Saturday, August 23, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 22 -- For a few brief moments Friday night, the World's Fastest Man and the World's Greatest Athlete were on the track at the same time. The former was at the far end, preening and dancing and ostensibly preparing for a relay race that, in a few moments, would give him his third gold medal and third world record in a week -- and the latter, not far from the finish line, on the verge of collapse, barely able to hug his wife, wrap himself in an American flag and take a mini-victory lap.
But then someone tapped Bryan Clay on the shoulder, and the newly minted gold medalist in the Olympic decathlon was ushered off the track so that phenom sprinter Usain Bolt and his Jamaican teammates could torch the field in the finals of the men's 4x100-meter relay, which was about to start.
Clay disappeared beneath the stands of National Stadium as Bolt delivered another revelatory performance -- as electrifying in its own way as his record-setting wins in the 100 and 200 meters earlier in the week. The win by the Jamaican relay team completed Bolt's rise to a worldwide phenomenon.
"All I can say is, 'Yo, Jamaican sprinters [are] taking over the world!' " Bolt said after the relay gold. "We're taking over forever, forever."
Clay, meantime, had slid back into relative obscurity.
Not so long ago, the Olympic decathlon champion would have a public profile not much below that of the top sprint champion. No less than King Gustav of Sweden first bestowed the title of World's Greatest Athlete to 1912 decathlon champ Jim Thorpe, and the title helped create superstars out of subsequent winners such as Rafer Johnson and Bruce Jenner, the latter of whom famously appeared on a Wheaties box following his win in Montreal in 1976.
These days, on the other hand -- for reasons not exactly clear -- the decathlon winner is largely an afterthought in track and field, which means Clay is unlikely to get anywhere near the same adulation and financial opportunities. At least he is able to laugh about it.
"I just want the Wheaties box," he joked to reporters. "Put me on the Wheaties box."
Clay, a Hawaii native, father of two, and the son of a Japanese-American mother and an African-American father, won silver in Athens in 2004, but endured injuries that knocked him out of both the U.S. national and world championships in 2007.
In Beijing, over the course of nine events across two days -- with four hours of sleep in between -- Clay built a commanding lead, largely because of his prowess in the throwing events. He knew he would need most or all of that lead to survive the final event, the 1,500-meter run, which has always been his worst. Clay staggered across the finish line Friday evening, well off the pace but fast enough to win by 240 points -- the largest victory margin in an Olympic decathlon since the Munich Games in 1972.
"I was exhausted," Clay said. "I had nothing in my legs. . . . My main concern was finishing the race and getting it all done, and being at the top of the podium."
Bolt's relay title came on the heels of his other two gold medals, plus Jamaica's sweep in the women's 100 meters (headed by gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser) and Veronica Campbell-Brown's gold in the women's 200. The string of sprinting success for Jamaica was broken in the women's 4x100-meter relay Friday night, when Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart botched their handoff, leading to a disqualification.