 meters. She was beaten by Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas, whose .07 margin of victory was achieved – or possibly diminished – by diving (or falling or stumbling; even Miller wasn’t certain) across the finish line.
Felix had begun the Olympic year with hopes of winning gold medals in both the 200 and 400 meters and successfully lobbied the international track federation to make changes to the competition schedule to enable the attempt. Monday would have been a critical day in that quest, on which Felix would have had to run a 200-meter preliminary round race in the morning and the 400-meter final at night. When I interviewed Felix in April, her coach, Bobby Kersee, was in Rio trying to find an apartment or hotel near the track, where Felix could rest between races. But a spring ankle injury curtailed Felix’s training, and she did not make the U.S. team in the 200. Now she leaves Rio without an individual gold medal.
“I don’t think I’ve ever quite had a year this tough,” said Felix after the race, her voice cracking and her eyes welling with tears. “I just really wanted it.”
This qualifies as gutting failure.
Just 15 minutes before Felix’s race, 21-year-old U.S. middle distance runner Clayton Murphy, who according to a story by Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World, as a teenager showed and sold pigs raised on his family farm in rural Ohio, chased incomparable world record holder David Rudisha of Kenya across the line and won a bronze medal in the 800 meters. Murphy finished the race in 1:42.93, making him the third-fastest American in history at the distance and the first to win a medal at the Olympics since Johnny Gray won a bronze in Barcelona in 1992. “The big goal I had coming in,” said Murphy, “was to make the final. The medal, for me, was going to be the icing on the cake.”
This qualifies as towering success.
Two medals, neither of them gold. One will leave a woman disappointed for years. The other will change a young man’s life.
(There were two other U.S medals on the day, neither of them gold, but both of them closer in spirit to Murphy’s than to Felix’s. In 90-degree morning heat, Emma Coburn took the bronze medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the first U.S. woman to medal in that event, which has been run just three times in the Games. And in the last event completed, 23-year-old Sam Kendricks, an ‘Ole Miss graduate and a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army reserve, took the bronze medal in the pole vault, an event won by Thiago da Silva of Brazil, the host country’s first medal in track and field).
A gold medal would have made a difficult year right for Felix. She came to Rio with six Olympic medals, dating back to a silver in the 200 meters in Athens in 2004, when she was just 18 years old. And her career had been built toward attacking a double in Rio: She is the defending Olympic gold medalist in the 200 meters and last year won the 400 at the world championships. The silver medalist in that race was Miller, who is just 22 years old. But just as Felix was about to commence the drive toward peak fitness in April, she suffered a severe sprain of her left ankle when she landed on a medicine ball while dismounting after a series of pull-ups. The injury forced a reboot. Felix pieced together enough training to make the U.S. team in the 400 meters with a time of 49.68 seconds, the second-fastest time in the world before Rio. Miller was No. 1 at 49.55.
Lacking race sharpness, Felix finished fourth in the 200 meters at the U.S. Trials, missing the team by a spot.
Felix seemed sharp in Rio. On Saturday night, she won her semifinal heat in 49.67, looking very relaxed. She drew lane four for the final; Miller was in lane 7. With just one runner outside and Felix far inside, Miller, like Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa in his world record run Monday night, would be “running blind,” a term that was thrust upon the non-track media on those two nights. “Personally, I’d rather be in the outside lanes,” said Miller. “I was just saying, they’re going to have to come and catch me.”
Because of the lane staggers, placings in a 400 meters are difficult to determine until the field reaches the home stretch. But it was clear in the final turn that Felix had spotted Miller—and U.S. teammate Natasha Hastings—several meters. “I think I should have been a bit more aggressive,” said Felix. “I might have let it get a bit away from me.” That has been Felix’s problem in the past. At the world championships in 2011, she went to sleep on the turn and let Amantle Montsho of Botswana get a big lead and just missed nailing her at the line.
Fifty meters from home, Miller looked finished, tying up in pieces: Chest, arms, legs. Felix was driving in the middle of the track, clawing at the air with her slender arms, cutting into the lead with every stride. As Miller approached the finished, she seemed to dive, landing on her left leg. Long after the race, Miller didn’t know if she dove intentionally or simply fell while reaching for the line, exhausted. “It all just sort of happened,” Miller said. “All I was thinking is, I have to get this gold medal. My legs were getting heavy. It all went blank and then I was lying on the ground.”
Felix knew she had been gaining, but also saw nothing but the line. “I just tried to dig deep and give it all I had,” Felix said. “I don’t feel like I had any more left to give.”
Past the line, Miller lay flat on her back. The 400 is a cruel master, robbing runners of oxygen until they finish on memory. The pain lingers. Felix, too, fell to the ground and then rose to her knees, looking at the stadium. She has been there before; in the 100 meters at the 2012 Olympic Trials she finished in a dead heat with Jeneba Tarmoh and both runners stood on the track, looking upward for resolution. This time the scoreboard flashed that Miller had won in 49.44 seconds, with Felix second in 49.51, a relatively big margin for such a dramatic finish. It’s not clear if Miller’s dive decided the race, or simply embellished it. Replays showed that Felix never got in front.
The silver gave Felix seven Olympic medals, more than any other U.S. female track athlete. That was barely any consolation for any iconic runner with only the highest of goals. “I think I’ll have to look back at that,” Felix said. “It’s bittersweet now. I’m a competitor and I went for it. So at this moment it’s just painful.”
Felix was once Murphy. She is a woman from Los Angeles, he is a man from Ohio, but she would understand the exuberance of winning an Olympic medal when your career is almost entirely in front of you, full of potential. Murphy competed for Akron University and last spring won the NCAA 1,500-meter title and shortly thereafter turned professional by signing an endorsement contract with Nike and hiring an agent. But he did not have the Olympic “A” standard, so it made more sense for him to run the 800 meters at the Trials. In that race, he outkicked world indoor champion Boris Berian to take first place.
In Rio, Murphy had traffic problems in his preliminary heat and qualified for the semifinals only on time. But he finished second in his semifinal, as did Berian, putting two U.S runners in the finals.
The favorite would be Rudisha, the best 800-meter runner in history, and holder of the world record of 1:40.91, set in a magnificent front-running performance at the 2012 Olympics in London. (Rudisha is the only one of the eight starters in that race who made it back to the Olympic final four years later). At that time, Murphy was a rising senior at Tri Villages High School in New Madison, Ohio. His 800 personal best was 1:56 (and a mile best of 4:16). He didn’t even watch Rudisha’s win live. “My junior year was the first year of running when I decided to be a Division I runner and really pursue running,” Murphy said. “Instead of just being a fun thing I did in high school.”
At the gun on Monday night, Rudisha angled toward the lead on the first backstretch, but fellow Kenyan Alfred Kipketer fought him for the lead and they reached 200 meters in a blazing 23.2 seconds. “My plan today was to run from the front, as usual,” said Rudisha. “But after the gun went, Alfred decided to run the 200 meters like a bullet, and when I saw the time, I decided to settle behind and slow down a little bit.”
Murphy stayed up close, in fifth place, but only a few strides back. “I kind of expected it to be fast,” said Murphy. “I didn’t care if it was slow, I didn’t care if it was fast. It was all about racing.” This is Murphy’s best quality. He doesn’t run time trials, he races, with intuitive tactics and an explosive finishing kick.
The field reached 400 meters in 49.23 and soon after, Rudisha went to the lead. He had fought injuries and struggled to regain his dominance between Games, but found it here. He would never be challenged. Taoufik Mahkloufi of Algeria chased Rudisha down the stretch; the winning time was 1:42.15, Rudisha’s fastest time since London four years ago.
Meanhwhile, Murphy attacked on the final turn. Rudisha and Makhloufi were gone, but Pierre-Ambroise Bosse of France was wobbling on rubbery legs. Murphy shot past. “At 100 meters, I saw that there we only a couple in front of me,” he said. “I felt like I had at least one gear left and I kept going and going.” From his home in Atlanta, Rich Kenah watched. Kenah won a bronze medal in the 800 meters at the world championships in 1997; only Nick Symmonds, with a silver in 2013, has won an 800-meter medal for the U.S.A. since. “Clayton showed patience beyond his years by not making any big moves until the home stretch,” said Kenah, in a text message. “Time and again, athletes chase fool’s gold in that third 200 meters.”
Also watching was Dave Wottle, whose famous 800-meter gold in 1972 is one of the most memorable races in U.S. Olympic track history. Like Murphy, Wottle was from rural Ohio. Like Wottle, Murphy is a kicker. “Clayton ran a great race,” Wottle told SI.com’s Chris Chavez in an email. “He’s knocking chunks of time off his personal best in the 800 meters. [Murphy’s PB before the worlds was 1:44.76, at the Olympic Trials; he has come down 1.84 seconds]. Who knows how fast he can run.”
Murphy doesn’t sweat that detail. “I just race the other people,” he said. “I just get in the race. I just want to have fun with it and enjoy it for one minute, 40-some seconds. You never know how many times you’re going to get to run in an Olympic final.”
You never know many times you will hold a medal in your hands. You never never know what that medal will feel like. Bronze can feel like gold. Silver can feel like defeat.