Hurdlers, walkers and steeplechasers serve up a treat on the Rio 2016 track
The sprint hurdle events at Rio 2016 produced a Jamaican first and an American clean sweep, with the USA also completing a one-lap hurdles double. Meanwhile, the steeplechase events saw another Kenyan crowned champion and a new Bahraini winner, while China reigned supreme in both of the 20km walk competitions and a Slovak took the honours in the men’s 50km.
The 22-year-old McLeod, who ran a wind-assisted 9.99 in the 100m earlier in the season, drew on his speed and technique to cap his meteoric rise in the event. “The fact I’m getting quicker means the hurdles come quicker. I’ve had to adapt and find a rhythm,” he said. “In 2015, I came out of a college year, and to get so close to a medal at the Worlds in Beijing encouraged me to work harder.”
Olympic gold represented the best possible comeback from the spectacular fall McLeod suffered at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco just a few weeks before the Games, a tumble that left him limping over the finish line and caused him to alter his approach to the event. “You fall and you wonder what’s going on,” he said. “You just need to learn how to regroup. It was a learning experience. I learned to be patient and I honestly played it safe, my speed. All I needed to do was just hurdle.”
Bouncing back in style on the blue track of Rio's Olympic Stadium, the Jamaican hurdler drew inspiration from his esteemed sprinting compatriots. “You just feed off them, Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser, you see them go out and represent their country and they have fun and win,” he said. “They harvest medals and you just want to do the same thing. It’s contagious, you just want to go out and experience it. I’m elated. The feeling is honestly indescribable. I don’t know what’s going through my mind right now. I need to go back and recite it a couple of times and say ‘You’re an Olympic champion’.”
Clean sweep for USA hurdlersThe USA scored the first ever one-two-three in the history of the Olympic women’s 100m hurdles final, with Brianna Rollins leading the way from compatriots Nia Ali and Kristi Castlin. American athletes have enjoyed no shortage of success in the event in recent Games, winning eight of the 12 medals awarded since Athens 2004.
“I didn’t feel any pressure and I knew we could achieve something like that,” said an ecstatic Rollins. “We spoke about it a bit before the race but not much. We wanted to stay focused and do our best. It just shows how strong a team we are. I just tried to stay focused to the end, even when I touched a hurdle I stayed in my bubble and I got to the finish line. I’m so happy the three of us managed to do it. I’m relieved this week is over. I’m going to relax now and make the most of it.”
Clement storms to 400m hurdles goldThere was yet more joy for the USA in the men’s 400m hurdles final, with Kerron Clement turning in a powerful performance and holding off a late spurt from Kenya’s Boniface Tumuti to clinch gold. Clement clocked 47.73 to win from Tumuti and Turkey’s Yasmani Copello, who both set new national records in also dipping under 48 seconds, as did Ireland’s Thomas Barr in fourth. Sixth-placed Magi Rasmus’s time of 48.40 was also an Estonian best.
A silver medallist in the event at Beijing 2008, behind compatriot Angelo Taylor, and a gold medallist in the 4x400m relay at those Games, the Trinidad and Tobago-born Clement was elated to return to the top of the podium after suffering a string of injury problems. After showing that he was back to his best by running the fastest time of the semi-finals, the American made a storming start to the final and held a seemingly comfortable lead as he came off the final bend. Tumuti’s late charge had the American straining for the line, however, and he was relieved to cross it 0.5 seconds ahead of the Kenyan.
After receiving the congratulations of team-mate Ashton Eaton, who was in the process of defending his decathlon title, Clement spoke of his determination of to win a medal in Rio and make up for the injuries that had prevented him from getting on the podium at London 2012. “I came out here with one mindset and that was to execute my race plan and trust my fitness and just believe in myself. I came up a bit short in 2008 and got silver. In 2012, I was fighting injuries and operations. I was just happy to make the final,” said the new Olympic champion. “Coming out here in 2016 is a redemption year for me. I’m just really honoured to get the gold medal.”
Runner-up Tumuti was delighted with his silver: “I’m so happy and I dedicate my medal to my baby girl, who was born last week. This is my first medal in the Olympics, and I missed the gold by a whisker. I beat the Kenyan record today, though, and I’ve come away with silver in the 400m hurdles. It’s a big event and it was a very tough race.”
Muhammad completes US 400m hurdle doubleThe USA’s Dalilah Muhammad led from start to finish in the women’s 400m hurdles to complete an American men’s and women’s double in the event. The 26-year-old Muhammad clocked 53.13 in steady rain to win by 0.42 from Denmark’s Sara Slott Petersen, with Ashley Spencer of the USA landing the bronze. Reigning world champion and London 2012 bronze medallist Zuzana Hejnova of the Czech Republic finished just out of the medals in fourth.
Defying the damp conditions, Muhammad shot out of the blocks, rose quickest at the first hurdle and never looked in any danger of being overtaken, claiming a deserved gold by an emphatic margin. Having arrived in Rio as the fastest woman in the event this year, she was understandably elated at backing that form up with gold: “The reality of winning is even better than the dream. Olympic champion in front of my name. Being the first American to win this title adds a bit of extra sparkle.”
After running 53.55 to win silver, European champion Petersen said: “I don’t think I have the words. I was hoping so bad for this. I didn’t have the courage to believe. But I felt great on the warm-up track and I just had a feeling it might be my night.”
In taking third, Spencer recorded a personal best of 53.72, justifying her decision to devote all her energies to hurdling this season. “I really didn’t go in with any expectations,” said the 23-year-old. “I just wanted to have fun. I have looked forward to this moment all my life. I had nothing to lose. I came out here to have fun, and I had so much fun and won an Olympic medal.”
Teenager Jebet surges to women’s steeplechase titleBahrain’s Ruth Jebet came within an inch of breaking the world record as she became the third athlete to win Olympic gold in the women’s 3,000m steeplechase, an event that first appeared on the programme at Beijing 2008. The 19-year-old Jebet’s winning time of 8:59.75 was a new Asian record and was just 0.94 seconds outside the all-time world best of 8:58.81, set by Gulnara Galkina of Russia in the final in Beijing eight years ago. Kenya’s Hyvin Kiyeng Jepkemoi claimed the silver, with the USA’s Emma Coburn posting a new continental record of 9:07.63 to take the bronze.
Jebet broke away from the field just before the halfway mark and seemed well on course to eclipse Galkina’s mark. She eased up in the closing stages, however, and just missed out on making the record hers, not that she was too disappointed about that: “This is the second time that I missed the world record. I admit it was too easy for me but nobody told me about the record. I wanted the gold medal,” she explained.
Jebet had come close to taking Galkina’s record earlier in the season, running 8:59.97 at a Diamond League meeting in Eugene (USA) in May 2016 to become only the second woman to dip under nine minutes.
Kipruto maintains Kenya’s perfect steeplechase recordKenya’s Conseslus Kipruto set a new Olympic record of 8:03.28 to claim the men’s 3,000m steeplechase title and extend his nation’s remarkable run of success in the event, which has seen its athletes claim every gold on offer at the distance since Los Angeles 1984. Completing the podium behind the Kenyan were Evan Jager of the USA and France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad.
Unbeaten this season, Kipruto manoeuvred himself into a three-man breakaway and then kicked for home with a lap remaining to complete a commanding win that he began celebrating as he cruised down the final straight. “I saw the screen and I saw I was far from them, and I knew nobody was going to catch me,” said the new star of Kenyan steeplechasing. “I knew I was going to win the gold in the final 100m. Even before the race I knew I would win.”
“It was indescribable, a lot of years of hard work,” said Jager, the first American athlete to win a medal in the event since Brian Diemer at Los Angeles 1984. “I was able to truly enjoy the moment and the emotions that come with it. I didn’t know I had a medal wrapped up until 100 metres left to go, and as soon as I got over the last barrier I could enjoy it. I experienced complete joy as I crossed the finish line. I think I had the perfect race today and I was just enjoying every second of it.”
Zhen times it rightThe first day of the Rio 2016 athletics competition saw China’s Wang Zhen win the men’s 20km title in a time of 1:19:14, ahead of compatriot Cai Zelin and Australia’s Dane Bird-Smith, who was competing in his first Olympics.
A runner-up at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, a bronze medallist at London 2012 and a world team gold medallist in Rome in 2016, the 24-year-old Zhen moved into the lead with around three kilometres remaining and stayed there, eventually crossing the line 12 seconds ahead of Cai. “I feel like I didn’t have much of a plan for this race,” said the new Olympic champion, who shared a celebratory embrace with his team-mate at the finish line. “I talked with my coach beforehand, but I just followed my heart.”
Bird-Smith, whose father and coach David Smith competed in the event at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics and who was in Rio to cheer him on, clocked a personal best time of 1:19.37 to claim his bronze. “Epic, eh?” said the ecstatic Australian. “I just looked at my watch; a PB as well. I just can’t believe it. It feels totally unreal right now. My dad had some cracks at it, and this is my first one down, so I just can’t wait to see him.”
Elsewhere, defending champion Chen Ding, the third Chinese entrant, never looked like retaining his title and finished well down the field in 39th. Meanwhile, Brazil’s Caio Bonfim posted a new national record of 1:19:42 in finishing just out of the medals and long-time race leader Tom Bosworth of Great Britain came in sixth.
Liu walks her way to goldA bronze medallist in the women’s 20km walk at London 2012, China’s Liu Hong went two steps further at Rio 2016, fending off Mexico’s Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez in a thrilling final kilometre to snatch gold. China’s Lu Xiuzhi, who collected silver at last year’s world championships, had to settle for bronze.
World champion Liu was a firm favourite heading into Games and she lived up to that billing, powering away from Gonzalez as the finish line neared to win in 1:28:35. The Mexican entered the final kilometre in the lead but was unable to resist Liu’s late onslaught in hot and humid conditions, crossing the line a mere two seconds behind the 29-year-old world record holder.
In bringing Mexico its first medal at Rio 2016, Gonzalez also became only the second woman to win an athletics medal for the Latin American nation. “I feel good,” she said after missing out on the Olympic title by a whisker. “I was hoping to get the gold and I raced as hard as I could and gave it everything. But I’m happy. Next time I will have to race harder.”
“This is my second Olympics and I was sixth last time. But this time I won a medal for China and I’m very proud of that,” commented bronze medallist Lu. “I’m also very proud that there are two Chinese athletes on the podium. I didn’t feel that tired but in the last lap I should have been faster. I need to work on that.”
Toth beats Tallent to 50km walk titleIn the last of the walk events at Rio 2016, Slovakia’s Matej Toth outlasted the field to win 50km gold, timing his move to perfection to beat defending champion Jared Tallent of Australia and add Olympic gold to the world title he won in 2015. The bronze went to Japan’s Hirooki Arai.
Appearing in his fourth Games, the 33-year-old Toth moved past race leader Tallent with two kilometres remaining and blew kisses to the crowd as he cruised home for his first Olympic title in a time of 3:40:58, some 18 seconds clear of the Australian. “It’s something unbelievable for me,” said the Slovakian. ”I’m so proud. So happy. It’s a great feeling. There was a great atmosphere, a lot of people, so I just pushed and it was from all my body, my heart, my brain, my head. It’s not football or ice hockey, but walking has a long tradition in Slovakia.”
Referring to the energy-sapping heat, the new champion added: “Today was very tough. Compared with Beijing last year, which was one of the easiest 50km races, this was one of the hardest. It was very tough. It was very warm. After 25km, I didn’t think I could win a medal. But by the 35km mark, I saw that everyone was struggling. I couldn’t go any faster so I just stayed at my cruising speed.”
France’s world record holder Johan Diniz held a lead of one minute and 40 seconds at the halfway stage but fell victim to stomach problems, which forced him to stop at one stage. Bravely resuming, the Frenchman came in eighth, five minutes behind Toth. Taking over the lead, Tallent looked to be in complete control, only for the dogged Toth to reel him in and then pull clear himself.
“About 4km to go he was gaining on me,” said Tallent after the race. “I was pushing as hard as I can, but every time I went around the turn he was closer. I was trying to give it everything and just trying to hold on. But he came past really strongly on that last lap and I had nothing to respond with.”
The 31-year-old, who also won 50km silver and 20km bronze at Beijing 2008, added: “50km: three Olympics in a row, three Olympic medals, so I’m pretty stoked. Two silvers and a gold now. It’s a bit of history. It’s something I’m very proud of. Hopefully I can come back in four years’ time and get another gold medal. I’ll aim for that. But I gave it everything today and I’m really happy.”