Commentary

U.S. track and field team had to finish Olympics on high note

Updated: August 23, 2008, 3:53 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- So maybe there's no need to extend citizenship to Usain Bolt after all (although it still wouldn't be a bad idea).

[+] EnlargeSanya Richards
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesSanya Richards anchored the U.S. women's team to a come-from-behind victory in 3 minutes, 18.54 seconds, the world's fastest time since 1993.

After what had been portrayed as a disastrous showing, the U.S. men's and women's track teams salvaged their Olympic performances by winning both 4x400 relays Saturday in the last full night of competition at the Bird's Nest.

"We had ups and we had downs and we just wanted to end on a high moment," Allyson Felix said. "We came out with a new attitude tonight, men and women. We just wanted to bring some excitement tonight. It worked out great. It couldn't have worked better."

With only the men's marathon remaining on Sunday, the U.S. has 23 medals in track and field, including seven golds. Both totals lead all countries and the 23 medals are just two short of the U.S. track total in Athens. The big picture didn't seem all that bright when Tyson Gay failed to reach the 100 final, Bernard Lagat failed to reach the 1,500 final, no American reached the long jump final, hopes for sweeping the shot put became a lone medal, Brad Walker no-heighted in the pole vault and the U.S. dropped the baton in both the men's and women's 4x100 relays.

"A lot of things happened this Olympics that a lot of us weren't expecting," Jeremy Wariner said after anchoring the men's 4x400 team to an easy victory with an Olympic-record time of 2:55.39. "We used that to build on and go out and work harder so it doesn't happen again."

"It's one event. It is one gold medal," U.S. men's coach Bubba Thornton said of the disastrous 4x100. "How about concentrating on the intermediate hurdles, where we went 1-2-3? Or the 400, where we went 1-2-3? I am not proud that we were not in the [4x100] finals. I've lived my life to be in that race. We weren't there. But I can't change it. But it shouldn't be a reflection on how this men's team performed. They performed well and I'm extremely pleased at the end of the day."

Thornton called the team together for a pep talk before the relay.

"He just said, 'Go out there. You have a job to do, so go out there and kick butt.' And that's what we did," David Neville said. "And we came away with the gold."

As did the women, though it was a far closer contest. Sanya Richards trailed Russia's Anastasia Kapachinskaya by so much when she got the baton for the anchor leg, she didn't think she would be able to catch her. But she kept charging, finally gained on Kapachinskaya and knew she would catch and pass the Russian with 50 meters left. "I kept my eye on the prize and pulled it out," Richards said.

Richards took home bronze in the women's 400 and felt awful about not winning the gold.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Wariner
Stu Forster/Bongarts/Getty ImagesJeremy Wariner finished 12 strides ahead of Christopher Brown of the Bahamas in 2:55.39 to break the Olympic 4x400 relay record by 0.35 of a second.

"That night, I probably didn't sleep at all," she said. "I probably slept for 30 minutes. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I stayed with my family. I thought it was the best place to be and we started talking about different things and [trying to] get me to forget about the race. But it's hard. To work four years and then come up short, I don't think that memory will go away overnight. I think about it a lot. But at least now I have something positive to think about as well."

Which is more than Lagat can do. Lagat won bronze and silver medals for Kenya in 2000 and 2004, respectively. After becoming an American citizen, he hoped to win a gold for the U.S. Instead, he failed to qualify for the 1,500 final by two-hundredths of a second and faded badly in the 5,000 to finish ninth, nearly 30 seconds behind gold medalist Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia.

"I went out there with the mindset that I was going to hang with the guys, that I was going to follow them," said Lagat, whose training was limited by a sore left Achilles. "I followed them, but, at some point, they kicked a little bit and I could not go with them and I got slower and slower and slower and slower. My chest was burning like crazy and it felt so dry everywhere."

American fortunes quickly improved with the relays.

"We all came together as one," said Wariner, who won the silver in the 400. "I was asked [if] I [used] this to redeem myself from the opening, and that's not it at all. This is a team relay, not individuals. We came together as a team and all went out there and ran our hardest and came out with an Olympic record. We're proud of that and have a lot more to come in the future."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com