Over Jones's left shoulder, 15 feet behind her, runners circled the track in the final of the men's 1,500 meters. The dull roar of 80,000 spectators rumbled down and into the mixed zone, noise urging the field around the oval. Because of the compressed nature of multiple-gold medal nights in the Games, it is not uncommon for journalists to find themselves stuck in the basement, watching history on a tiny screen while collecting quotes from athletes who performed in earlier events. It is unavoidable. Yet this moment was far more instructive.
Jones had come to London as arguably the most-publicized athlete on the U.S. Track and Field team (and one of the most publicized on any roster in any sport). This was in some part because of her accomplishments, as a two-time Olympian and, entering the Games, the fifth-fastest American woman in history. But in larger part, it was because in 2012, Lolo Jones was a story. She was a story first because she crashed into the ninth hurdle while favored and leading the Olympic final in Beijing. Then she was a story because she's attractive and landed on multiple magazine covers, backed up by stories about a genuinely challenging early life and a serious back surgery last summer that endangered her career. Then she was a story because she announced on HBO that she will remain a virgin until marriage. And finally, she was a story because she got blowback about all those other things being oversold.
She then finished fourth in the fastest 100-meter hurdle race in Olympic history, won by the dynamic Sally Pearson, the fourth-fastest woman ever (fastest in this century) in an Olympic record 12.35 seconds, by a tiny step over 2008 gold medalist Dawn Harper of the U.S. in a massive personal best of 12.37 (making her the second-fastest American ever, behind Gail Devers). Kellie Wells of the U.S. won the bronze in 12.48. Jones was fourth in 12.58, the fastest she's run since 2010. Now she stood before inquisitors, largely ignoring the 1,500 behind her.
"As an athlete,'' said Jones, "You never want to make excuses. I did the best I could tonight with the cards I was dealt.''
Belal Mansoor Ali towed the 1,500-meter field through 400 meters in 58.30 seconds, typically modest for a championship event at the distance. Matthew Centrowitz of the U.S., son of a two-time Olympian, kept himself near the front and out of trouble. His U.S. teammate, Leo Manzano, ran along near the back. At 5-5, Manzano always seems to be struggling to keep up, even at slower paces. But he's run a mile in 3:50.64; only six Americans have run faster.
"In '08, I tasted the medal,'' said Jones. "Here I was just clawing my way through each round and trying to get on the team. It was a different experience. [After crossing the finish line] I kind of figured I was out of the medals. But I was saying a prayer that I could sneak in.''
The second lap of the 1,500 went in more than a full minute, guaranteeing a frantic finish. Sure enough, the third 400 was covered in just over 56 seconds and with 300 meters to run, every man in the field seemed to be in a dead sprint. Centrowitz, the surprise bronze medalist at least year's world championships with a promising future at age 22, was struggling to stay near the front. Manzano was pumping his arms, chest thrust forward, but still far back.
"I always wanted Rio to be my last Olympics,'' said Jones, in response to a question about her future. "Now that I have two bittersweet Olympics, man, I don't know. Every time I come here, I get burned. I'm really disappointed in myself and I feel like I let a lot of people down.''
Few in the interview cluster seem to notice that Taoufki, the suddenly-potent Algerian who was disqualified from the Games on Monday for failing to make an effort in his 800-meter heat, but then reinstated later when it was determined that he had an injury, had shot into the lead. Centrowitz faded, and then came back. In the middle of the track, Manzano was in a desperate sprint, picking off dying runners one by one. He might get there.
Jones, often ebullient (both in person and on Twitter), on this night, never stopped looking sad. "I guess all the people who are talking about me,'' he said, "they can have their night and laugh about me.''
Manzano nails every runner but Makhloufi -- whose sudden rise and destructive kick are reminiscent of doping-busted 2008 1,500 gold medalist Rashid Ramzi -- and grabs the silver medal. It is historic; not since Jim Ryun's silver behind Kip Keino in Mexico City in 1968 has a U.S. runner won a medal in the 1,500 meters. According to official splits, the final 300 meters were run in less than 40 seconds (53-point pace for 400 meters). Manzano was surely faster than that and probably the fastest finisher in the race. Centrowitz misses the bronze by .04 seconds, behind Abdalaati Iguider of Morocco. Manzano falls to the track and cries.
Within seconds of Manzano's silver medal, Jones walks away and the large crowd of writers disperses. Very few seem aware of what has happened. This is nobody's fault and nobody's shortcoming. The Olympics are a daily hail of worthy news and narratives, even in a single location. It is impossible to embrace -- or even notice -- them all. (Two days ago I saw a Tweet about somebody named "Douglas'' being the "star of the Games.'' I asked a peer, "Who is Douglas?'' It happens.)
In these few moments, as Jones talked to a frenzied cluster and Manzano made history while few of his own country's journalists watched, the Games imposed their will. It doesn't matter what is supposed to happen. The runners will race and the race will decide who is star and who is not.
On Tuesday night in the Olympic Stadium the races decided that Jones's reward for four years of waiting (and working, and whatever else: see above) would be rewarded only with fourth place. The races also decided that Harper, who had won the Beijing gold medal running in a teammate's spikes, because she didn't have a shoe contract, would get a silver medal, making her one of only three women in history with both gold and silver medals in the 100-meter hurdles (Pearson, silver behind Harper in Beijing, is one of the others). "I added to my hardware,'' said Harper. "I thought I [won] for a split second. [I saw that] we leaned together, and there's a chance I could have nipped her.'' (Pearson said: "I thought I won, and then I looked over and I felt like wow, she's really close.'')
The scoreboard took long seconds to post the final order. "Like an hour,'' said Harper. "I was sitting there thinking, Coffee? Tea?''
It's true that in the last six months or more, the field of prospective U.S. women's sprint hurdlers was reduced to basically, one -- Jones. When Wells was asked after the race about being overshadowed, she said, "They can't leave me out [now], because I'll be in all the pictures on the podium.''
Harper has spent four years in the odd position of holding the gold medal but few of its perks. It has not been an easy Olympiad for Harper. She underwent knee surgery in July of 2010 and was told by the surgeon that her career was in danger. She didn't jump a hurdle until the following spring. She would talk openly about this process if asked, and about her resentment of the Lolo publicity machine, but not without prompting. Post-race she was asked about it. "You know,'' she said, "My PR agent tells me 'Don't really answer that question.' But I want to be real with my fans. I feel like I've put so much out there, sacrificed so much, and I feel like my life and my story have just been trampled on over the last four years.''
Manzano has a story, too, that in the last four years has neither been trampled nor often told. He was born in Mexico and says he lived in an adobe hut outside the small city of Dolores Hidalgo. His father, Jesus, crossed the Rio Grande several times before bringing his family to live in Texas in 1988. He became a citizen in 2004 and ran for the University of Texas. (His narrative was first exposed when Manzano was one of three naturalized citizens to make the Olympic team in the 1,500 meters, along with Bernard Lagat from Kenya and Lopez Lomong from South Sudan, both of whom are members of he current team in the 5,000 meters. Even then, Manzano was third fiddle to the esteemed Lagat and Lomong, who became U.S. flag-bearer in Beijing).
Manzano, 27, has made four consecutive U.S global championship teams, world championships in 2007, '09 and '11, in addition to the 2008 Olympic team. But he had been overlooked in favor of the likes of Lagat, young runners like Centrowitz and Andrew Wheating (who was eliminated in the Olympic semifinals) and the ever-present Alan Webb (who has not made a national team since 2007). Yet he possesses the most important weapon for a championship 1,500-meter runner: A kick. "I have this amazing gift from God,'' said Manzano after his race. "I've always had this kick.''
To utilize that kick on Tuesday night, he endured a race that wasn't fast, but was exceptionally rough. Even 30 minutes after the race, blood streamed down Manzano's left shin from spike wounds. (Galen Rupp, the silver medalist in the 10,000 three days earlier, had similar gashes). In winning a medal, he did something that a long line of very good U.S. milers had been unable to do: Steve Scott, Jim Spivey, Sydney Maree, Webb.
And at the finish, he did a victory lap wrapped in the flags of both the United States and Mexico, a human melting pot in a red Olympic uniform. "The United States is my home,'' said Manzano. "I wouldn't change that for anything in the world. My roots are still in Mexico.'' He was standing in the basement, too, in Lolo's tunnel. A new face. A new medal. A new tale.