RIO DE JANEIRO – Three American sprint hurdlers passed the finish line Wednesday night at the Olympic Stadium, heaving themselves forward the way that sprint hurdlers do, trying to squeeze a hundredth of a second from the clock or to slip past an opponent in the final strides. They pulled up at the end of the track, chests heaving from the effort, and stared upward, waiting for the scoreboard to illuminate their times and places and to freeze them in cold finality.
Brianna Rollins knew that she had won the gold medal in the race, the final of the 100-meter hurdles. Nia Ali had a pretty good idea that she was second. Kristi Castlin wondered. She had closed from as far back as seventh place over the final three hurdles because that is the way she runs. But it was close on the line. Finally the numbers came up: First, second, third. And three grown women, ranging in age from 25 to 28, began bouncing up and down as if they were very healthy and muscular pogo sticks. They tried to hug while bouncing, and that’s difficult and awkward, but it didn’t matter in the least. Three U.S. women had swept medals, the first female sweep of any track and field event by Team USA, in Olympic history.
“We were like ‘Did we do it? Did we do it?’” said Ali. “And then yes. It was so perfect.”
So this is what happens: There comes a night of Olympic track and field when the meet springs to life in spite of itself. There comes a night when the inertia of the performances and the power of the emotions runs over all the controversy like a steamroller on rails. There comes a night when it doesn’t matter that the stands are only half full (although this was an improvement over several previous nights) or that many of the athletes in the competition have been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs (or accused someone else of using them). There comes a night when all of the organizers’ efforts to sabotage the meet with poor planning and ill-advised execution are run over by the athletes. And on a night like this, the sport is sublime.
It starts when a Kenyan steeplechaser runner dances down the home stretch and wins a gold medal in the morning sunshine, setting the stage. It continues when the most famous sprinter in history tunes up for his final Olympic individual race with a dramatic semifinal win over a young Canadian who does not know his place. A controversial American sprinter limps out of the competition. A young Jamaican woman doubles in the sprints and her Dutch opponent, a world champion, pitches an angry fit in defeat. Two American long jumpers duel in the sand. And finally, a historic sweep.
The day began before noon when 21-year-old Kenyan Conseslus Kipruto won his country’s 11th consecutive medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Kipruto’s victory was so secure that he began swerving and gesturing in the homestretch. Behind him was American Evan Jager, whose four-year rise to the top of the event culminated in the first U.S. steeplechase medal since 1984.
In darkness, the meet found even more traction. First came the semifinals of the 200 meters. The final will be contested Thursday night, and it is expected to be the last individual of Bolt’s three-Olympic career, who has said that he will retire after next summer’s world championships in London. Customarily a Bolt 200-meter semifinal is piece of performance art, where he rips through the curve—or as he says, he “corner,”—and then runs a fast time while seemingly jogging down the stretch as the crowd gasps at the ease of the effort. Not so on Wednesday night. Bolt did run a good curve and did open a lead, but as he began to slow, 21-year-old Canadian Andre De Grasse, the bronze medalist in the 100 meters last Sunday night, began closing the gap. He looked over at Bolt and Bolt looked back. It appeared they might begin talking or perhaps make arrangements to get coffee.
It was all quite humorous, but it also forced Bolt to run through the finish in 19.78 seconds, far faster than he would have run if given his choice. De Grasse finished in 19.80. “I don’t know why he did that,” said Bolt, who will turn 30 on Sunday. “But he’s a young kid and he’s great and he’s got a lot of talent. I’m looking forward to running against him in the final.”
For much of the year, Bolt has been talking about breaking his own world record of 19.19 seconds in the 200, or even running under 19 seconds, which many experts regard as impossible. But Bolt said on Wednesday that he is ready to attack the world record. “I can try for the world record,’’ Bolt said. “I definitely feel that.”
He won’t have American Justin Gatlin to push him. Gatlin finished third in the last of three semifinal heats and was eliminated from the final. It’s been a tough Olympics for Gatlin. He was booed by the stadium crowd before the 100 meters, where he was soundly beaten by Bolt. After the 200 semifinal, he said that a balky right ankle that he had first injured last spring, had flared up in Rio. He missed making the final by .03 seconds, clearly struggling. But he also said he plans to run the 4x100-meter relay.
Twenty minutes after Bolt’s performance, his 24-year-old Jamaican compatriot Elaine Thompson won the 200-meters in 21.78 seconds, defeating the reigning world champion, Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands, who finished in 21.88. Thompson became the first woman to win the 100 and 200 at the Olympics since Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988. (Marion Jones of the U.S. dominated both events at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but was stripped of those medals for steroid use). Schippers was so angry at her defeat that after she was handed a Dutch flag, she forcefully threw it to the ground. Tori Bowie of the U.S. took he bronze, her second medal of the Games, after a silver behind Thompson in the 100 meters.
As the sprinters ran, U.S. long jumpers Tianna Bartoletta and Brittney Reese staged a battle for the gold medal. The two of them span more than a decade of long jump excellence. Bartoletta, 30, won her first world championship at the 2005 world championships in Helsinki, when she was just 19 years old. At that time, Reese was a high school senior. “I was playing basketball back then,’’ said Reese. “I wasn’t a jumper yet. I definitely didn’t watch [Bartoletta’s win].’’
Bartoletta added the world indoor title in 2006, but didn’t medal at the ’07 outdoor worlds and didn’t make the ’08 U.S. Olympic team. “I stopped jumping,” she said last night. “I was embarrassed. I was a world champion, and now I couldn’t make the Olympic team.” She did compete regularly, but poorly from 2009–13. Reese came along: She won world championships in 2009, ’11 and ’13 and the Olympic gold medal in ’12. Bartoletta returned to sprinting and was a part of the world record-setting 4x100 meter relay at the 2012 Olympics.
But Bartoletta also returned to long jumping and won the world title last summer in Beijing, when Reese was recovering form hip surgery. That set the two women up for a back-and-forth battle Wednesday night. Bartoletta took the lead on her second jump at 6.95 meters (22 feet, 9 ¾ inches) and added a centimeter on her next jump. Ivana Spanovic of Serbia took the lead on her third jump at 7.08 meters (23-2 ¾), but Reese took over on her fourth jump at 7.09. Bartoletta went back into the lead on her fifth attempt, jumping 7.17 meters (23- 6 3/4). Reese sailed into the pit on her last try, well past the seven-meter mark, but came just two centimeters short. “I thought it was about seven-twenty,’’ said Reese. “But that’s okay. I’m happy to be on the podium again.’’
Bartoletta said, “I had seven terrible seasons in the long jump. This is really validating, for sure. I never had that moment to celebrate. I had this feeling that at any minute somebody was going to jump something huge.’’ And even afterward, Bartoletta was subdued, anticipating 4x100-meter heats in the morning.
By the time the women’s 100-meter hurdlers stepped on the track, the U.S. had won four medals on the day, but also had not yet won a gold medal in a track event (only in field events). Americans have never been shut out on the track. (Bolt and other Jamaicans have been hell on this statistic.) But in 2016, the U.S. is particularly dominant in the 100-meter hurdles. Coming into the Games, seven different U.S. women had combined to run the 24 fastest times in the world. Kendra Harrison has been the fastest. She finished fifth at the Olympic trials, thus missing the team (only the top three are selected), and 12 days later broke the world record. Rollins said, “Anybody who was in the final at the Trials could have been on the podium here.’’
The three U.S. hurdlers, all of them women of deep personal faith, huddled right before the start of the race. “We said, ‘Let’s do this, and get it out of the way,’’’ said Rollins. “It’s what everybody prayed for.’’ They didn’t mention a sweep, but that was understood. Rollins, who was raised in Miami, was a three-time NCAA champion at Clemson and the world champion in 2013, controlled the race from the start, out of lane six. Her winning time of 12.48 was .14 slower than her winning time at the U.S. Trials in Eugene on July 8, but that, of course, is insignificant.
From lane four, Ali also controlled the race for second place. It was Castlin who had to fight for the bronze. “Someday I’m going to get a good start,’’ said Castlin, who trains with Rollins on Los Angeles. She finished .02 in front of Cindy Ofili of Great Britain. “It really wasn’t a bronze for me,’’ said Catslin. “It was upholding the team.’’ The last U.S. track sweep came in the 400 meters in 2008, when LaShawn Merritt, Jeremy Wariner and David Neville went one-two-three.
For Wednesday night’s hurdlers, theirs was the last event, and the three women took a long, meandering victory lap around a nearly empty stadium, each draped in a flag. It was a good moment for them and a good night for a wounded sport.