Thunderstorms roared through Helsinki on the evening of Aug. 9, turning the sky gunmetal grey. There had been wind, rain and cold during the first days of the 10th World Track and Field Championships, and now there was lightning, too. Decathletes were rushed from the high jump pit of Olympic Stadium into a cramped room beneath the stands, where Bryan Clay, the 25-year-old American who was leading through three events of the two-day competition, huddled on a bench and punched in the cellphone number of his wife, Sarah, in California. "Hey!" he shouted over the thunder. "You won't believe what's going on here."
His words applied to much more than the weather. In the midst of a midsummer meet that seemingly had been transported into late autumn, U.S. athletes were on their way to a performance that ranked with their best of the last half century. Not that anyone in America noticed--the meet received no network TV coverage in the States--but by the time the competition ended on Sunday, Team USA had won 14 gold medals, more than at any previous world championship or any nonboycotted Olympics since 1968. The U.S.'s 25 total medals matched its track and field haul at the Athens Games and tied its take at Stuttgart, Germany (1993), for the second most in world championship history. Moreover, the average age of the U.S. gold medalists was a youthful 23.5. As recently as four years ago in Edmonton it was 27.1.
It was a typically American success, complete with controversy. There were a pair of relay disqualifications--denying the U.S. two more likely golds--and a rift between old and young members of the team over alleged mild hazing incidents. Though lost at times in the buzz over the American success, athletes from other countries performed superbly as well, of course, among them 23-year-old pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia (who set her 18th world record of the last two years by clearing 16'5 1/4"), 20-year-old female distance runner Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia (the first 5,000-10,000-meter double gold medalist of either gender in worlds history) and 25-year-old Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain (the first 800-1,500-meter double gold medalist of either gender in worlds history). And no one drew louder cheers than Finnish long jumper Tommi Evil√§, who sailed in his Mohawk braid to third place behind winner Dwight Phillips of the U.S. last Saturday, finally rewarding fans who had packed the ancient stadium every night hoping to see one of their countrymen on the medals stand. But most of the star turns in Helsinki were by the red, white and blue.
Clay's decathlon victory bridged the gap between U.S. sprint success on the opening weekend and the cascade of medals that followed. The silver medalist in Athens last year behind world-record holder Roman Seberle of the Czech Republic, Clay--who looks more like a cornerback than the linebacker types who customarily contest the decathlon--came to Helsinki at 5'11", 185 pounds, 10 pounds more than he weighed at Athens. It was raining when his event began and raining when it ended. "Definitely the hardest decathlon I've ever done," he said. He scored personal bests in three events (the shot put, 400 meters and javelin) and had wrapped up the gold (he finished with 8,732 points) long before grinding out the 1,500 meters.
"Bryan Clay--big, big talent," said three-time world champion and former world-record holder Tomas Dvoràk of the Czech Republic. "He will break the world record and maybe score 9,200 points. He is the future of the decathlon." Only Seberle has surpassed 9,000 points on the arcane decathlon scoring tables.
Clay is the son of a Japanese immigrant mother, Michele Ishimoto, and an African-American father, Greg Clay, who divorced when Bryan was in fifth grade. He was raised in Hawaii under the strong influence of his mom's Japanese culture. "Our house was always full of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins," says Clay. "We ate ozoni [a traditional Japanese rice soup] on New Year's Eve. My life was very Japanese."
Some of the culture Clay embraced, some he resisted. He was an indifferent student. "When the waves were good, I went to the beach," Clay says. He showed promise as a sprinter and hurdler in high school, but when he arrived at Azusa Pacific University in California in 1998, the decathlon brought focus to his athletic skills and maturity to his life. Within three years he was the third-best decathlete in the U.S., and with his title in Helsinki, he joins a group of greats that he has only recently begun to study.
"Dan O'Brien, Bruce Jenner, Bill Toomey, J√ºrgen Hingsen, Daley Thompson," said Clay a day after winning gold. "I've tried to learn about these guys, and I've dreamed of being like them someday. People are telling me I'm there now. That's hard for me to grasp."
U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin has been at the top for more than a year, and he validated his Olympic 100-meter title with a win on the first weekend in Helsinki. Then there was a slice of unfinished business: Gatlin had finished third in the Olympic 200 behind countrymen Shawn Crawford (also his training partner) and Bernard Williams. In Helsinki, Gatlin was bidding to join Maurice Greene (1999) as the only 100-200 male double gold medalist in the history of the world championships.
Between races he chilled at the U.S. team hotel in the athletes' village, playing Midnight Club 3, a frantic car-racing game, on his PlayStation Portable to keep his nerves sharp. "It gets me in racing mode, where I feel competitive," said Gatlin. He visited the Nike hospitality center and schmoozed with fans. His mother, Jeanette, worried that he was staying too active between events.
"Don't you think you need to get off your feet?" she asked him.
"Don't worry about it, Mom," he said, smiling. "I'm cool."
He was cool, all right. And fast: He led a one-two-three-four U.S sweep of the 200. (The U.S. had four starters because John Capel was the defending champion and received a wild-card entry.) It was the first such sweep in worlds history, though it was matched two nights later by Ethiopia in the women's 5,000. It also came one day after the disclosure of incidents in which older U.S. team members told some younger members to fetch drinks at a team party and also threatened to make them sing the national anthem in front of team members if what the older athletes called "disrespectful" behavior toward coaches and others was not curtailed. Among the younger team members were former Arkansas sprinters Wallace Spearmon, 20, and Tyson Gay, 23. Spearmon was second in the 200, and Gay was fourth.
"Shows that getting sodas definitely does not make you run slow," said bronze medalist Capel, 26, who admitted to "having a little fun, older guys picking on the younger guys," but said that nothing physical occurred. USA Track and Field CEO Craig Masback said last Saturday that the organization's internal investigation was ongoing.
Gatlin's close friend Allyson Felix, 19, matched his 200-meter gold, completing a rapid ascension to the top step of the international podium. Two years ago she was a fast, thin girl with a world of potential who had just graduated from tiny L.A. Baptist High. Then she earned a silver medal in Athens, and last week she became the first teenager to win a sprint gold medal at the world championships. (U.S. teammate Tianna Madison, also 19, won the long jump in Helsinki to become the second teen to earn a world title in a field event.)
In the final Felix relaxed running the curve, even as French sprinter Christine Arron raced up in a lane inside her. Spotting Arron three strides, Felix glided past her 20 meters from the finish to win by .15 of a second in 22.16. "She's stronger than last year," said Jamaica's Veronica Campbell, the Athens gold medalist, who finished fourth in Helsinki. Felix split with coach Pat Connolly after the Olympics and began working with Bobby Kersee, seeking more freedom on and off the track than she says Connolly's system allowed. "Pat was great for my first year out of high school, but things were very unconditional," says Felix.
Best known for coaching his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Florence Griffith Joyner, Kersee has pushed Felix to run intervals as long as 600 meters to increase her strength. "There's a long-range plan, but I'm not revealing it yet," Kersee says. Here's a hint: To help in coaching--and counseling--Felix, Kersee has enlisted another of his former athletes, Valerie Brisco, who under her former married name, Valerie Brisco-Hooks, won the 200 and 400 meters at the 1984 Olympics.
"I'd like to definitely run two events at the 2008 Olympics," says Felix. "And I'll make the decision in time for [the world championships in] 2007 [in Osaka, Japan]. Right now I like the 100; Bobby is thinking about the 400."
Felix is a full-time student at USC, majoring in elementary education, and shares an apartment near campus with her brother, Wes, a former USC sprinter who is still competing. On Sundays they attend the Los Angeles Community Bible Church in South Central L.A. with their parents, Paul and Marlean. Afterward they eat dinner together. Paul usually treats, but Allyson may soon find herself picking up the occasional check.
Both Felix and Gatlin might have added another gold medal. Gatlin was scheduled to anchor the U.S. men's 4√ó100-meter relay on Saturday night, but in Friday's semifinal Mardy Scales and Leonard Scott botched the first baton pass, and the U.S. team was eliminated. Similar problems kept the U.S. from reaching the final at the worlds in both 1995 and '97. This year's team came together only in Helsinki, and the lineup changed when Crawford dropped out with a left-foot injury after the 100 meters. Chaos ensued. "The U.S. never practices enough," said Greene, who was to run anchor in the first round and either first or second in the final.
Felix had hoped to run in Saturday night's 4√ó100 women's final. Instead, U.S. coaches elected to run the same four women--Angela Daigle, Muna Lee, Lisa Barber and 100-meter gold medalist Lauryn Williams--who had run clean and fast in the semifinal, rather than replacing Daigle with Felix. That foursome won the gold. "Of course, I was looking forward to running," said Felix, "but I wouldn't want to do anything to hurt the U.S. chances of winning the gold medal." (Felix might have better served the U.S. by running on the 4√ó400 relay team, which was DQ'd in the first round when leadoff runner Suziann Reid ran out of her lane; Felix has run faster than Reid this year.)
Jeremy Wariner encountered no such letdown. The 21-year-old 400-meter gold medalist from Athens had gone truly fast only once this year, at the U.S. championships in June, but he ran a silky final in Helsinki last Friday to beat teammate Andrew Rock in 43.93. Wariner joined his agent, world-record holder Michael Johnson, as the only runners since 1996 to have gone under 44 seconds. Two nights later Wariner closed the worlds by anchoring the gold medal 4√ó400-meter relay.
Throughout the week U.S. team officials decorated the American medalists' doors at the hotel, a nightly world championship tradition dating back to 1999. They hung crepe paper and pictures, and teammates signed big meet posters. Athletes shared a toast to their success, champagne for those 21 or older, bubbly fruit juice for those younger. No surprise: The Americans ran out of supplies and drinks long before the meet was over.