U.S. decathlete Bryan Clay was walking slowly next to the Olympic Stadium track on a victory lap, and he reached the top of the homestretch just about the time Usain Bolt did while finishing the third leg of Jamaica’s 400-meter relay Friday night.
The man who had just earned the title of world’s greatest athlete saw the sprinter who has become the world’s fastest man speeding to his third OIympic gold medal, each in world-record time.
“It was unbelievable,” Clay said.
With former 100-meter world-record holder Asafa Powell on anchor, the Jamaicans clocked 37.10 seconds, blowing away the record of 37.40 that had stood since a U.S. relay team anchored by Carl Lewis set it at the 1992 Olympics.
Clay, 28, of Glendora, might have envied how little time it takes a sprinter to achieve greatness, even if he said, “I love the decathlon.”
Bolt altogether needed about 2 minutes and 10 seconds of running to win gold medals in the 100, 200 and relay. Clay had endured two 11-hour days of competition to join a line of U.S. decathlon champions that began at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics with Jim Thorpe.
King Gustav V of Sweden was so impressed with the results of the first OIympic decathlon that he told Thorpe, “Sir, you are the world’s greatest athlete.”
Every U.S. decathlete knows that story, knows about Bob Mathias’ winning two decathlon gold medals, about Rafer Johnson’s gold and silver, about Bruce Jenner getting on the Wheaties box. The last decathlon champion from the United States was Dan O’Brien in 1996.
“We still go back into the books and look at all the things they accomplished,” Clay said, after adding gold to the silver he won at the 2004 Olympics.
“Now we’ve got the title of ‘world’s greatest athlete’ back on U.S. soil. I know that means something to all the guys that went before us.”
They all belong to a fraternity of pain, never more so than Friday at the Bird’s Nest, where four decathletes were left prostrate on the track after the final event, the 1,500 meters. One was 2004 champion Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic, who had finished sixth after fighting leg injuries all season.
The first thing Sebrle did after getting back on his feet was raise Clay’s hand like a boxing referee introducing a new champion.
Sebrle first saw Clay at the 2003 world championships and thought he was too small (5 feet 11 and 185 pounds) to amount to much as a decathlete.
“That was a mistake,” Sebrle said, with a pleased smile, about a rival who has become his friend and houseguest.
Such is the respect decathletes have for one another that Sebrle regretted that his Olympic record of 8,893 points had not fallen to Clay, who led after each of the 10 events and won with 8,791 to 8,551 for silver medalist Andrei Krauchanka of Belarus.
“It stinks he didn’t make it, but he won the Olympic Games,” Sebrle said. “Now I know it is a little bit of a miracle [to win the decathlon], and he can be satisfied.”
Clay left with a comfortable lead after Thursday, when the decathletes faced a downpour in the morning, and the fifth event did not end until 10 p.m. He managed little sleep before returning to the track at 9 a.m. for a second day when the heat became overwhelming.
The weather extremes made it even harder to get through the two days than usual -- and usual is grueling.
“Being physically exhausted after the first day, knowing I was coming out here with only four hours’ sleep, it was tough,” Clay said. “In the pole vault [the eighth event], it must have been 100 degrees on the track.”
Clay wished there had been enough left in his legs for the 1,500 to chase not only Sebrle’s Olympic record but the American record of 8,891 that O’Brien set in 1992. To beat O’Brien, Clay needed to run almost 20 seconds faster than the 5:06.59 he managed.
“I tried to go out and stay on pace, but I knew it was going to be a struggle,” Clay said. “My main goal here was to win the gold medal.”
His was the fifth for the U.S. track team. The men’s sprint relay gave Jamaica a sixth gold, but they lost a chance for another when their heavily favored women’s team botched a baton exchange in the final.
“Jamaica did great in these Games,” Powell said. “We practically took it over.”
In the second week, Bolt took over the starring role that Michael Phelps relinquished after winning eight gold medals when swimming ended Sunday. The Jamaican sprinter’s exuberance has captured the imagination of the sellout crowds, who clearly don’t agree with International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge’s crusty complaint that Bolt’s behavior was “not the way we perceive a champion.”
“I’m a performer,” Bolt responded when asked about Rogge’s criticism. “I come out there and perform and let the public enjoy themselves.
“I won’t change. I will always be myself.”
So he kept running after passing the baton, racing to congratulate Powell after the record run, while Clay finished his trip down the straightaway at a leisurely pace that also was befitting of greatness.
Philip Hersh covers the Olympics for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.
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Americans who have won the decathlon at the Olympics
Bryan Clay became the first American man to win the 10-discipline event at the Olympics since 1996. He competed at Azusa Pacific and now joins the pantheon of Americans who have been crowned the “World’s Greatest Athlete”:
1921: Jim Thorpe
1924: Harold Osborn
1932: Jim Bausch
1936: Glenn Morris
1948: Bob Mathias
1952: Bob Mathias
1956: Rafer Johnson
1960: Rafer Johnson
1968: Bill Toomey
1976: Bruce Jenner
1996: Dan O’Brien
2008: Bryan Clay