An Odd Event

David Yon, August 10, 2021

​The Olympic games are complete and while COVID-19, multiple time zones, computer screens, and occasionally an old fashion TV left me lost, the competitors came through and put on a fantastic show.

The Oddness begins with the name “The 2020 Olympic Games.”  Maybe my calendar is confused but I thought we had moved on to 2021. The year 2020 is the year we all wanted to forget and leave behind. While oddness might best describe these games, they were nevertheless a triumph of the spirit over very difficult challenges.

It was hard to look at all those empty seats in Tokyo and not hurt inside just a bit. One of the great things about the Olympics is the crowd and the noise it can make.

But not this Olympics.  Not when COVID – 19 still roams unchecked and mutates to avoid detection.  Instead, our seats remained empty throughout the games as spectators were not permitted.  It was such a strange sight, no doubt much more so if you were there. And yet, these Olympics delivered as the athletes produced great performances again and again.

And speaking of deliveries, these games were also known as the Mom Games.   It started with marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk who was still breast feeding her newborn and asked whether she would be allowed to bring her child to the Games. At first, she was told no.  She did not stop there, however and after filing an appeal, the Olympic Committee reversed its decision.

Allyson Felix was determined to disprove those who doubted her ability to win medals and be a mom at the same time. She put her mission into the public domain with a letter to   her two-year-old daughter, Cammy.  In the letter she wrote:

“All of my experience of becoming a mom, of raising a daughter, helped show me my true competitor: inequality,” she said. “Here I am, using my voice to create change for us as women and for us as mothers and for all the women who want to be mothers.”

Felix developed a severe case of preeclampsia.  Preeclampsia is persistent high blood pressure that develops during pregnancy or the postpartum period and is often associated with high levels of protein in the urine or the new development of decreased blood platelets, trouble with the kidneys or liver, fluid in the lungs, or signs of brain trouble such as seizures and/or visual disturbances.  In Felix’s case it led to an emergency C-section at 32 weeks. Her daughter weighed 3.9 pounds at birth.

Sometime ago I wrote about Eliud Kipchoge, his background in Kenya, his coach Patrick Sang, and his extraordinary career as a marathoner. (October 15, 2019 and September 17, 2018). Kipchoge was the defending Olympic marathon champion going into Tokyo. He is the only person to run 26.219 miles under two hours (admittedly under very controlled conditions) and he holds the world record for the marathon, a time of 2:01:39. His gold medal in Tokyo, under extreme weather conditions, removed any doubt that he is the greatest marathon champion of all time.  He has now won 13 of the 15 Marathon Majors he competed in, an unmatched record.

On a day when temperatures melted runners at an alarming pace it took no time for Kipchoge to settle into the front pack, often taking the lead.  The U.S. best hope for a medal was Galen Rupp, a bronze medalist in the Rio Olympics, who tucked in behind Kipchoge, probably following his coach’s instructions. However, Rupp’s positioning began to bother Kipchoge who seemed to be trying to encourage everyone in the front pack to take their turn leading.  The first couple of times he motioned to Rupp were very subtle. It appeared Rupp either did not see it or just refused to move.  Finally, it became clear what Kipchoge was signaling – he wanted Rupp to share in the workload of leading.

So, when he perceived Rupp would not take his turn, Kipchoge perhaps sensed Rupp was weakening or maybe he was just unhappy, but regardless, he squared his jaw and slowly upped the pace.  He ran the next 5 kilometers in 14:26 and found himself all alone.  Seemingly impervious to the conditions, he continued alone capturing his second gold medal, this one in a time of 2:08:58.  Rupp finished in 8th place in a time of 2:11:41.

Two track races also deserve special attention: the men’s 400-meter hurdles and the women’s 400-meter hurdles.  They each had similar scripts written for them – two superstar competitors in each race with at least three of them of them owning the world record recently.

The women’s race was a battle between Dalilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin. In 2016, Muhammad won the gold medal in the Rio Olympics while the 17-year-old McLaughlin, the youngest U.S. track athlete in 44 years at that time, made it to the semifinals but no further.  In 2019, Muhammad won the U.S. Championships and went on to win the gold medal at the World Championships breaking the world record each time.  The mark stood at 52.16 as the women began preparing for Tokyo.

In the Olympic Trials McLaughlin took the top spot and broke Muhammad’s world record taking the top spot in a time of 51.90. The stage was set for an epic battle between the women.  And sure enough, Muhammad, lining up to the outside of McLaughlin following her normal strategy, bolted out of her blocks into the lead, running for gold, but not able to see McLaughlin. McLaughlin started strong but had to use her speed after the last hurdle to catch Muhammad. She won in world record time of 51.46.  Muhammad’s second place finish of 51.58 became the second fastest time ever run by a woman.

Now close your eyes and open your imagination.  The women have been replaced by men. It is Karsten Warholm (Norway) and Rai Benjamin (U.S.) ready to set the track on fire.  In July of 2021, Warholm broke Kevin Young’s world 400-meter record of 46.78 which had stood for 29 years. The gun went off and Warholm followed his usual strategy of running as fast as possible for as long as possible. Rai Benjamin, the U.S. champion in the event, charged out of the blocks as well but fell behind.  His efforts to make up the deficit were not enough.  While he finished a half second before Warholm’s existing world record time he was still directed to the silver medal. Warholm obliterated his own record by finishing in a time of 45.92 clearly ahead of Benjamin’s finish in 46.17.  Alison Dos Santos was the third runner to finish under Kevin Young’s record time of 46.78 by running 46.72 to grab the bronze.

U.S. distance fans found a new hero in the women’s marathon.  Molly Seidel, 27 years old and running just her third marathon, decided to get in the lead pack of runners and hang on through the heat as it slowly decimated the group.  In the end only two women beat her time of 2:27:46. Television commentator, Kara Goucher, called it perfectly when she said that the heat could be the great equalizer. Seidel’s marathon bests were nowhere near most of the favored women.  But the heat and humidity of the day made sure no one ran fast. Seidel, a five-time NCAA cross country champion, knew how to keep going. She followed her plan to perfection and watched as all but two of her competitors fell off the pace.

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