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Track and field athletes experience fickle side of Rio Olympics

From Mo Farah to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, track and field athletes at the Rio Olympics faced a wide range of ups and downs on Saturday.

RIO DE JANEIRO – The little man was running easily, his head as still as a museum statue’s, the heels of his running spikes brushing against the fluttering nylon of his running shorts in a sort of long distance ballet. Suddenly the little man was on the ground 10 laps into a 25-lap footrace, rolling to his side and then rising to chase the runners who were quickly pulling away from him. “Is the race done?” the little man asked himself. And then Mo Farah set out chasing the rest of the field for many wonderful reasons. “I worked too hard for this,” he said, and that was one of the reasons. But mostly he set out chasing because, what else was he supposed to do?

The Olympic Games are unfair. This is a fundamental truth. You hear the stories every day, here in Rio, of how the Games reward hard work and sacrifice and how the gold medal (or the silver or the bronze) makes it all worth it. And truly, it does. But in fact, the Games are also cruel and random and sudden and often reality is different from the dream. Sometimes you win your medal just the same, but sometimes it is won by somebody else. 

Sometimes you are skimming across pebbled blue surface of the running track in the well of the Olympic Stadium, light confident, counting laps until your killer kick begins. Then you are lying on that same surface, instantly plunged into a running nightmare. That is what happened to Mo Farah of Great Britain Saturday night in the 10,000 meters. He was accidentally tripped by his friend and training partner, Galen Rupp of the U.S. He rose and won just the same, denying fate its due.

Great Britain's Mo Farah repeats as Olympic 10,000-meter champion in Rio

Sometimes you are so certain that a medal will be yours that can already see yourself on the medal stand with that medal around your neck, but instead you run neither as swiftly nor as strongly as you can and you finish not first, second or third, but sixth. That is what happened to American sprinter English Gardner in the women’s 100-meter final, and instead it was another American, Tori Bowie, who won the silver medal between two Jamaican training partners, gold medalist Elaine Thompson and bronze medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. “I’m trying to wrap my head around it,” said Gardner. “Just trying to figure out what I did wrong.”

Sometimes you remember a night, four years ago, when you competed in the long jump as your countryman circled the track in the 10,000 meters and the crowd roared inside the Olympic Stadium, a sound that had a life of its own. You were inspired and you won a gold medal in the long jump. That is what happened to Greg Rutherford of Great Britain, who again Saturday night saw Farah running and again felt inspired, but this time Rutherford could finish only third while 27-year-old Jeff Henderson of the United States won the long jump by a single centimeter on his final jump.

“It’s a very difficult bronze medal to take,” said Rutherford.

“Feels good,” said Henderson. “Feels like I’m in a dream.”

So it was that Olympic track and field unfurled its first busy night, in a stadium set on a hardscrabble hillside, far from the Olympic Park in Barra Da Tijuca or the beaches at Copacabana or Ipanema, a neighborhood where private homes sit inside razor wire fences and soldiers patrol the sidewalks during the Games. Track is one of the pillars of the summer Olympics, like swimming and gymnastics, but different from each of those in that even when the gold medal lands in a favorite’s hands, the path to victory is more circuitous.

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Before Saturday night’s competition, Farah had already established himself as one of the greatest distance runners in history, and especially so in big races. He won his first global title in the 5,000 meters at the 2011 world championships and had doubled in the 5k and 10k at every title meet since, the 2012 Olympics and the 2013 and ’15 worlds. He wins with patience, tempo and a devastating kick, the paradigm of the modern distance runner who can kick in a fast race, a slow race or a race with surges.

In the first 10 laps of Sunday night’s 10,000, Farah ran at first in last place in the ponderous field of 34 runners. Then he surged all the way to the front. He was somewhere in between approaching the homestretch, when Rupp bobbled, and kicked, sending him tumbling. “I just tried to get up as fast as I could,” said Farah. “I was thinking, don’t panic, don’t panic.”

He and Rupp have trained together under Alberto Salazar for five years and Rupp took silver behind Farah in 2012 in London. This time Rupp asked Farah if he was all right and Farah said he was fine. He gave Rupp the thumb’s up signal, which was appropriate because Brazilians are particularly fond of that gesture. 

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As often happens in Olympic distance races, the pace quickened. Farah would run the second half of the race 41 seconds faster than the first half. A giant pack dwindled to five runners, including Farah, Rupp, Paul Tanui of Kenya and Tamirat Tola and Yigrem Demelash of Ethiopia. Four years ago in London, Farah went hard with 700 meters left; this time he waited until the final meters, sprinting a shorter distance than Usain Bolt will sprint Monday night, and winning in 27:05.17.

Asked about the key to his killing finishes, Farah said, “I’m not doing to give away my secrets, but I do work hard.”

As Farah disposed of another field, a superb long jump competition was unfolding. Four different jumpers had taken the lead at various times during the night, but when Henderson stood at the end of the runway for his sixth and final jump, the leader was Luvo Manyonga of South Africa, with a jump of 8.37 meters on his penultimate jump.

Henderson rocked backward, holding his left (front) foot in place to maintain the precision of his run, and then exploded down the runway. He landed in the sand very near the yellow leader’s mark that was displayed on the stadium screen. Second later his distance popped up on the scoreboard on the infield: 8.38 meters (27 feet, 6 inches). Asked if he knew he had won before the jump was measured, Henderson said, “Oh yeah, definitely. I knew I win [with] this jump.”

Minutes earlier, Rutherford had come up short by eight centimeters on his last jump, and was crestfallen. “If you had told me 10 years ago that I would win an Olympic bronze medal, I probably would have told you not to be so stupid,” said Rutherford. “But I’ve moved on a lot since then and I believe I have the ability to be winning these things.

Henderson still had to wait out the last attempt by U.S. teammate Jarrion Lawson, who popped a tremendous jump that seemed like it might take down Henderson. Lawson ran around the infield in celebration, but when his mark popped up it was only 7.78 meters, nearly two feet short of Henderson. Lawson looked stunned and his coach ran toward the track from his seat. But replays established that Lawson’s left hand had dragged in the sand behind his feet, and that became his mark. “It was a long jump,” said Henderson. “It was close.”

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There is no more capricious event than the 100 meters, decided by tiny twitches, leans or a loss of patience. No woman in history has better managed this pressure than the 29-year Fraser-Pryce, who stunned the track world with a gold medal in 2008 in Beijing and repeated that title in London. At her best, Fraser-Pryce is a cold-blooded starter who never looks back, but in 2016, she has battled a big toe injury on her left foot and had never found her best form. In the semifinals, she popped out of the blocks and ran a season’s best of 10.88. But at the finish, she was in tears. “I cried because [the pain] was unbearable,” said Fraser-Pryce.

She trains every day with the 24-year-old Thompson, whose 10.70-second time at the Jamaican Olympic Trials was the fastest time in the world this year. Thompson was the favorite. Fraser-Pryce delivered a vintage start but couldn’t maintain and Thompson overhauled her at 50 meters and pulled away to victory in 10.71 seconds. Fraser-Pryce hung on for third in 10.86 and said, “This is my greatest medal, ever, because I knew how hard I worked. I toughed it out.”

U.S. sprinters have been battling Fraser-Pryce and the rest of the Jamaicans for a decade. Gardner, 25, won the Olympic Trials and Bowie, 26, was third. They came to Rio with plans to take down Thompson and Fraser-Pryce. But the Olympics will laugh at your plans.

Bowie ran a clean race, and passed Fraser-Pryce at 60 meters to win her first Olympic medal. Gardner started poorly and never found her gear. She was devastated afterward. “I don’t really know how I feel right now,” she said. “I feel like I did everything my coach told me to do, but unfortunately it didn’t work.”

She knows now that you can plan for Olympic success, but the Olympics will not accommodate your plans, because the Olympics have a plan of their own.