RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – It’s no easy thing to push Usain Bolt, even in an Olympic warm-up race.
Might be even tougher upstaging him.
But that happened on a wild Wednesday night in track. It began with the Jamaican star exchanging smiles, then wagging his finger at a brash up-and-comer who dared challenge him in the 200-meter semifinals. It kept going with another Jamaican, Elaine Thompson, completing the first 100-200 women’s double since 1988. And it closed with an American sweep of the hurdles to put the cherry on top of a seven-medal day for the United States on the track.
Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali and Kristi Castlin finished 1-2-3 in the 100-meter hurdles to give the United States its first sweep in the event, its seventh in the history of Olympic track and the 23rd for U.S. women, regardless of sport, over the history of the Summer Games.
After they saw their names come up on the scoreboard, they huddled together, hugged and jumped up and down before grabbing their U.S. flags from the stands.
“I knew that I got the gold but I just wanted to make sure that my other teammates got their medals, as well,” Rollins said.
It was a not-all-unexpected result, though this might be an eye-opener: Both 2008 champion Dawn Harper-Nelson and the current world-record holder, Keni Harrison, were back home after failing to crack the top three at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Also parading the stars and stripes were long-jumpers Tianna Bartoletta and Brittney Reese, who finished 1-2; steeplechaser Evan Jager, who won silver earlier in the day; and Tori Bowie, who added a 200-meter bronze to her silver in the 100.
“Who wouldn’t be thankful for another medal?” Bowie said. “Now, I have two.”
So does Thompson.
The 24-year-old Jamaican got off to a strong start in the 200 and held off reigning world champion Dafne Schippers, who belly flopped at the finish line, but finished .10 seconds behind.
Thompson, who came into the Olympics nursing a hamstring injury, won in 21.78 seconds. She became the first woman since Marion Jones in 2000 to win both Olympic sprints. Jones’ records have since been stripped, so Thompson is officially the first woman to win both races since Florence Griffith-Joyner, who starred in the 1988 Seoul Games.
“I had rough days training but I did not let that overcome me,” Thompson said. “I’m a warrior, a strong girl. I guess hard work pays off.”
The evening’s best entertainment came, as usual, from Bolt, who will go for his eighth Olympic gold medal Thursday.
His main goal during the opening rounds is to conserve energy, which is exactly what he was doing when he looked to his right, saw Canada’s Andre de Grasse a few steps behind and put it on cruise control.
Only problem was, de Grasse, the bronze medalist in the 100, didn’t back down. He sped up, caught up and, suddenly, the two were nose to nose, peering and smiling at each other down the stretch. Bolt leaned in to finish in 19.78 to win by a scant .02 seconds. He wagged his finger at the up-and-comer as they crossed the line.
“That was really unnecessary,” Bolt said. “I don’t know what he was trying to do. He’s a young kid, he’s great. He has a lot of talent. I’m looking forward to the competition in the final.”
The competition won’t include Justin Gatlin, who has given Bolt more run for his money than anyone over the past four years. In the evening’s biggest stunner, Gatlin finished third in his heat and did not qualify for the final.
He said he rolled an ankle in the run-up to the Olympics and was happy just to make it here.
“Probably, I should have rested it instead of running on it,” said Gatlin, who finished second to Bolt in the 100.
It was a lost medal opportunity for the Americans, for sure. But they’re ahead of the game.
Their medals Wednesday gave them 19 for the meet – five gold, seven silver and seven bronze – which is already one more than they won through the entire world championships last year in Beijing.
Decathlete Ashton Eaton is a candidate to add to that haul. The defending champion finished Day 1 with a solid 121-point lead over Kai Kazmirek of Germany.
Another multi-sport athlete is Bartoletta, who won world championships 10 years apart – in 2005 and 2015 – and came to Rio de Janeiro hoping to medal in both the 100 meters and the long jump. The 100 didn’t go well, but the long jump did. Bartoletta jumped 7.17 meters on her fifth of six attempts. Reese, the defending Olympic champion, had one last shot to pass her but came two centimeters short.
“I’m going to eat a pizza,” said Bartoletta, when asked how she’d celebrate.
Darya Klishina, the lone Russian in the entire meet due to a doping scandal in the country, finished ninth. She spent as much time in a hearing room as the jumping pit in the lead-in to the Olympics, while she appealed her own last-minute ban.
“The last week and a half before the competition was a total disaster,” she said, “and I think I didn’t quite have enough today.”
While Russia regroups, the Americans march on.
Bartoletta termed America’s strong finish Wednesday night “an awesome hour.”
Bolt, who has his eyes on not only the win, but maybe another world record, is hoping his time will come Thursday night.
“I definitely think I can try for the world record,” said the sprinter, whose current record in the 200 stands at 19.19 seconds. “But now, it’s executing right, running the corner efficiently, and coming in the straight and running the perfect race.”