LONDON – Nineteen-year-old Grenadian Kirani James won the Olympic men’s 400m metres title on Monday and 34-year-old Dominican Felix Sanchez rolled back the years but not the tears to win a second 400 hurdles gold eight years after his first.
On a wet and windy London night, Yelena Isinbayeva’s bid for a third successive Olympic pole vault gold slipped away as American Jennifer Suhr took the honours.
Russia’s Yuliya Zaripova produced a dominant run to win the women’s 3,000m steeplechase and Nadzeya Ostapchuk of Belarus finally emerged from the All Black shadow of New Zealander Valerie Adams to claim the women’s shot.
There was drama off the track too when Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi’s was thrown out of the Games for “not trying” after he dropped out from an 800m heat the day before he was to run in the 1,500m final – only to be reinstated when he remembered he had been injured.
The men’s 400 metres is an event that has been owned at the Olympics by the United States but for the first time the final took place without an American in the field.
The sport’s superpower can take comfort from the fact that James goes to college in Alabama but with the top three all hailing from the Caribbean, and none of them Jamaican, it could represent a notable shift.
James has been tearing up trees through the age groups and won last year’s world championship when he was 18.
On Monday, though, he ran like a hardened professional, pacing his first 250 metres then driving round the bend and charging home way clear to break 44 seconds for the first time with 43.94 and win his country’s first Olympic medal.
The Dominican Republic’s Luguelin Santos, another 19-year-old, and Lalonde Gordon of Trinidad and Tobago, took silver and bronze.
While James was favourite for his race, Sanchez was a surprise winner as he held off American Michael Tinsley and Puerto Rico’s Javier Culson.
The real drama came after the race, though, as he dropped to the floor and pulled out a picture of his grandmother who died during the Beijing Games in 2008.
Sanchez, who turns 35 in three weeks, then sobbed uncontrollably on the podium, raising a huge cheer from the 80,000 crowd, whose traditional British reserve has been eroded by a week of tear-stained home victories.
“I just wanted to make her proud so I’ve got her name on my spikes,” Sanchez said.
“With the rain it felt like my grandmother was crying tears of joy so that’s why I cried.”
American Angelo Taylor, bidding for a third 400 hurdles gold after triumphs in Sydney and Beijing, finished fifth.
Three also proved a step too far for 30-year-old Isinbayeva in a pole vault competition that at one stage looked as if it might be over inside an hour.
Many competitors struggled with their opening heights in slippery conditions and Suhr, second behind the all-conquering Russian world record holder in Beijing, took gold on countback from Cuban Yarisley Silva after both cleared 4.75 metres.
Isinbayeva, who spent most of the competition curled up under a huge towel, took bronze having cleared 4.70 with one of only two successful vaults.
Ostapchuk, who has won seven world championship silver medals indoors and out, was another to get one over her event’s dominate force when her throw of 21.36 metre was enough to beat her nemesis and 2008 champion Adams into second.
The women’s 3,000m steeplechase made its Olympic debut in Beijing and world champion Zaripova ensured it was two out of two for Russia after leading from gun to tape to win in a personal best nine minutes 6.72 seconds.
Monday was a day Makhloufi will never forget – regardless of how he fares in Tuesday’s 1,500m final where he is a real medal hope.
Forced to run in an 800m heat after his federation forgot to remove his name, Makhloufi jogged for 200 metres before stepping off the track.
Soon afterwards officials threw him out of the Olympics, saying he had not provided a bona fide effort. However, to nobody’s great surprise, several hours later he was reinstated after two doctors confirmed he had suffered a “painful injury which, however, with appropriate treatment, may allow him to compete in 24 hours.”
Usain Bolt, who will begin his 200 metres campaign on Tuesday, was back in the stadium to receive his 100m gold and was given his usual adoring welcome on the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from Britain.
There were boos, though, for Justin Gatlin, who came back from a doping ban to take the bronze.
Doping was in the news in Italy too as 2008 Olympic 50km walk champion Alex Schwazer was excluded from the London Games on Monday after testing positive.
“I made a mistake, I wanted to be stronger for the Olympics. My career is finished,” said Schwazer in a rare admission of guilt from a convicted doper, many of whom have come from the race-walking community over the years. — Reuters