Olympic athletics was solid gold
Jamaica's Usain Bolt celebrates AFP PHOTO / OLIVIER MORIN
After a dazzling week of track and field, the London Olympics have drawn to a close. While we at home battle through a post-euphoric haze of sleep deprivation, it’s the perfect time to pull the freshly-minted memories out and give them a quick polish before they go back in the sock drawer.
Here are my Five Best Things from the athletics programme. Imagine them in variously coloured rings, if you still need an unofficial Olympic crutch to sustain yourself through the working week.
1 The Bolt Show
This was Bolt’s Olympics. Sure, his three gold medals were matched by Allyson Felix, but the sheer force of Bolt’s personality, theatricality and unequivocal status as the fastest human being ever to walk the Earth make him the massive, shining, supernova-bright star of this Olympics.
He wasn’t beaten in this Games. He has never been beaten in the Olympics. He might only ever be beaten in the Olympics if he decides he’s sick of running and switches to gymnastics. Or the long jump. Or the 400m. Actually, he’d probably still win at those last two.
No man before Bolt has ever done the 100/200m double in two Olympics, let alone the double-triple with the relay gold medal as well. A cheeky world record in the 4×100 and a bit of fun with some Swedish handballers and you’d have to imagine Usain has enjoyed his fortnight.
When lesser athletes declare themselves to be legends, you tend to wince and look at your feet, then mutter something about not being up yourself while shuffling awkwardly and resolving to support the other guy next time. When Bolt declares himself to be a legend, it’s impossible to disagree with him.
Bolt is now in the category of Pele and Ali. He transcends his sport – the most global of all sports. Watching Bolt is a pure, unadulterated thrill ride, it reduces seasoned athletics fans and every kid in the world alike to open-mouthed awe.
He is a phenomenon, and I have to stop writing superlatives now.
Stratford has never rocked so hard as when Bolt was racing, and it probably never will again.
Some swimmers (Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt, Sun Yang, and Ryan Lochte) won more medals than Bolt, but swimmers collect gold medals like Londoners collect empty pint glasses: 11 of the top 15 individual medal winners in this games were swimmers. How many of Allison Schmitt’s gold medals can you remember?
Didn’t think so. This was the Bolt show.
2 The Rudisha World Record
I feel for David Rudisha. His world record in the 800m final was the single best run of the Olympic Games. World records simply do not get broken in middle distance and distance events at major championships, not without a pacemaker and after running heats and semi-finals.
Rudisha, tall and softly-spoken, with the smoothest, most effortless stride in the world. None of Bolt’s brashness, just a shy smile and a wave to the crowd. No need for a pacemaker, he just ran at his own pace and led from gun to tape.
In the fastest 800m race ever run.
National records, junior records, personal bests, season’s best, all crumbled behind Rudisha as he dragged the field through. No 800m race had ever been that fast across the whole field, it was an incredible race, let alone in an Olympic final.
The silver medallist, Nijel Amos of Botswana, ran a world junior record, became the equal third-fastest of all time, and had to be carried off on a stretcher, waving weakly to the crowd. Rudisha crossed the finish line with his perfect form and languid stride, and set off on a victory lap looking like he’d just warmed up.
And it’s still going to be Bolt’s Olympics.
3 Sally Pearson
This was the one for the green and gold. Our last best hope of a gold medal in the track and field. A hot favourite in the 100m hurdles, in an Olympics where Australian hot favourites had often cooked rather than sizzled.
The pressure on Pearson was intense. Luckily for everyone except Dawn Harper, Sally held her nerve to win by a mere two Magnussens (0.02 seconds in the more traditional measure) in an Olympic record, despite the damp conditions.
It was a brilliant display of nerveless hurdling, and a deserved reward for two years of dominating the event. Do we think she can break the world record?
In favourable conditions I think she can go damn close.
It also set the Aussie Flame up for yet another top-ten showing on the athletics medal table, ably supported by silver medals to Mitch Watt (long jump) and Jared Tallent (50km walk). The athletics team eventually finished eighth (if you’re wondering, the swimming team finished seventh on their medal table).
4 Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis?
If I was to presume to choose the best British performance of the athletics programme, I would have plenty of options to choose from.
The Brits won four gold medals in the main stadium: two to Mo Farah, and one each to Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford. The Brits are very knowledgeable about athletics, and the sport has a much higher profile than it does in Australia, so it’s no surprise that the stadium was full and going absolutely ballistic for most of the track and field programme.
They don’t need my help picking their best moments, but…
OK, I’ll choose.
Sorry Greg, but winning the long jump with 8.31m just isn’t as compelling as seeing British national heart-throb Jessica Ennis storming home to victory in the final event, the 800m, to win the heptathlon.
Ennis had a magnificent competition, including running a hurdles time that would have finished fourth in the standalone event. And to think that a few weeks before the Games, British tabloids were questioning her fitness.
However, there’s not many better things than winning the 5000m/10,000m double at the Olympics, so Mo Farah gets the nod from me. Farah is a brilliant tactical racer, capable of a devastating final 400m that left the best Kenyans and Ethiopians looking silly in both races.
Both the 5,000m and 10,000m were slow by international standards, but this is always the way in major championships, and the medals are won by the athletes who can best go up a couple of gears at the finish.
It’s all about the change of pace (something that Australian middle- and distance runners have struggled with for decades).
Farah played to his own strengths beautifully, executed his sprints to perfection, and provided the Games with yet another uplifting refugee-to-champion narrative. And his face when he won the 5,000 was just about the best thing ever. Two gold medals: best of British.
5 The relays
All of the relays were crackers at this Games. Relays are messy, chaotic things where too much is happening too fast, and elation and despair are never far apart (just ask the Canadian men’s 4×100 team). World records in the men’s and women’s 4x100m were the highlights, naturally.
The women’s race was the more exciting, not least because the US obliterated a record held under some suspicion by East Germany, but also because Jamaica came ridiculously close to the old record. Indeed, the Jamaican women came off second best to the Americans in the sprints, although Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce bagged the 100m gold the the Americans took everything else.
The men’s 4×100 world record was like your first beer on holiday: satisfying, but you’ve known it was coming for ages. It just wasn’t a surprise to see Bolt humming across the line in another world record – he and his team-mates are so good we’re getting desensitised!
Imagine what they could’ve done with a fit Asafa Powell in the team. The Americans are also incredibly strong, but Bolt was the difference, again.
The men’s 4×100 was also a really good result for Australia, finishing seventh and making the selectors who failed to pick any of them for an individual event look a bit stingy.
However, we can’t forget the storming US women’s 4×400 victory, led by the amazingly versatile Allyson Felix (not many athletes could come fifth in the 100m, first in the 200m, and win gold medals in both 4×100 and 4×400 relays) and Sanya Richards-Ross.
The shock defeat of the US men’s 4x400m team by the Bahamas, following the failure of any US male to qualify for the individual 400m final, will be a tough one to swallow for a US team long-accustomed to dominance in the event.
The eight fastest men ever in the 400m are from the US, but not this year.
Of course, I could spend weeks writing about the other grand highlights of this fantastic meet. It wasn’t the best ever Olympic athletics competition (that remains Mexico 1968, for my money) but it was damn good. Another one, please.
Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. A former A-grade club athlete, and now a keen recreational cyclist and roller racer, he once rode very slowly up Mont Ventoux. Tim tweets about sport at @timehhh_sp.
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