David Hunter's Ten Finest Olympic Moments from Rio

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Centrowitz_MattFL-Rio16.JPGMatthew Centrowtiz, photo by PhotoRun.net

David Hunter wrote several columns for us from Rio. Juggling his daily travel, track observations and site seeing in Rio, David put together some fine pieces from Rio, and this is the culmination of that series, with his Top Ten Moments from Rio. Read and Enjoy!

August 28th, 2016

Buenos Aries, Argentina

In the afterglow of outstanding track & field performances at the Summer Games of the 31st Olympiad, reflection of the fortnight is fresh. It is the perfect time to assemble my top ten favorite moments of these Games. Little objectivity is involved here. If you perhaps detect a not-so-subtle leaning toward American athletes, I plead guilty as charged. National pride - and prejudice - is prevalent throughout the Games and I am certainly no exception.

Being somewhat of an admitted "homer" and especially with Team USA having earned 32 medals - its most bountiful hardware harvest in recent Olympiads - restricting a listing to just ten memorable performances is difficult indeed. Thus, I've provided an honorable mention section as well. How stunning was track & field at these Olympics? Check out the Honorable Mention moments - as stellar as they are - that couldn't break into my Top Ten. In no particular order, they are: USA's Ashton Eaton defends deca crown and ties Ŝebrle's Olympic record; Jamaica's Elaine Thomson captures sprint double; USA's Michelle Carter uncorks monster final throw to swipe gold from shot put legend Valerie Adams; USA's Kerron Clement finds his 400H hurdle stride and wins gold to complete résumé; American Jeff Henderson's final round jump wins long jump gold; Poland's Anita Wlodarczyk dominates the hammer with world record heave; and Germany's Christoph Harting drops final throw bomb to keep Olympic discus gold in the family.

The Top Ten listing below reflects my personal preferences - moments that moved me, that will stay with me the rest of my life. Here's my list - in ascending order, of course - of my Top Ten Rio Moments:

#10. Clayton Murphy's Incredible Bronze. College athlete turned new professional, Clayton Murphy and his Middle-Distance Magical Mystery Tour rolls on. The Rodney Dangerfield of American Track may finally get some respect after his three amazing Rio races. After a near first-round disaster where jostling by older, foreign athletes nearly sent the 21 year old American sprawling, the Olympic Trials champion was fortunate to maintain his cool, grab a little "q", and luckily advance on time. Murphy's unflappable tactics returned in his semi, when several inside passes by the University of Akron Zip followed by an impressive surge past Poland's Adam Kszczot earned Murphy a big "Q" to advance to the final. In the championship race, Murphy was 6th as the bell - unshaken by a sub-50 opening 400 by Alfred Kiplagat - and moved up to 4th with 200 to remaining. Shifting gears coming into the home stretch, the Nike athlete glided by France's Pierre Ambroise-Bosse for the bronze medal. His time - #3 on the USA all-Time list, just .33 seconds behind the American record - was 1:42.93. 2½ years ago, Murphy's 800m PR was 1:54.9.

#9. USA's Bartoletta Grabs Gold And Wins Classic Long Jump Dual On Her Final Attempt. As many expected, the women's long jump final developed into a classic battle among three of the event's all-time legends: Serbia's Ivana Spanovic, and Americans Brittney Reese and Tianna Bartoletta. The Serbian athlete grabbed the early lead with a first round jump of 6.95m/22'9¾". Spanovic - who won bronze in the Beijing world championships last August - relinquished the lead when Bartoletta - the reigning outdoor world champion - matched Spanovic's mark on her 3rd round attempt which allowed her to take over the lead on the strength of her superior second best mark. Meanwhile, Reese was struggling to find her rhythm. The defending Olympic champion and reigning indoor world champion was mired in 3rd with only one fair jump [6.79m/22'3½"] in her first four attempts. In the 5th round Reese seized the lead when she stretched out to 7.09m/23'3¼". Bartoletta came right back with a big jump of her own: a PR leap of 7.17m/23'6¼" to regain the lead. Reese - finally in sync - popped a solid final jump of 7.15m/23'5½" - but it was too little, too late and she settled for silver. The Serb - who improved to 7.08m/23'2¾" with her 5th round jump - scored the bronze. The former University of Tennessee athlete's winning mark is a world leader and puts Bartoletta on track to rack up the best global wLJ mark for the third year in a row. The win earned Bartoletta - who has two world championship wLJ golds ten years apart - her 2nd Olympic gold medal. [Two days later she would earn her 3rd Oly gold as the leadoff sprinter on Team USA's victorious 4x100m relay.]

#8. American Women Crowd Podium With USA Sweep In w100H. It was like when a pitcher has a no-hitter going in the later innings. Everyone was aware of it, but few dared speak of it. With the 3 American athletes - Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali, and Kristi Castlin - coming to Rio with better 2016 clockings in the women's 100m hurdles than all others competing in the Olympics, it was only natural that murmurs about a possible sweep in the final might be possible. But possible is different than actually doing it. Once all three Americans navigated through the first two rounds, expectations grew. And in the final, all three came through as Rollins, Ali, and Castlin went 1-2-3. The red, white, and blue medal ceremony was a special moment. And now the trio will move on the remaining Diamond League meetings where another American hurdler - new world record holder Kendra Harrison - can't wait to compete against them.

#7. Ethiopia's Alaz Ayana Breaks World Record To Win Gold In Greatest Women's 10,000m Race Ever. In the opening session of athletics at these Games, excitement built for the women's 10,000 meter final. But when the raced got underway, some knowledgeable fans in the stands became concerned that the opening cadence was too fast when the leaders went through 1 kilometer in 3:02. No one knew that, in fact, that kilometer would prove to be the slowest kilometer of the race. Just past halfway through the final, an impatient Almaz Ayana - the favorite - set sail and began pushing the pace. Her spirited competitors - eager to compete - simply couldn't keep pace. Unchallenged, Ayana raced on, covered the final 5000 meters in 14:30, and crossed the line in 29:17.45 to destroy the previous world record - a specious 1993 mark of 29:31.78 set by China's Junxia Wang. Towed along by Ayana's fast pace, the other medal contenders responded in kind. Ethiopia's Tirunesh Dibaba - the two-time defending Olympic champion at 10,000 meters who had heretofore never lost a 10K - also bettered the prior world record, set a PR of 29:42.56, only to finish third. Indeed, the top 8 finishers posted the best marks ever registered for their finish positions. Unnoticed by some - but not overlooked by Americans - was Molly Huddle's focused 6th place finish in 30:13.17 to lower by 9 seconds the previous American record held by Shalane Flanagan. Afterwards, many were calling this Olympic final the greatest women's 10,000m ever run.

#6. South Africa's Wayde Van Niekirk's 43.03 Trounces James And Merritt, Breaks Johnson's World Record, And Earns Gold. Before the final of the men's 400m, most of the talk was about Grenada's Kirani James and American LaShawn Merritt - the last two Olympic champions at this distance. Their willingness to race one another in recent years - the way it should be, by the way - has elevated their frequent showdowns into a relished rivalry. This attention caused many to overlook another worthy finalist - Wayde Van Niekirk who ran brilliantly in Beijing just one year ago to capture the world championship in the this one-lap event. In the final, Van Niekirk - all alone in Lane 8, the so-called "island" - was not to be deterred by his undesirable lane assignment. Unable to see any of his competitors, the South African blasted out of the blocks and set a torrid early pace, splitting 200m in 20.5. James and Merritt - both caught off guard - were late to take up the chase. As the leaders entered the homestretch, it was clear that only a startling finish by the last two Olympic champions could make this a race. James and Merritt lacked such finishes and Van Niekirk barely slowed. Crossing the line in 43.03, the reigning world champion captured the gold and in the process took down Michael Johnson's 1996 world record mark of 43.18.

#5. Brazilian De Silva's Improbable Storybook Win Over France's Renaud LaVillenie. It is not uncommon in the Olympic Games for the host country to experience a magical moment when an unexpected athlete steps up to over-achieve and perhaps win a medal in front of his or her countrymen. There couldn't have been many Brazilians who expected native pole vaulter Thiago Braz De Silva to be the one to orchestrate that special moment. Lightly-regarded going in the competition, De Silva - or Braz as he is known - chalked up an early miss at 5.75m/18'6½" just as Renaud LaVillenie - the reigning Olympic champion, world record holder, and heavy favorite - entered the competition with a first attempt clearance at that same height. Suddenly Braz was entering uncharted waters. Both made first try clearances at 5.85m/19'2¼" as other athletes fell by the wayside. When the bar went to 5.93m/19'5½", only Braz, LaVillenie, Czech Jan Kudlicka, Poland's Piotr Lisek and USA OT champion Sam Kendricks remained. The Frenchman - jumping cleanly - kept the heat on with yet another first attempt success, while the Czech, the Pole, and the American couldn't clear. Already assured of an Olympic medal of some color, Braz had passed at 5.93m. He was going for the gold. The partisan fans sensed it and cheered him loudly at every opportunity. As the bar went up to an Olympic record height of 5.98m/19'7½" with only the defending champion and the Brazilian still alive, you could sense LaVillenie's confidence growing. After all, the world record holder has had a previous clearance at 6.16m/20'2½" and Braz's PR when the day began was a rather modest 5.80m/19'¼". Over the bar on his initial attempt, LaVillenie - who broke his own Olympic record by 1 centimeter - showed his glee with repeated fist pumps as the 7-time Diamond League champion - sensing victory - spotted his French posse in the stands. Now it was the Brazilian's turn. And when Braz missed, he passed as the bar went up to 6.03m/19'9¼". In the lead, LaVillenie looked unworried when, jumping first at the new height, he failed. An unsuccessful - and frankly pathetic - attempt by Braz was followed by yet another miss by his French competitor. The defending champion might have been thinking about victory champagne when the Brazilian - down to his final jump - sought to clear a height 9 inches above this PR when the competition began. The Frenchman watched as the Brazilian unfurled a majestic vault that propelled him over the bar, moving him from bronze to gold, setting a new Olympic record, and igniting a frenzied explosion from the crowd. The stunned Frenchman - who instantly looked completely rattled - with but a single jump remaining elected to pass to 6.08m/19'11¼". LaVillenie's final attempt - marred by inappropriate Brazilian booing while the athlete was on the runway - was unsuccessful. And - just like that - Brazil had its magical moment.

#4. Brit Mo Farah's "Double Double." As he was before his countrymen 4 years ago in London, Mo Farah was clearly superior against the best the world could offer in both the 5,000m and the 10,000m. Undaunted by the supposed team tactics the East Africans were allegedly prepared to throw at him, Farah raced with confidence to successfully defend both his 5K and 10K titles. Even though he didn't match the Finn's world record performance, Farah conjured up memories of Lasse Viren when he survived a trip and fall in the 10,000, scrambled to his feet, calmly worked his way back into the fray, and sprinted to victory. The Brit's Rio performances further solidify his claim as the greatest global distance racer of all time. And his "double double" - especially when combined with the identical feat he has performed at the last two world championships - further bolsters his status as perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time.

#3. Jamaican Usain Bolt's "Triple Triple." Even though Usain's Bolt third consecutive Bolt Slam - Olympic golds in the 100m, the 200m, and 4x100m relay - was expected by so many, the Jamaican's sprint feat - three triple wins in a row at the Games - still must be viewed as one of the greatest Olympic performances of all time. Almost more impressive than the three victories was the manner by which the entertaining sprinter got it done. Coasting over the line in both the 100m and the 200m and really only running hard - perhaps out of respect for his teammates - in the short relay, Bolt made it looks so easy. Quite some time ago, Bolt - who just turned 30 - announced that Rio would be his last Olympics. But will the siren song of further engrained sport immortality tempt the world's greatest sprinter ever to continue? Bolt's 9 Olympic athletics golds ties him with Paavo Nurmi and Carl Lewis. But Bolt has not matched Jesse Owens' 4 golds in a single Olympics nor Al Oerter's 4 golds in the same event in 4 consecutive Olympics - feats which Lewis has achieved as well. Might these tantalizingly close unattained goals inspire Bolt to think about what might be possible in Tokyo?

#2. USA's Matthew Centrowitz Wins America's First Olympic 1500m Gold Medal Since 1908. American middle distance athlete Mel Sheppard probably never imagined he would be talked about in the 21st century. But being the last USA athlete to win Olympic gold at 1500m can produce that kind of interest - especially when the American drought at that distance had reached 108 years.

In this Olympic year the chances of a USA breakthrough in the men's 1500 - while far from pitiful - were not robust. Leo Manzano - the USA's reigning silver medalist - failed to make the team. Other promising 1500 meter athletes elected to race in other events. And Kenya's Asbel Kiprop - viewed by many as the heavy favorite - was an imposing presence indeed. U.S. hopes rested on Matthew Centrowitz, a gutty middle distance star who had experienced medal-winning success in world outdoor championships and had recently won the world indoor 1500 meter title in March. But his lack of prior Olympic success and a nagging springtime injury raised questions as to whether he could rise to the occasion.

But Matthew Centrowitz had a plan. Instead of surrendering race control to the East Africans and seeing what might unfold, Centro and his brain trust would develop their own strategy. He would control the race, slow down the pace, position himself at or near the front, and turn the Olympic final into a mad 600 meter dash to the line. It was a scheme that had several vulnerabilities. What if another finalist would take it out hard from the gun? Could he really be successful uncorking a long kick from 600 meters out? No definite answers existed. But Centro knew that a thoughtfully assembled strategy with weaknesses was better than just winging it. You've gotta risk it to get the biscuit.

After making it through the rounds, the former Oregon star had his chance. As the final unfolded, the poker-faced middle distance star went right to the front and was in or near the lead from the beginning. With 400 meter splits of 66.9 and 69.7 [2:16.6], the race more closely resembled a high school dual meet event. But then the real race began. With 600m to go, Centro slammed the pedal down. This plan would either garner Centro an Olympic medal or blow up in his face. Covering the next 200 meters in 28.1, the Olympic Trials champ took the bell with a 2 meter lead over Algeria's Taoufik Makloufi. Could the world indoor champion hold off the other finalists for one more lap? Undoubtedly calloused through Salazar-ordered repeat 400's, Centrowitz - turning back one final attack by the Algerian at the top of the homestretch - covered the final 400 in 50.5 to hit the line first in 3:50.00. No matter that Centro's finishing time was the slowest winning clocking for an Olympic 1500m final since 1932, the gold medal went to the American. 108 years is a long time between American victories in the Olympic 1500 meters, but Matthew Centrowitz's electrifying win was worth the wait.

#1. The Singing Of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Prior to attending these - my first - Olympic Games, I considered the medal ceremonies as solemn occasions of celebration that were, frankly, just a little bit contrived and perhaps overdone. That was before I witnessed them in person. No matter the athletes honored nor the countries they represent, these ceremonies are wonderful. They are genuine. The athletes are beaming. Legendary figures from the sport and its governing bodies play important medal-draping roles. Often times, tears of happiness, gratitude, and joy are shed. And these ceremonies - performed in a filled stadium several times a day during the competitions - provide formal recognition and a sense of closure for athletic performances which, for most athletes, will endure as the pinnacle of their life. But for me, the medal ceremony experience is heightened even further when the gold medalist is an American. I was surprised by the sense of pride and patriotism that swept over me as I rose for the playing of our national anthem to conclude each of these ceremonies. Each time, I found myself lustily singing "The Star-Spangled Banner", relishing each stanza, as the medalists' flags were raised. From now on, whenever I hear our national anthem being played, I will immediately be drawn back to those memorable American gold medal ceremony moments in Rio - for me, an unmatched highlight of this terrific inaugural Olympic experience. Dave Hunter

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