Commentary

Clay, Jamaican team have nothing in common? Look at their paths to gold

Updated: August 22, 2008, 9:11 PM ET
By Luke Cyphers | ESPN The Magazine

BEIJING -- Two gold medals, two traditions, two nations, two celebrations.

And two illustrations of how the Olympics every now and then really can bring cultures together.

[+] EnlargeUsain Bolt
Mark Dadswell/Getty ImagesAsafa Powell, left, said he wanted to do everything possible to help Usain Bolt win a third gold in Beijing.

U.S. decathlete Bryan Clay and the Jamaican 4x100-meter relay team could not have won their events more differently.

The Jamaicans, led by the Beijing 2008 dry-land superhero Usain Bolt, were a golden flash around the National Stadium track, smashing the world record by three full tenths of a second to finish in 37.10 seconds. Afterward, they partied and shimmied -- nothing new for Bolt, who's made the Bird's Nest his personal dance hall while setting world records and winning gold in the 100, 200 and now the relay. This was an exercise in dominance, and fun. Bolt laid yet another claim to the title, "World's Fastest Human."

Clay, exhausted, slogged to a dead-last finish in his last and least favorite decathlon event, the 1500 meters, in 5 minutes, 6.22 seconds. He helped up a fallen competitor, 2004 champion Roman Sebrle, and walked slowly around the finish area, shaking hands with the rest of the field one by one. This was an exercise in perseverance, and survival. Clay, who battled pounding rain, wicked heat, sleep deprivation and tense competition over two grueling days, earned his title, too -- "World's Greatest Athlete."

Both celebrations felt right for the occasion.

The Jamaican sprinters stormed into Beijing like a tropical hurricane. Their island nation of just more than 2 million people has a grand sprinting tradition. But it became a perfect storm here. Jamaican women swept the 100-meter dash medals, and Veronica Campbell-Brown won the 200. But the 6-foot-5 Bolt's 9.69 100 mark, in which he looked like he didn't even try, and his 19.30 200 record, in which he looked like he did, have changed the way people look at sprinting. Well, some people, anyway.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge criticized Bolt as unsportsmanlike for his joyous postrace celebrations. And indeed, Bolt stayed in motion, dancing and vamping and goofing around long after his races finished. "Drinks on me! Drinks on me!" he shouted to each member of the silver-medalist Trinidad relay squad as he hopped through the postrace media area.

"I'm a performer," Bolt said. "I'm out here to perform and enjoy myself."

His relay anchorman Asafa Powell added, "He's doing his own thing, not talking hard," he said. "It's not hurting anyone."

Not unless they have designs on beating him. Bolt's emergence here humbled even the proud Powell, who held the 100 world record for three years before Bolt grabbed it this spring with a 9.72 finish in New York. Powell said he maxed out on his anchor leg for the benefit of the tall teammate who handed off to him.

"I pushed myself because I wanted Usain to get his third gold medal and third world record," said Powell, who was joined on the relay team by Nesta Carter and Michael Frater. "With four guys running sub-10 seconds [in the 100], I was very confident we could break the world record."

[+] EnlargeBryan Clay
AP Photo/Thomas KienzleBryan Clay, center, brought the United States its first decathlon gold since 1996.

That confidence was a culmination of years of greatness, but near misses in Olympic sprints. First Don Quarrie, and then Powell, held the 100 record but couldn't win an Olympic title in the event. Bolt changed that. And now the world will flock to the island to see how they do it.

"Jamaica did great at these Games," Bolt said. "We practically took it over."

The same could be said of Clay. Despite the crazy weather for the decathlon, which included downpours and heat waves, he strung together enough excellent performances to lead the event after Day 1.

But he put the competition away with a 13.93 110-meter hurdles; a season-best toss in the discus of 176 feet, 5 inches; and a clearance of 16 feet, 4 inches in the pole vault. Then, a solid throw of the javelin allowed him to lag the field in the 1,500 and still win easily.

Clay's gritty performance earned him 8,791 points, 240 ahead of his nearest competitor, and followed on his silver medal in 2004 at Athens. There was no question of whether he'd be accused of showing off. Decathletes are too tired to do that. "A lot of times, we take a victory lap with the whole field because we know how hard it is to finish," he said.

At only 5-foot-11 (and that might be a stretch), he's far less imposing than most other decathletes, but his speed and deceptive strength have now put him in the long line of legendary U.S. performers in the event, a list that includes Jim Thorpe, Bob Matthias, Rafer Johnson and Bill Toomey.

Clay knows the history, and what it means.

"I hope this can help bring the decathlon back to where it was in this country," he said. "I'm pleased with the medal and the title that comes with the medal. I can't tell you how happy I am to have worked for something for so long, and finally accomplish it."

And now he hopes to add to it. He's already set his sights on the decathlon in 2012.

"I don't know if anybody's got three medals at the Olympic Games," he said. "That's another goal."

For now, though, the respect of his peers means as much as anything. Sebrle, Clay's good friend, didn't want to run the 1,500, but Clay urged him to as they sat waiting for the end of the ninth event, the javelin. The Czech champ ended the race sprawled out on the track, having given everything he had just to finish. Almost everything.

He rose to his feet, and a minute later, raised Clay's hand, like a boxer at the end of a heavyweight fight. It was an old-fashioned gesture, different from Bolt's moves, but perfect for the event, saying in body language what Sebrle told the media later:

"He's the king now."

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.