By Gerald Imray / The Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO—Ashton Eaton retained his title as the best all-around athlete in the world by tying the decathlon Olympic record and, within minutes, had stepped back for track and field’s ultimate superstar to take center stage again.
What more could the now two-time Olympic champion Eaton do on Thursday night to get just a little sliver of the limelight that beams down so brightly on Usain Bolt?
“I had the pleasure of being in the same era as Usain Bolt,” Eaton said. “I mean, the guy’s last name is Bolt, he’s the fastest man ever, you can’t write a story like that.”
You can try.
For his own tale, Eaton made it back-to-back Olympic and world titles in the decathlon, an event the American has ruled since he rebounded from silver at the worlds in 2011 to claim the next four major gold medals available. From throwing, to jumping, to running, Eaton can do it all.
But then Bolt—a Jamaican who just deals in speed—roared around the bend at the Olympic Stadium to win the 200 meters in 19.78 seconds, completing act two of his three-part quest for gold and history in Rio.
Maybe there was some comfort for Eaton—and loads of other athletes looking to be the one to shine—with Bolt’s suggestion afterward that he’s nearly done.
“On the straight, my body didn’t respond. I’m getting old,” said Bolt, who was trying to break his own world record of 19.19.
Friday’s 4×100-meter relay final is all that’s left now between Bolt and an historic three golds at three straight Olympics. Concentrating on not messing that up for Bolt, a Jamaica team led by Asafa Powell got into the final in a pretty important moment for the big man’s legacy. They only finished second in their heat behind Japan, but Jamaica’s in.
“There was some pressure to make it to the finals,” Powell said, relieved he didn’t have to deliver any bad news as Bolt prepared for the 200 final.
Wednesday produced an “awesome hour” for the US track team, according to Tianna Bartoletta. By Thursday night, that had evolved into a pretty great 24 hours.
Alongside Eaton’s triumph, Ryan Crouser led an American one-two in the shot put, also setting a new Olympic record of 22.52 meters to win his first major title from world champion Joe Kovacs.
Dalilah Muhammad kept the US total ticking on with gold in the women’s 400-meter hurdles and Ashley Spencer added a bronze, with another American 1-2 only just thwarted by Denmark’s Sara Slott Petersen. Kerron Clement also won his first individual Olympic gold in the 400-meter hurdles.
“We are making history out here,” Muhammad said of the US team’s gold rush.
The crowd at a near-full Olympic Stadium was constantly reminded of that with a series of medal ceremonies through the day, most of them starting with: “Oh say can you see…”
With three days remaining, the United States was up to 25 medals in track and field, nine of them gold. The US won 29 medals, including nine golds, in London.
For a few short moments, the US women’s 4×100 relay team was a little like Bolt: They were the only ones everyone was looking at.
Leading off, Bartoletta nestled into the starting blocks in Lane 2 for the team’s re-run—all on their own and against the clock only—after they fumbled the baton in their original qualifier. The second chance came after a US protest. With just that clock and the crowd for company, the Americans took the baton around in 41.77 seconds to reach the final.
“Our coach said before we went out there, ‘It’s just like practice, just the whole world will be watching,” said English Gardner, who ran the third leg.
Eaton finished with 8,893 points, digging deep through the final lap of the last event, the 1,500 meters, to cross the line third, incredibly matching exactly the Olympic record after 10 events over two days.
“How can’t there be one stinking point in there somewhere?” Eaton said.
Eaton had briefly darted away from the decathlon to congratulate Clement, as his teammate knelt exhausted in the midday sun after winning the hurdles, an indicator of the feel-good surging through the US track team right now.
Croatia’s Sara Kolak won the women’s javelin, another first-time Olympic champion like Crouser.
And South Africa’s Caster Semenya, the outright favorite for the women’s 800-meter title, qualified fastest for the final as she breezed to victory in her semifinal heat, unchallenged, in one minute 58.15 seconds.
Semenya, another compelling story at these games but for different reasons to Bolt, will run in the 800 final on Saturday.
By then, Bolt will be done at the Olympics forever.
“I’ve worked all my career, all my life, for this moment,” Bolt said. “So, hopefully, people can read about me as the greatest.”
Image credits: AP