The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How does it feel to lose at the Olympics? Elite athletes describe the heartache.

Clayton Murphy lies on the track after the 800-meter final. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
6 min

TOKYO — When he finally summoned the strength to get off his back, Clayton Murphy rose and walked off the track at National Stadium. The American runner stripped off his uniform and walked bare-chested by a row of television cameras, the ones reserved for the medal winners, not for him on this night, the last-place finisher in the 800-meter final.

But Murphy was still scheduled to talk about it with reporters in the dark bowels of the stadium. The only problem is that he had to wait for the microphone. It was being occupied by Courtney Frerichs, who earlier in the night had won the silver medal in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase. So he found a nearby folding chair and was within earshot of her talking about the best night of her athletic career. He took his spikes off and buried his head into his uniform as she spoke. A runner from Botswana stopped to shake his hand and tap his shoulder. Murphy revealed his red eyes and stared blankly at the concrete floor.

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“An Olympic medal is an Olympic medal, and I just needed to keep holding on,” Frerichs said into the microphone at one point, amplified by a speaker so everyone could hear, and eventually she was whisked away. Murphy left the chair and took the microphone.

“I don’t know about everyone else. I run for one thing: That’s an Olympic medal,” he said. “I could give two [expletives] about the American record. Really could. I could give two [expletives] about running 1:40. This is what I run for is a medal. There’s some salt in the wound today.”

The thrill of Olympic victory played out in more scenes for the American track and field team Wednesday — for Sydney McLaughlin, whose eyes were misty as she stood on the podium after she set a world record in 400-meter hurdles, for Kenneth Bednarek and Noah Lyles, who laughed together as they took a lap following their silver and bronze medals in the 200-meter final to push the United States’ track and field medal count to 16, which was 10 more than any other country.

But it was juxtaposed by images of pure agony after a string of stunning letdowns from potential medal winners, including by Murphy, who had won the bronze in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. It included Rudy Winkler, the U.S. record holder in the hammer throw who searched for answers after finishing seventh in a nervous performance.

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It included Emma Coburn, a medal favorite in the 3,000-meter steeplechase whose body shut down by the third lap, causing her to finish last in the final. She stopped and talked with reporters for more than 15 minutes after her race, using words such as “embarrassing” and “mystifying” and “heartache” — multiple times — because even she didn’t know the answers.

Coburn has been one of the most consistent athletes in her sport for more than a decade — an Olympian and nine-time U.S. champion — and she entered Wednesday’s race in peak physical condition. By the halfway point, her 30-year-old body started to give out and she wanted to stop. She clipped a hurdle and stumbled onto the track, and eventually she was disqualified for lane infringement.

“I was going to come out and crush. I thought I was just going to come out there and be fighting for a medal, fighting for gold. And that wasn’t today, and this is going to be really hard,” she said, her voice cracking. “This is going to be really hard for the next year, until the next championship can come around. … I’m really sad. I’m really disappointed that I couldn’t do better for my coach and my family.”

At one point, a reporter informed her that she had been disqualified.

“Cool. Cool. Cool,” she said, and a couple of reporters laughed. She shook her head and looked at them.

“That sucks. That’s like, not funny to me. Laughing isn’t cool with that heartache.”

The group got quiet, and she eventually continued to describe the pain. All of the metrics suggested that she should have been in contention to win the gold medal. She had been fine-tuning her body for months in workouts without a hiccup. Then came Wednesday. Maybe it was the hot and humid conditions in Tokyo, she wondered, but she refused to use it as a crutch. Every runner was dealt the same cards.

“It’s not what I’m capable of. I need to do better. I don’t have the answers for what happened today. I wish I did. I wish I had a — ‘Oh I have a hamstring injury,’ and, ‘I was feeling like crap.’ I don’t have that,” she said. “My body shut down and I don’t have an answer. There’s nothing mental I could have done to will my body to do better than it did, which is really frustrating.”

Winkler, 26, knew how she felt. He had been through this in 2016 as a younger man, finishing 12th in Rio, and he felt ready to take the next step in Tokyo. His body of work suggested he would. He won national championships in 2016, 2018 and 2021. He overcame an ugly bout with the coronavirus in April 2020 that dropped him from training for weeks — “I went through the gauntlet of all the symptoms,” he said — but he recovered and beat Lance Deal’s American record at the U.S. track trials this summer. On Wednesday, he was trying to become the first American to medal in the event since Deal did it at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

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But he felt “unfocused” from the onset. He was nervous. His first throw of 77.08 meters (252 feet 10½ inches) would be his best. He went in reverse and didn’t eclipse 76 meters on his next two throws as Poland’s Wojciech Nowicki won the goal medal at 85.52 meters (280-7). It was Winkler’s worst meet of the year, and it came at the worst time.

“I think that’s exactly,” he said, taking a moment to pause and collect his thoughts. “You put so much work into it. . . . It’s the work other people are also putting into it. So I think that was part of the pressure I was feeling today. Wanting to represent my friends and my family and my girlfriend and everyone who has put so much into it for me to do well, and then not having it go the way I was expecting is tough.”

Murphy said he had run his race in his head during his day off from competition. He was introduced, along with the rest the field, to music before the race, and he took a swig of his water and spit it out as he walked down the track to line up. Murphy carried the swagger of someone who had been here before — and he was, in fact, the only returning finalist from the 2016 800-meter race in Rio to run here in Tokyo.

It was his moment to earn respect after being long overlooked in an event that also includes Isaiah Jewett and Donavan Brazier, neither of whom made it this far. But Murphy was boxed in early in the race and, after some jostling, finished last in 1:46.53. A pair of runners from Kenya, Emmanuel Kipkurui Korir and Ferguson Cheruiyot Rotich, took home the gold and silver, respectively, and as they celebrated together, Murphy collapsed on his back and put his hands over his eyes.

“I was only going to walk away disappointed one way, and that’s if I lost the race,” he said. “I lost the race.”

They didn’t know what the next few days might bring. By the end of his news conference, Murphy shook his head and simply said: “This one is hard.” A thrower from Great Britain stopped for a moment to pat the back of Winkler, who said he would meet with his sports psychologist Thursday to process what happened. Coburn reminded everyone of the exact time of the medal ceremony later in the night — 8:50 p.m. — and she was still trying to process that she wouldn’t be there.

“Today is mystifying,” she said. “I went to bed last night thinking I was going to be coming home with an Olympic medal. I walked on that starting line thinking I was coming home with an Olympic medal. I’m coming home empty-handed, with a lot of heartache.”

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