Even the full moon was peeking into Olympic Stadium on Friday night. Nobody wanted to miss the men’s and women’s 400-meter relays, the fastest foursomes in the world competing in a nervewracking 40-second race that can come unglued with one bad baton handoff.
Making the event even more sizzling than usual was the fact that Usain Bolt, the undisputed Fastest Man on the Planet, was anchoring the Jamaican team in what he said was the final Olympic race of his remarkable career.
He made it a memorable one, blasting away from the pack on the final leg, covering 100 meters like only he can. Jamaica won the gold medal in 37.27 seconds.
Japan, known for its precise baton passes, won the silver in 37.60. One team member, Aska “The Japanese Bolt” Cambridge, was born in Jamaica but raised in Japan.
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And the U.S. team, which initially was awarded the bronze, was later disqualified because officials ruled Mike Rodgers’ pass to Justin Gatlin came too early, before the legal exchange zone. Canada was given the bronze.
With the gold, Bolt completed an unprecedented triple-triple — three gold medals (in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 relay) in three consecutive Olympics.
Nine Olympic races. Nine gold medals. He equaled the all-time record in track and field by U.S. legend Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi of Finland.
“There you go; I am the greatest,” a smiling Bolt declared as he came off the track.
Two hours later, carrying portable speakers, Bolt and his teammates danced to reggae music as they entered the news conference. They confessed that they practiced just twice before Friday’s race. And then, Bolt got reflective.
“I have mixed feelings,” he said. “I feel relief. I’ve been under all this pressure over the years. Win three gold medals back to back to back, but I will definitely miss the sport, the Olympics, the biggest stage. I’ve done all I can do. I’ve proven to the world I am the best in the sport. It is mission accomplished, pretty much. … I have to come up with a new bucket list.”
Asked if he realizes what he did was nearly impossible, he replied: “Nothing is impossible. I never set limits for myself. I always wanted to push the barriers, and that’s what I’ve done.”
After the race, Bolt and his teammates — Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and Nickel Ashmeade — wrapped themselves in Jamaican flags and danced. And danced. He kissed the track. He posed for selfies with random fans. He waved a Brazilian flag. The crowd chanted “Usain Bolt! Usain Bolt!”
Meanwhile, the American men’s quartet of Rodgers, Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Trayvon Brummel stopped their victory lap short, took off the flags they had draped around their shoulders and dejectedly walked off the track.
“It was the twilight zone,” Gatlin said. “It was a nightmare. You work so hard with your teammates, guys you compete against almost all year long. All that hard work just crumbles.”
Gatlin said he thought it was a legal baton exchange. The U.S. Track Federation made an inquiry into the disqualification, but the ruling was not expected to be overturned.
Added Gay: “They said Justin got the stick before the exchange zone. I don’t really know the rules but I know if you get it before, you’re DQ’d. That happened to us in 2009 if I’m not mistaken. But he’s saying he didn’t grab it until he got across it, so, hopefully we can do some type of appeal.”
It was the ninth time since 1995 that the U.S. team has been disqualified from a relay at an Olympics or world championship.
“It has to be the worst luck for this country ever,” Gay said. “It’s always something weird, stupid. Simple mistakes always cost us.”
The U.S. women had a much better night. They defended their gold medal in 41.01 seconds, the second-fastest time in history, behind the world-record 40.82 they set in London. Jamaica won the silver in 41.01 and Great Britain took bronze in 41.77.
The U.S. quartet of Tianna Bartoletta, Allyson Felix, English Gardner and Tori Bowie led almost the whole way and celebrated their win with the large contingent of Americans in the stands. It was Felix’s sixth gold medal, most ever for a U.S. female in track.
“It’s very humbling, and I’m thankful to share it with these special ladies,” Felix said.
The rivalry between the Jamaican and U.S. relay teams is one of the fiercest in all Olympic sports. And Friday was no exception.
At the London Olympics in 2012, Jamaican men won the gold in a world-record 36.84 seconds, a record that still stands. The Americans won the silver, but the team was later disqualified and stripped of the medals because Gay was suspended for doping.
Jamaica, with Bolt as the anchor, has dominated the event in recent years. Team USA hadn’t won Olympic gold since Sydney 2000 and other than the stripped 2012 medal had not made the medal podium since 2004. The Americans have struggled with botched handoffs, including at last year’s world championship in Beijing, when they were disqualified for a baton exchange outside the allowed zone.
Asked why he thinks the Americans have so much trouble with baton exchanges, Powell said: “Pressure. I think they are more focused on beating Jamaica than running a proper race.”
The first event of the night was the women’s pole vault, and it was unknown until the last moment whether defending Olympic and world champion Jenn Suhr of the United States would compete.
Suhr, the 34-year-old from Upstate New York, has been battling a respiratory illness all week and woke up Friday coughing up blood, according to a tweet and Facebook post by her husband/coach, Rick.
“I ask all her supporters to not expect anything today,” Rick Suhr wrote. “If this was any other meet, any other place or time we get treatment and cancel out.
“The result won’t matter today, but this will be our greatest Olympic effort. Let’s watch and appreciate what Jenn is willing to go thru to represent America. I told her no matter how tough or ugly this is, you already won by being a great Olympic champion.”
Suhr finished seventh. Ekaterinin Stefanidi of Greece won the gold. American Sandi Morris took silver, and Eliza McCartney of New Zealand won bronze.
In the women’s 5,000 meters, Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia, who won gold in the 10,000 meters in world record time, fell short in her attempt for double gold. She won the bronze medal, while Kenyans Jepkemoi Cheruiyot and Hellen Obiri took gold and silver, respectively. Cheruiyot set an Olympic record with a time of 14:26.17.