01 September, 2016

My Olympic Report (2016). First part: track events

Again the time difference between Greece and Brazil made it very hard to follow the evening session live. With one exception (men's 100 m) I watched everything time-shifted and followed the finals already knowing the result. Still, this did not make the competitions less interesting. On the contrary, it allowed me to watch out for the most important instants. So, here is an account of my impressions along with a dash of technical discussion.

Last year I started my account on the World Championships saying that U. Bolt is the best sprinter ever. Not only has he made this clear once more at the Games but I think that now even the more fanatic Gatlin admirers are compelled to admit this basic truth. Bolt is the best sprinter who has ever existed. B. Hayes could have rivalled with him over 100 m. T. Smith could have given him a hard time over 200 m. But nobody could have dominated the two distances the way Bolt does. So, Bolt squashed the competition, and Gatlin had to settle for silver (which is already too much for a double doping offender). The nice surprise was the flourishing of A. De Grasse who is now a convincing heir to U. Bolt. (The other such heir, Y. Blake, was back from seasons plagued by injuries and had to contend himself with a fourth place). An unpleasant surprise was the lacklustre performance of T. Brommel who had, last year, tied with De Grasse for the bronze medal in the World's.

The 100 m final

The 200 m turned out to be Gatlin's Waterloo. Trying to play Bolt, he eased up over the last few metres of the semi-final and ended up third with a non-qualifying time. Well, when you do not have Bolt's class, don't try to imitate him. In fact Bolt did just the same thing in his semi, easing up with De Grasse coming hard after him. Still Bolt won and crossed the line smiling and shaking his finger at De Grasse. 

Bolt and De Grasse in the semi-final

With Gatlin eliminated there were several runners who could pine for a bronze medal, Bolt and De Grasse trusting gold and silver. Finally it was C. Lemaître who prevailed beating A. Gemili and C. Martina by scant milliseconds. 

Bolt and Lemaître in the 200 m final

I have already written on the absurdity of milliseconds. To my eyes all three runners should have shared the bronze medal. 

The men's 200 m photofinish

But, be that as it may, I am very happy for Lemaître who managed his exploit while not being in his best shape as he was in 2011 or 2012.

Women's sprint races were dominated by E. Thompson. People were thinking of T. Bowie, S-A. Frazer-Pryce and D. Schippers as possible contenders for the title. Myself, I was thinking about a duel of Thompson and Schippers over the longer distance. Well, nothing such happened. 

Women's 200 m final

Thompson crushed both events winning by a 0.12 s margin the 100 m and by 0.10 s the 200 m. The funny thing is that she was rather astonished by her easy victories. 

Thompson and Ta Lou in the 100 m final

I was very happy with M.J. TaLou's brilliant performance in both finals and a little sad that she lost the bronze medal over the shorter distance for a few milliseconds (those pesky milliseconds again). 

The women's 100 m photofinish

My other preferred Ivorian runner, M. Ahouré, could not find her 10.78 form and was eliminated in the semis. One nice surprise was the presence of I. Lalova-Collio in the 200 m final, 12 years after the Athens Games, where she finished 4th and 5th in the two sprint events.

Both men's and women's 400 m were fascinating events. One year after his world title W. Van Niekerk won the olympic gold, crushing the opposition and establishing a new world record. The former olympic champion, K. James, finished 0.73 s behind for second place. Go here to watch the video, you will not regret it. Van Niekerk ran in lane 8 and thus knew only approximately where the others were. And when he entered the final stretch he just flied away from his rivals. 

Van Niekerk at the 400 m final

Van Niekerk has the same age as James and so we can look forward to more duels of the two quarter-milers. I was expecting a somewhat better result from the second runner from Grenada, B. Taplin, but the one athlete who really impressed me was K. Sibanda of Botswana who ran 44.25 s for 5th place at just 18 years of age. It is clear that men's 400 m is becoming a very competitive discipline (and one can thus easily understand why Bolt has always resisted the temptation to move up to that distance).

Women's race was a dramatic one. A. Felix had prepared the Games with the hope to triple her individual gold medals. The USATF had even twisted the arm of the organising committee in order to make the programme compatible with a 200-400 m double for Felix. The first disaster, for Felix, struck at the US Trials were she finished 4th over 200 m and could not make the team. So, only the 400 m remained. And there she happened across S. Miller, from Bahamas, who was second behind her in last year's World's. Miller in lane 7 ran a suicidal race and was caught up by Felix with 30 m to go. 

The impressive dive of Miller

But she hang on and while trying to dip for the finish line she tripped and dived across finishing 0.07 s ahead of Felix. 

and the photofinish

My two favourite runners F. Gueï of France (european 2016) silver medalist) and K. Mupopo of Zambia (african 2016 champion) made mediocre appearances and exited at the semi-finals. I was hoping for something better.

D. Rudisha is a lucky guy. After being hampered by injuries during three difficult years, 2013-2015, during which he managed just to win a tactical 800 m in the 2015 World's, he came back to shape and won hands down the olympic 800 m title with a respectable 1:42.15. T Makhloufi of Algeria, the 2012 1500 m olympic gold medalist, was second and P.A. Bosse of France once again failed to grab a medal finishing 4th. Women's 800 m deserves a special article and I promise to write it in a near future. To my eyes one thing is clear: There were at best 7 women present in the final.

I will not discuss the men's 1500 m. For me this race was a shame. One has to go back to 1932 (where L. Beccali won in 3:51.2) in order to find a winning time slower than the 3:50.00 of Rio. One had the impression to see decathletes running the 1500 m. Naturally, the final lap was a 50 s one. Naturally, some favourites were left without medal. Well, it serves them right. I hope we will never see such a ridiculous race again. Women's race was not much better. Again the athletes started at a snail's pace but at least the pace picked up over the last two laps. G. Dibaba the pre-race favourite was roundly beaten by Kenya's F. Kipyegon, with G. Simpson, the 2011 world champion winning bronze. The indoor world champion, S. Hassan of the Netherlands, had to settle for 5th, while Britain's L. Muir, who a few days later ran a world leading 3:55.22, could only finish 7th.

Men's 5 and 10 km were won by M. Farah, unbeaten in the Olympics or the World's over both distances since 2012. Enough said. Women's long distances were another story altogether. Everything started at the very first day with the final of 10000 m. Ayana imposed her own rhythm on the other competitors and flew away from the pack. She passed at mid-point in 14:47.1 running the second half in 14:30.4 for a final time of 29:17.45. She eclipsed J. Wang's record of 29:31.78 which had been standing for over 20 years. The incredible race of Ayana "hoovered up" the two other medalists V. Cheruiyot to an impressive 29:32.53 and T. Dibaba, the two-times olympic gold medalist, to a personal best of 29:42.56. 

The winners of women's 10000 m

Even the 4th finisher A. Aprot Mawonuna of Kenya ran below 30 min, with 29.53.51. All women finishing in the 13 first places registered a personal best, with a world master's record for J. Pavey at 15 place and 8 national records in all. Rarely have I seen such an exciting 10 km. But then things got somewhat bizarre. Notice that Ayana ran the second 5 km of the race in 14:30.4. (Of course Wang in her 1993 record had done even better with a first 5 km in 15:05.90 and a second one in 14:25.88). So all of us were expecting a fantastic 5000 m. After all, Ayana's 10 km record is equivalent to a sub-14 min 5 km. But in the race Ayana could manage only a 14:33.59 finishing 3rd and was beaten by the two kenyans: V. Cheruiyot in 14:26.17 and H. Onsando Obiri in 14:29.77. Ayana accelerated after the first kilometre but with one kilometre to go she was passed by the two kenyans and gave the impression of vulnerability. I don't know what to say. In fact I will wait for Ayana's Brussels Golden League 5000 m before voicing my suspicions.

Kenya won both men's and women's Marathon races with E. Kipchoge and J. Sumgong. Last year's world champion, 20 year old G. Gebreslassie from Erythrea, finished 4th establishing thus beyond doubt that last year's victory was not a short-lived firework. In the women's race three sets of twins finished the race: Hahner from Germany, Kim from North Korea and two of the Luik triplets from Estonia (the third one unfortunately dropped out of the race and missed thus what would have been a Guinness record).

Jamaica won easily men's 4x100 m relay with Bolt obtaining thus a magical triple-triple. The US team observed the tradition by getting disqualified. In fact the last time the americans won a medal was in the 2007 World's. (But, to be fair, they lost their 2012 silver medal on a doping offense by T. Gay). I have devoted a special article to the women's 4x100 m relay so there is no need to repeat myself here. The US teams won both the 4x400 m relays. I was a little bit sad at the end of the men's relay where the super-human effort of Kevin Borlée did not suffice in order to grab an olympic medal for Belgium. In any case, the belgian team is today the number one team in Europe.

Men's 4x400 m final

My favourite for the 110 m hurdles, O. McLeod, did win and rather easily at that. Still in the high hurdles nothing is guaranteed and the recent misfortune of McLeod, sprawled on the track after the 10th hurdle in this year's Monaco Diamond League competition, showed that even the best hurdlers should fear the hurdles. Part of the heats took place under a pouring rain and the chief judge ordered a repechage to be held in order to give a second chance to athletes who had to face the heavy rain. One of the athletes who managed to qualify in terrible conditions was M. Trajkovic of Cyprus who went on to qualify for the final (after having done the same in the European championships a month earlier). His race in the heats is really worth watching, but I guess it will be very difficult to find.

McLeod with Bascou and Martinot-Lagarde

By the harsh rules of the US Trials K. Harrison, who finished 6th could not make the olympic team despite being the best performer of the year. She proved that she was the best by breaking the world record a few weeks before the Olympics erasing a 28-year old record with a time of 12.20 s. Still, she had to watch from afar her teammates make history as they did a clean sweep of the olympic medals. I was expecting B. Rollins and N. Ali, outdoors and indoors world champions respectively, to be on the podium but I could not vouch for K. Castlin whom I did not know. Still she did manage to grab bronze, Rollings and Ali getting gold and silver respectively. I really do like the photo of the three girls celebrating their victory.

Castlin, Rollins and Ali

In the 400 m hurdles, K. Clement, world champion in 2007 and 2009, obtained his first gold olympic medal (he already had a silver from 2008). The reigning world champion N. Bett of Kenya stumbled on the last hurdle and was disqualified in the heats. Another kenyan, B. Tumuti finished second improving Bett's record by 0.01 s. J. Culson, one of the favourites was disqualified in the final for false start. In the European championships I had noticed a norwegian hurdler, K. Warholm. He was present in Rio and won his heat in a national record time. However in the semis he did the same mistake as in Amsterdam, running too fast over the first half and thus could not make it to the final. I am going to keep an eye open for him in the future.

Having watched the heats of the women's 400 m hurdles I was convinced that D. Muhammad was going to win, which she went on to do without being challenged in the least. The surprise came from the second place of the european champion S. Petersen of Denmark. The 2013 and 2015 world champion Z. Hejnova could only manage a 4th place, her bronze medal from London being thus her only olympic podium. 

The 3000 m steeplechase was once more a kenyan affair. Since 1968 Kenya has conserved the olympic title, with the exception of the years of boycott, 1976 and 1980. On two occasions, 1992 and 2004, kenyans athletes secured all three medals. In Rio things were a little bit complicated. E. Kemboi, the 2004 and 2012 Olympic champion (and 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015 world champion as well) finished third, whereupon he announced his decision to retire from athletics. However following a protest by the french team he was disqualified for stepping outside the track (and thus the bronze medal went to M. Mekhissi-Benabbad who had finished 4th). That was a harsh decision and the move of the french team somewhat petty. Mekhissi, a multiple olympic, world and european medalist did not need that controversial medal, all the more so since he had lost his european 2014 gold after a questionable protest for having removed his shirt in celebration on the home straight.

Women's 3000 m steeplechase got me thinking. Why on earth do the kenyans let their best athletes leave, to run under foreign nationalities? I could understand it if they did it for their second-best athletes but let a champion like R. Jebet run for Bahrain is preposterous. So what happened is that Jebet won the olympic title in a "cautious" 8:59.75 and a week later, in the Paris Diamond League competition she smashed the world record with 8:52.78. As a consequence, now, both men's and women's records of steeplechase are held by kenyans running for foreign countries. (Qatar's world record holder with 7:53.63, Saif Saaeed Shaheen is in fact Stephen Cherono. He became a Qatari citizen in 2003, but was barred from competing in the 2004 Olympics, due to the refusal of the kenyan federation to allow him run. He established his world record shortly after the Games in a race where he beat the olympic champion E. Kemboi). Anyhow, the women's Rio steeplechase race was a great one with all athletes from 3rd to 9th place registering personal bests (season's best for S. Assefa in 5th).

If you have followed closely the presentation you will certainly have noticed that something is missing: race-walking. I will never report on this unnatural discipline, despite the fact that I consider race-walkers on par with the other athletes. It is just, as I have explained, that this discipline should not have existed as a competition one.

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