BEIJING — Sanya Richards clutched this medal, stared at it, smiled at it. A few feet away, Allyson Felix did the same.
These weren’t their first prizes of the 2008 Olympics.
But these were the medals the Americans wanted.
Gold. Elusive gold.
Producing precisely the type of superb runs they couldn’t muster in their individual events, Felix and Richards helped deliver one of two U.S. victories in the 1,600-meter relays Saturday, allowing a team that failed to live up to its own expectations a chance to celebrate.
“We had ups and we had downs. Just wanted to end on a high moment,” said Felix, who ran a strong second leg before anchor Richards had to overtake Russia’s Anastasia Kapachinskaya down the stretch. “It doesn’t make up for it, but it’s a start to the healing process.”
In the track and field events, the U.S. leads with 23 medals at the Bird’s Nest, five more than Russia, and seven golds, one ahead of Russia and Jamaica.
Led by Usain Bolt, he of the three gold medals and three world records in three events, Jamaica won five of the six high-profile sprint races.
“I thought it was a great performance,” Thornton said, rejecting the notion that America didn’t fare well. “We’ve had a couple things happen.”
Nothing went wrong in the women’s 1,600. Felix ran the fastest lap of any of the 32 women in the final, a 48.55-second split that put the United States in front. By the time Richards got the stick, though, Russia was in the lead.
Richards closed the gap, then bided her time, waiting … waiting … waiting for the right moment. With 30 meters left, Richards pulled to the outside and zoomed past Kapachinskaya. Showing no sign of what she said was a bothersome hamstring after fading from first place to third in the final 80 meters of the 400, Richards covered her leg in 48.93, and she thrust her baton overhead as she crossed the finish line.
At 3 minutes, 18.54 seconds, it was the fastest women’s 1,600 since 1993.
“We kept our heads high,” Richards said.
Even if Richards wound up with a bronze — not gold — in the 400, and Felix heads home with a silver — not gold — from the 200, the U.S. women’s total of nine medals is their highest since 1992.
“We won more medals — it just didn’t come from where everyone else thought it should come,” U.S. women’s coach Jeanette Bolden said.
The American men, meanwhile, have 14 medals, but only four golds, which would be their fewest ever in Olympic track and field.
No. 4 came in the 1,600 relay, when Jeremy Wariner — another favorite who settled for something less than gold in his specialty — anchored the U.S. to victory in an Olympic-record 2:55.39.
In addition to padding the medal count, the twin relay wins made up for the gaffes two nights earlier, when both U.S. 400-meter teams dropped the baton and were disqualified in the semifinals.
This time, instead of being red-faced, the relay quartets were wearing red — special uniforms to replace the blue ones used throughout the first eight days of track and field competition.
Aiming to make amends, Bolden and Thornton held meetings with their relay squads before Saturday’s races and pulled out the red outfits.
“A lot of things happened in this Olympics that we weren’t expecting,” said Wariner, the 2004 Olympic champion in the 400 who got silver this time. “But we’ll use that to build on. I know next year at the world championships it’s going to be different.”
Perhaps. Olympics and world championships are hardly the same stage — and one is not necessarily an indication of how the other will go.
Tyson Gay (100, 200), Reese Hoffa (shot put), Brad Walker (pole vault) and Bernard Lagat (1,500, 5,000) all are reigning world champions. None won so much as a bronze in Beijing.
Lagat provided a sour note Saturday. He won a silver and bronze for native Kenya at past Olympics, but he finished ninth in the 5,000 after failing to even make the 1,500 final last weekend in his first Olympics representing the United States.
“It was a tough night,” Lagat said after losing to Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, who also won the 10,000.
In other medal events, Kenya raised its gold total to five when Samuel Wanjiru pulled away over the final few miles to become the first Kenyan in the storied running history of that nation to win an Olympic marathon. The 21-year-old negotiated the 26.2-mile course through the Beijing streets in bright sunshine this morning in an Olympic record of 2 hours, 6 minutes, 32 seconds.
Kenya’s Nancy Jebet Langat won the women’s 1,500 in 4:00.23, shortly after Wilfred Bungei won the men’s 800 in 1:44.65; Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway won a second consecutive men’s javelin gold with an Olympic-record heave of 297 feet, 1 inch (90.57 meters); and Tia Hellebaut of Belgium won the women’s high jump by clearing 6-83/4 (2.05 meters).
They all got to climb the medals podium’s top step, see their flag raised and hear their national anthem.
So, finally, did Richards, Felix and Wariner.
“They wanted to end it with a good dose of good ol’ American apple pie,” Thornton said of the relay victories.
Still, while the “Star-Spangled Banner” sounded more often than other countries’ songs, it didn’t quite get the treatment Thornton anticipated after seeing the team that was assembled at the U.S. Olympic trials.
“My medal count goal is that, at the end of the day, when 91,000 people leave that stadium,” he said back in July, “they’ve heard our national anthem so many times that they’re humming it on their way out the door.”