In the shadow of mighty Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix achieved something unprecedented in women’s track and field Friday by winning her fifth Olympic gold medal.
And together with the rest of the 4×100-meter relay team, she brought the United States closer to its biggest medal haul in decades. The tally could have been higher, too, had the U.S. men’s 4×100 team not been disqualified after finishing third in the subsequent final.
The women’s team was smooth, despite the rocky path to the final. Running the second leg in the relay, Felix kept the U.S. up there with the mighty Jamaicans, before English Gardner and Tori Bowie brought the baton, tightly clenched in their hands, home for gold.
Felix had been bumped in the preliminary heats and lost the baton, but the U.S. team protested and got a second chance — a solo re-run that allowed them to qualify on times.
The drawback was they were given the worst lane of all, Lane 1, which has the tightest corners.
It didn’t bother them. The U.S. women brought it home in 41.02 seconds, and lead-off runner Tianna Bartoletta was already waiting for Bowie for a wild embrace and to celebrate the second-fastest time in history behind the world record that Felix and Co. set to winning gold at London in 2012. For Bartoletta, it was the second gold in Rio, after winning the long jump too.
As so often, Felix’s celebrations were mostly muted but her smile told it all. She had been through injury, the inability to defend her 200-meter title because she didn’t qualify at the U.S. trials and, almost, a DQ in the relay heats.
“Adversity sometimes makes you stronger,” she said. “We’ve each had a rocky road to get here and we came together to win the gold.”
She entered the games as one of just six women to have won four golds in track and field.
At the same time, silver for Jamaica allowed Veronica Campbell-Brown to win a medal at a fifth Olympics dating back to the 2000 Sydney Games.
It was not all perfection for the Americans though. In the pole vault Sandi Morris missed her third attempt at 4.90 meters by the smallest margin, allowing Ekaterini Stefanidi of Greece to win with 4.85 on a countback.
Bolt, of course, was unmatchable again, as he gained his ninth gold medal over three Olympics by anchoring the Jamaican 4×100 relay home. In one of the biggest surprises of the track program, Japan took silver — and had been leading before Bolt got the baton. Japanese anchorman Aska Cambridge held off the Americans, who were later disqualified for an exchange outside the zone in what has almost become a U.S. tradition by now. The U.S. team lodged a protest, hoping to get the medal back.
Still, the U.S. added to their haul. They now have 27 medals with two days to go, including 10 gold. The Kenyan team is next with 10 medals overall including five gold, and Jamaica has six gold among nine medals overall. The U.S. team had 29 overall at the London Games four years ago, and 40 at the boycott-marred 1984 Los Angeles Games.
The U.S. team has been on such a run, that Bowie takes it in stride.
“I glanced. I mean, I realize we’re leading the medal count. I mean, considering how big our country is I’m not too surprised,” she said with a laugh.
On Friday, the Kenyans were counting on a medal in the 5,000 meters — they got gold and silver. There was an upset as Vivian Cheruiyot powered past slumping favorite Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia and set an Olympic record of 14 minutes, 26.17 seconds.
The 32-year-old Cheruiyot adds the Olympic title to two world championships in the 5,000 and one in the 10,000. She took silver in the 5,000 at the London Games four years ago.
It initially appeared that Ayana would go for a second world record, after already setting a new mark in the 10,000 on the opening morning of the track program last week. But the efforts of the Olympic week appeared to catch up with her as she slumped late in the Saturday night race.
Ayana set off strongly and seemed to take the lead for good after one third of the race. But fatigue caught up with her and Cheruiyot and compatriot Hellen Obiri, who won silver, saw their chance.