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OG/Day 4: Mom Nature Unable To Subdue Olympic Greatness

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Each day of the Olympic track & field schedule has been a revelation. Each day, each session reminds us that these athletes have spent almost an extra two years waiting for their moment in the Tokyo stadium.

50516727_ORANGE_PICTURES.jpgSifan Hassan, 5,000m gold medalist, photo courtesy of Orangepicturesnl.

On day four, David Hunter provides us the stories behind the stories. Sifan Hassan, startled, but uninjured in the 1,500m heats, coming back to win in the 5000m. Valerie Allman, producing a throw early on that no one, including Mother Nature, could challenge. The Men’s steeplechase making history as Soufianne El Bakkali gave his country, Morocco, its first gold in the steeple, and broke the hold that Kenya had on this event since Amos Biwott won in 1968 in Mexico City over Kerry O’Brien (Australia) and George Young (USA).

David Hunter has had a busy summer. First, he covered the NCAA Championships, June 9-12, 2021, then, he covered the US Olympic Trials from June 18-June 27, 2021, and now, July 29-August 8, David will cover the Olympics.

We hope you enjoy our storytelling. From David Hunter, to Stuart Weir, Justin Lagat, and our team from the University of Oregon Journalism department, we hope you enjoy the different voices giving you their viewpoints of the 32nd Summer Olympics of the modern era.

IMG_1087.jpgWhen rain came…Tokyo Olympic Stadium, August 2, 2021, photo by Stuart Weir

OG/Day Four: Mother Nature Unable To Subdue Olympic Greatness

August 2nd, 2021

There is no question: the Olympic Games is the world’s most difficult competition in which to excel. But on Day Four – a day interrupted by a seemingly relentless heavy rain – the most difficult suddenly became the nearly impossible. With the deplorable conditions impacting everyone, the better performances came from the Olympians who shook it off and simply did their best.

The women’s discus, the first of three finals on Day Four’s evening session, began under dry conditions. Throwing 11th in the final, USA’s Valarie Allman, who had posted a best mark of 229’8″ [70.01m] in the qualifying round, launched an opening round scud missile which landed at 226’4″ [68.98m] to grab the early lead.

In Round 2 the rain came, lightly at first and gradually becoming stronger. Athletes began feverishly drying their implements and wiping their shoes – to no avail. Discuses were flying into the cage as their launchers were slipping, sliding, even falling. Sensible action was taken as the event was suspended as the storm became torrential.

After a nerve-wracking delay, the deluge subsided. But wet surfaces, even some pooling, remained. As the final resumed it was clear that the athletes, try as they would, remained apprehensive, fearing further slippage or falls. Germany’s Kristin Pudenz performed the best after the break uncorking a 5th round twirl of 217’8″ [66.36m] that moved Pudi into 2nd for the silver while Cuba’s Yaime Perez posted a best mark of 215’7″ [65.72m] for the bronze. Croatian athlete Sandra Perkovic had a rough go of it throwing twice into the cage. The 31-year old 2-time reigning Olympic discus gold medalist exhibited a demeanor of resignation, unable to get it going. The 2-time world champion would finish 4th with a top throw of 213’3″ [65.01m].

Allman, the American record holder, remained poised through it all. While the former Stanford star was unable to improve on her opening throw, her first-round bomb withstood all challenges, ultimately giving her the gold medal. Some may whisper that the new champion received a meteorological benefit by being able to launch her first-round winner under dry and favorable conditions. But the truth is that all finalists were able to make first-round throws before the rain started near the conclusion of the 2nd round and later became heavy in the 3rd round. Allman was simply savvy enough to make her dry first throw – available to all – really count.

In speaking with the media, the new Olympic champion, the first American track & field gold medalist in these Olympic Games, expressed disbelief at her accomplishment. “I can’t believe it. I have watched the Olympics for as long as I can remember and athletics has always had such a special spot in my heart. To now be here and be in this moment, it feels so surreal,’ revealed Allman. “Our team is filled with so many incredible athletes, and I am just blown away that I am not only a medallist, I am the gold medallist. It is like a dream come true.”

The final of the men’s steeplechase, conducted under damp track conditions but with no rain, was touted to be an Eastern Africa showdown: Could Kenya win its tenth consecutive gold medal in this event? Would the Ethiopians defeat their bitter rivals and win their first-ever Olympic title in this event? And how would Morocco’s El Bakkala [4th in the Rio Olympics; silver in London’s ’17 WC and bronze in Doha’s ’19 WC] choose to compete against his African rivals? At the opening gun, Japan’s Ryuji Miura went right to the lead but could interest no one in an honest pace. Passing the first kilometer in 3:00, the field was simply biding its time. With 5 laps remaining, the two Ethiopians – Getnet Wale, with a 5000-meter season’s best of 12:53 to his credit, and Benjamin Kigen – went to the front and provided an injection of pace to the race while El Bakkala, who had reduced his 1500m PR down to 3:31 earlier this year, was content to remain in 7th, confident that his newly-crafted speed would prevail in what was shaping up to be a furious finish to this championship showdown.

With 3 laps to go, 6 athletes were clumped in a bunch: the Ethiopians were 1-2; the Kenyans were 3-4 and the Moroccans were 5-6. With 800 meters remaining, the Ethiopians – Girma and Wale – continued to lead with El Bakkala having moved up to 4th. The pace noticeably quickened with 500 meters remaining as the leaders were getting into position and winding it up for the final circuit. At the top of the backstretch with 300 meters remaining the Moroccan made his move – and it was decisive. The 2-time World championship medalist smartly moved into the lead while Girma caught somewhat off guard, rallied to take up the chase. Just past the 200m mark the duo roared into the curve with the Moroccan executing a swift and precise final water jump clearance to extend his modest lead. Entering the homestretch, Bakkala increased his speed yet again, sailed over the final barrier, and captured the gold medal with a winning time of 8:08:90.

Bakkala’s victory undoubtedly helps salve the wound of the Moroccan’s 4th place finish in the Rio Olympic steeplechase final. A 2nd place finish for Girma [8:10.38] gave the Ethiopian his second Olympic silver medal, while Kigen – the first Kenya across the line – finished 3rd in 8:11.45 for the bronze. El Bakkala’s beautifully executed and victorious race plan also gave his country its first-ever gold medal in the men’s steeplechase. USA’s Bernard Keter, the sole American finalist, clocked 8:22.12 to finish 11th.

The concluding final to Day Four was the women’s 5000 meters – a final that would be the first test of Sifnn Hassan’s articulated Tokyo quest to capture 3 Olympic gold medals: in the 5000 meters; the 1500 meters; and the 10,000 meters. This challenging goal was suddenly made more difficult when in Day Four’s morning session Hassan, competing in the preliminary round of the 1500m, was tripped, fell, bounced right back up, and had to summon a 43 second final 300 meters to win the qualifying race and advance to the semifinal. While startled but not injured by the fall, Hassan was forced to dig deep to keep her dream alive. How much would it impact her evening performance in the 5000m final?

Apparently not much or perhaps not at all.

On a damp track and under humid conditions, the 5K final got underway. Various finalists circulated in and around the lead pack which maintained a steady, but nonetheless pedestrian, cadence crossing 3000 meters in 8:59.81. Hellen Obiri, a two-time World Champion at 5000 meters and #4 of the 5000m world list, and Gudaf Tsegay, the world leader at 5000m and #6 on the 5K all-time world list, had moved to the front at 2000 meters but inexplicably showed no interest in picking up the pace, a strategy that seemed doomed with Hassan in the race. Seemingly unfazed by the morning’s fiasco, Hassan, the world record holder in the mile and the one-hour run, seemed content to dawdle in 7th and wait for the right time to attack. At the bell, Hassan while well-positioned, was nonetheless 5th in a leading pack of 5 which included Obiri and Tsegay. With 300m remaining, Hassan accelerated on the backstretch, quickly moving into the lead and shifting into full flight with 210 meters remaining. With none of her opponents able to mount a meaningful challenge, Hassan easily raced to the line first, clocking 57.86 over the final lap and crossing in 14:36.39 for gold medal #1. Obiri took the silver in 14:55.80 while Tsegay captured bronze in 14:38.87. The Americans – Karissa Schweizer [14:55.80] and Elise Cranny [14:55.98] finished 11th and 13th respectively.

Afterward, the 5000-meter champion spoke to the press and expressed surprise at her two Day Four performances. “After the 5000m I said ‘I am the Olympic champion, how is this possible? In the 1500m, I couldn’t believe I made it. I was saying to myself ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘How did I finish the race, especially at the final 100m?’ Many might believe she knew she could do it all along. / Dave Hunter /


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