He carefully grabbed the baton from teammate Bryce Deadmon and rocketed around the first turn, looking like a man with something to prove.
Benjamin put the competition further in his wake with each stride, and as he crossed the finish line he raised the baton in the air. A baton had symbolized American failure two days earlier, when a bungled handoff led to the 4x100 team missing the final in an event it was favored to win. This time, it passed cleanly from Michael Cherry to Michael Norman, then to Deadmon and finally to Benjamin, and their undeniable speed took care of the rest. The United States clocked the fourth-fastest time ever in the event, finishing in 2 minutes 55.70 seconds and ensuring the American men would bring home at least one track gold.
“This sport is really unforgiving, and it’s just amazing to come out here and win a gold medal considering what the banter was back home. Especially given our team is young, and a lot of people don’t understand that,” said Benjamin, who ran the fastest split at 43.40. “They’re just used to seeing USA going out and winning gold, but they don’t understand that we’re in a transition period.”
American men finished with six individual medals in track events — four silver and two bronze — more than most countries won in track and field. But they heard questions all week about falling short of expectations, about how the United States had never failed to win an individual gold medal in men’s track at the Olympics — until this year.
There had been some close calls. Benjamin earned silver in the 400-meter hurdles, undone only by a world-record time from Norway star Karsten Warholm. Grant Holloway settled for silver after Jamaica’s Hansle Parchment edged him in the 110-meter hurdles. Fred Kerley earned a silver after finishing just four-hundredths of a second behind relative unknown Lamont Marcell Jacobs of Italy in the 100 meters, and Kenny Bednarek and Noah Lyles took home silver and bronze, respectively, in the 200 meters after Canada’s Andre De Grasse ran away from the field.
But there were also head-scratchers — including from Norman, who was favored to win the 400 meters but faded and finished fifth. The U.S. men failed to medal in the event when Cherry finished fourth. The scrutiny only intensified after Thursday’s 4x100 debacle, which Carl Lewis, the most decorated male track and field athlete in U.S. history, called an “embarrassment.”
“A whole lot of second places,” Benjamin admitted Saturday. “Guys who were supposed to win got second, and guys … who were supposed to medal didn’t medal. I mean, as athletes we all put pressure on ourselves. So no one comes here with the intention of losing. We all want to win.”
The United States has long dominated the 4x400, claiming 17 golds and three silvers in the 23 Olympic finals it had appeared in before Saturday. This was the eighth time in the past 10 Games the United States won the event.
Cherry opened the race and trailed as he handed off to Norman. The exchange was clean, and Norman immediately made up ground. By the final 100 meters of the second leg, he led. The United States was in command as he handed off to Deadmon, who also ran the third leg in a first-place semifinal finish Friday.
A younger quartet of Americans ran in that race — Deadmon was joined by Trevor Stewart, Randolph Ross and Vernon Norwood — but even after they survived a slightly bobbled handoff to cruise into the final, they were peppered with questions about the letdown of the 4x100 team. From afar, other American athletes watched as criticism poured in for the U.S. male sprinters, who, like everyone else, were performing in empty venues and living under strict coronavirus-related protocols.
They weren’t the only ones who were disappointed; Vashti Cunningham, thought to be a medal contender in Saturday’s women’s high jump final, failed to replicate her spring form and finished sixth.
“A lot of people don’t realize, they see these huge performances on the international stage. It’s easy to slip [their] mind that you’re thousands of miles from home, eating food that’s new to you,” said shot putter Ryan Crouser, the only American man to win an individual track and field gold medal in Tokyo. “… I feel like I handled the pressure well, but there’s definitely changes.”
As Deadmon finished the third leg Saturday, he had held off challengers from the Netherlands and Botswana, which won silver and bronze, respectively. Barring a sloppy handoff or a fall, there was no chance any runner would catch Benjamin.
After it was finally over, and the American men could finally put gold medals around their necks, they walked into the tunnels of the stadium to speak with reporters. They waved at the American women who won gold in the 4x400, giving Allyson Felix a record 11th Olympic medal at her fifth and final Games. Each man wore relief on his face. As if anyone forgot, Benjamin introduced his teammates again.
“We know who we are. I mean, this is Michael Cherry, Michael Norman, Bryce Deadmon,” he said, pointing to the trio, before a reporter asked about the state of the U.S. men’s track team moving forward.
“I think people are used to seeing guys like Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin and all those veteran guys come out here and perform, and they’re just used to seeing that gold medal. They don’t realize those guys aren’t on the team anymore. This is a brand new track and field team for Team USA. And it takes time to be great,” he said. “I think everyone just needs to be patient. And if you actually just pay attention to track and you actually follow the sport, you will see that.”
As the news conference ended and the athletes began to disperse, Norman walked back to the microphone and said he wanted to say something. He had stormed past the media following his fifth-place finish in the 400 earlier in the week. He called the ensuing 24 hours “pretty rough.”
“You dedicate two years of your life to accomplish something and you don’t even fall short — you don’t even come close to what you’re expected to do and what you’re capable of. That was heartbreaking for me,” Norman said, and so he was grateful he had one last chance to run at these Olympics.
Norman was already looking forward to another chance to redeem himself at the 2022 world championships in Oregon. Perhaps no runner from the team has more to prove after this tumultuous week.
“I will be 10 times stronger, and I will be 10 times faster,” he promised. “That’s all I have to say.”