RIO DE JANEIRO – Allyson Felix and LaShawn Merritt are savvy track stars who’ve been around long enough to know that not everything always goes to plan.
But over the final 30 minutes of Saturday’s topsy-turvy night at the Olympic track, both Americans came away with the prizes they’d been wishing for all along.
Those prizes were both golds from the 4×400-meter relay teams, and the United States exited the final night of action at Olympic Stadium with 31 medals — the most it has taken in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1956, when both the world and track were very different places.
“People are at home watching — watching 2012, watching 2008,” said Felix, 30, who competed in her fourth Olympics and now has nine total medals. “And when they get their opportunity, they’re seizing the moment.”
One of those moments looked like it might belong to 41-year-old Bernard Lagat in the 5,000 meters. He actually finished sixth, but three runners ahead of him, including American Paul Chelimo , were disqualified for interference and Lagat was briefly moved to third. “Really?” he exclaimed when told about it during post-race interviews.
A review ensued, Chelimo was reinstated to his original silver medal and Lagat was dropped to fifth — a bummer for the elder statesman of the U.S. track team, but some sort of sign for the team: Even when it lost, it won.
“I thought it was a joke,” Chelimo said of the moment when he was told his silver was gone. “I couldn’t believe. Now I’m really happy. I got reinstated. It’s the best feeling ever.”
All those reviews and appeals made for a strange scene as the program came to a close. Mo Farah, Chelimo and Ethiopian Hagos Gebrhiwet marched to the podium to receive their medals nearly an hour after the evening’s final race, in front of only a few thousand stragglers in the stands.
It was Farah’s second straight 5,000-10,000 Olympic double, putting an exclamation point on the games for his home country, Britain.
“This medal is for my son,” said Farah, who has four children and four gold medals. “When I’m gone, all my kids will have something of me.”
After another standout Olympics, Farah is ranking ever higher among the best runners in history. Kenenisa Bekele, with three Olympic and five world titles? Swept by him. Farah now has four Olympic gold medals and five world championship titles.
In the shrouds of history, there is still Emil Zatopek of the Czech Republic and Paavo Nurmi of Finland, but the changes in competition make an accurate comparison impossible. Nurmi has nine Olympic gold medals from the 1920 and 1924 Olympics, while Zatopek won the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
The night’s biggest surprise came from Matthew Centrowitz, who shocked the field in a slow 1,500-meter final and became the first American to win gold in the “metric mile” since 1908. His time was 3 minutes, 50 seconds.
“Doing my victory lap, I literally kept screaming to everyone I know, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Centrowitz said.
Felix spent a lot of the week saying the same thing — and not in a good way.
This has been an adjust-on-the-fly year for America’s best-known track star — her failure to make the team for the 200 meters, her jaw-dropping silver-medal moment when a diving sprinter from the Bahamas, Shaunae Miller, beat her in the 400, and more. But on back-to-back nights, she took relay gold, starting with the 4×100 on Friday. The wins gave her gold medals No. 5 and 6 — a record for a woman on the Olympic track.
The smile Felix flashed as she crossed the line and waved the baton said what words could not: Thank goodness, it’s finally over.
“The toughest, without a doubt,” Felix said of her 2016. “This year, you make plans and want everything to go according to schedule. Nothing went according to schedule.”
Ruth Beitia of Spain won the women’s high jump at a height of 1.97 meters, while Germany’s Thomas Rohler was the javelin gold medalist with a 90.30-meter throw.
South Africa’s Caster Semenya won the 800 meters with no one close to challenging her, a result that will only stoke the complex debate over whether women with much higher levels of testosterone than normal should be allowed to compete unchecked.
Semenya of South Africa won her first Olympic gold in a personal-best of 1 minute, 55.28 seconds, a national record and one of the top 20 times ever in the two-lap race. She said it was about running a race and winning a gold medal, and not about the debate over testosterone and the IAAF’s desire to regulate it in some women.
“We’re not here to talk about IAAF, we’re not here to talk about some speculations,” Semenya said. “It’s not about looking at people, how they look, how they speak, how they run. It’s not about being muscular. It’s all about sports.”