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Olympics show track and field’s athletic brilliance should still define the sport

Usual suspects plagued the Olympic meet, but the athletic brilliance of stars like Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix reinforced the power of the most original sport of them all: track and field.

RIO DE JANEIRO — Track and field is a durable and resilient beast. You can flog it with doping innuendo, and with real doping as well. You can bury it deep in hushed controversy about sports and gender. You can force it to perform in a stadium that is never full, even for the Olympic Games and you can cripple it with an awkward schedule that forces many athletes to perform in pursuit of gold, silver and bronze medals in the harsh light of day rather than under the bright lights of the Brazilian winter evening. You can do all of these things and still the sport shoulders the weight and rises just the same.

It became commonplace at these Games to bemoan the fall of track and field, to shed tears for a sport that was once a pillar of the Olympics but has lost its way while other traditional events like gymnastics and swimming endure and produce new stars. And while so many new events steal fans and viewers from the most original sport of them all: Run faster, jump higher (or longer), throw further. But over a nine-day meet, in a crumbling stadium set in a rugged neighborhood far from the rest of the Olympics, track and field found its footing. It quieted the doomsaysers in its most eloquent tongue: The performances of its athletes.

There was the incomparable Usain Bolt, who won the 100- and 200-meter races for the third consecutive time when no man had done it even twice (and then tacked on a third gold in the 4X100-meter relay.) There was 24-year-old South African Wayde Van Niekerk, who, just minutes before Bolt won the 100 last Sunday night, scorched a remarkable 400 meters from the distant outpost of lane eight, finishing in a world record 43.03 seconds, .15 better than Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old mark. There was Elaine Thompson of Jamaica, 24, who became the first woman since Florence Griffith Joyner of the U.S. in 1988 to win both the 100 and 200 meters. Bolt leaves—Van Niekerk and Thompson stay. If they lack his outsized personality, and everyone does, they bring endless athletic promise.

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There is Brazilian pole vaulter Thiago da Silva, who in the small hours of last Tuesday morning, gave his country its only track and field gold medal, with an Olympic record and upset victory over world record holder Renaud Lavilennie of France. There were only a few thousand fans in the stadium when da Silva cleared his winning height of 6.03 meters, but they shook the structure to its fragile old footings.

And there were the Americans. U.S. athletes dominated the meet with 31 total medals (most since 40 at the boycott-diminished Los Angeles Games in 1984) and 13 gold medals (equaling 1988 and ’96 as the most since L.A.). That total might have been affected—though not significantly—by the absence of the entire Russian team, which had been banned for the Games by the IAAF, track’s international governing body. Allyson Felix, the 30-year-old veteran of four Olympics, bounced back from a photo finish loss in the 400 meters to win gold medals in both relays, giving her a career total of six gold medals (one individual and five relays), more than any other female track and field athlete in Olympic history, and a total of nine medals, equaling Jamaican Merlene Ottey’s record career total.

Three U.S. women—Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali and Kristi Castlin—swept the 100-meter hurdles, the first female sweep in Olympic track and field history. Ryan Crouser, a towering, red-haired Oregonian who went to college and comes from a long family of throwers, won a gold medal and broke the Olympic record in the shot put. Ashton Eaton became the third man to win consecutive medals in the decathlon. Sprinter Tori Bowie, 25, won a full set of medals. Americans won three of the four relays, but for the seventh consecutive, failed to medal in the men’s 4X100-meter relay due to either disqualification (six times) or a doping-related strip (one time).

And the medal haul extended into the final day of the meet, where 26-year-old Matthew Centrowitz became the first U.S. man to win a gold medal in the 1,500 meters since Mel Sheppard in 1908. The victory for Centrowitz, whose father was a two-time U.S Olympian and who has been the fastest and most consistent  miler in America for half a decade, came four years after he finished fourth—behind silver medalist Leo Manzano of the U.S.—in the 1,500-meters in London. “This wasn’t redemption for London,” said Centrowitz after the race. “This was about being the best I could be on this day.”

Centrowitz, who trains under coach Alberto Salazar in Portland, Ore., prepared with a gold medal in his head. Two weeks before the Olympics, Centrowitz ran 1:47 seconds to win an 800-meter race in Eugene. Salazar had told him that after that race he would run two more 800-meter repeats. This is a common Salazar training method—sending his runners out for hard workout after races. Centrowitz ran 1:53, jogged 1,200 meters (three laps around the track) and then ran 1:49 to finish the workout. “Then Alberto said, ‘Where are you going, we’re doing one more,’” said Centrowitz. He ran a 1:47 to complete a stunning workout.

Instead of staying in the Olympic village in Rio, Centrowitz stayed with Salazar and Galen Rupp, the 10,000-meter silver medalist from London who ran the 10,000 here and will run in the marathon Sunday morning. During a Rio training session, Centrowitz did a series of 400-meter repeats. The last he ran in 49 seconds, indicating that he would be ready for a fast finish.

On Saturday night, Centrowitz found himself in the lead from the start. As often happens in championship 1,500-meter races, the pace dawdled—just 2:16 for the first 800 meters. A pace not much faster than a decent high school race and the slowest winning time in the Olympic 1,500 since 1952. But then it abruptly quickened, accelerating to 55 seconds for the third 400-meter lap. In the straightaway approaching he bell for the final lap, Ayanleh Souleiman of Djibouti moved briefly in front of Centrowitz but didn’t move all the way over to the rail. Centrowitz lightly pushed Souleiman aside and kept the lead.

“He didn’t really tuck into the rail,” said Centrowitz. “I thought, look, we’re almost on the last lap. I might as well wind it up from here. I knew I was strong and fast and I’ve done workouts to run 49 or 50 seconds in a tactical race.”

On the backstretch, favorite Asbel Kiprop of Kenya, a multiple world champion, made a move but couldn’t get past Centrowitz. In the homestretch, 2012 gold medalist Taoufk Makhloufi of Algeria made a move but couldn’t get by. Centrowitz expected somebody to get past. “I wasn’t confident,” he said. “I was thinking somebody would come by on the backstretch, but nobody did. The homestretch was just one long-ass 100 meters. The last 20 meters my legs started to buckle and I thought, Come on Matt, you’re right there.

The winning time was 3:50 flat, with the final 400 meters run in 50.62 seconds. Centrowitz found his family during his victory lap. His found his father, also named Matt. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said the son. “He said ‘Are you effing kidding me?’” Centrowitz was asked if his dad said ‘effing.’ Centrowitz said, “No, he dropped an F-bomb.”

Later in the 5,000 meters, American Paul Chelimo gave the U.S. its sixth medal in races of 800 meters or longer. Chelimo, a Kenyan emigree who came to the U.S. in 2010, ran for North Carolina-Greensboro and competes in a program run by the U.S. Army, ran close to the front for the entire race and was beaten only by the remarkable Mo Farah of Great Britain, who won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters for the second consecutive time.

But after winning, Chelimo and two other runners were disqualified for stepping off the inside of the track. That briefly elevated 41-year-old American Bernard Lagat to the bronze medal. Chelimo was informed of his DQ while being interviewed on live television. “Just getting the news from the television that I was disqualified,” said Chelimo. “That was the most heartbreaking thing in my life.”  However, after multiple appeals, two of the three disqualifications were overturned and Chelimo was restored to the silver. “That was the longest wait of my life,” Chelimo said. “I’m happy. I just can’t express myself.”

Between those events, Caster Semenya of South Africa won the gold medal in the women’s 800 meters. Hers was one of the most anticipated races of the Games. After winning a gold medal in the 800 meters seven years ago at the world championships in Berlin, Semenya was told by IAAF to submit to gender testing. The results of those tests were never revealed and Semenya has never spoken about them. In 2011 the IAAF instituted a ceiling on testosterone levels for women. Semenya took a silver medal in the 2011 world championships and a silver in London, but subsequently struggled. The IAAF was ordered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to remove its testosterone ceiling last winter. It remains a sensitive and controversial topic.

Before last night’s competition, IAAF president Sebastian Coe said, “This is a very sensitive issue. They are our sisters. They are our daughters. We will take the case back to the Court of Arbitraton for Sport and it will be a good case.” It is clear that IAAF intends to restore the ceiling. There is no evidence that any woman was asked to lower her testosterone from 2011 to ’15.

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On Saturday night, Semenya, 25, ran with grace, power and tactical excellence, running away from the field to win in a personal best and South African national record time of 1:55.28. She ran the first lap in 57.59 seconds and the second in 57.70, The winning time, however, was slower than Kenyan Pamela’s winning time at the 2008 Olympics and a full two seconds off the 33-year-old world record of 1:53.28 set by Jarmila Kratochvilova of then-Czechoslovakia. The second-place finisher was 23-year-old Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and the bronze medalist was 21-year-old Margaret Wambui of Kenya.

In the post-race press conference, a reporter asked if any of the three women had been told to take medication to lower testosterone. Semenya looked at both other medalists. Wambui answered first. “Thank you for your question,” she said. “Let’s focus on the performance of today. Let’s not talk about medication.”

Then Semenya spoke. “Tonight was all about performance,” she said. “Let’s not talk about IAAF. Let’s not talk about speculation. This press conference is about performance.” Later, asked about the impact of her performance, Semenya said, “It’s all about loving one another. It’s not about discriminating [against] people, it’s not about looking at people [and] how they look, how they speak, how they run. It is not about if they are muscular. It is all about sports.”

Her speech was emotional and eloquent. Like the entire track competition in Rio, her race was tension answered with excellence in the moment, putting everything else aside. A sport rising, and letting the next moment wait.