Americans sweep Olympic 1,600 relays

August 23, 2008

BEIJING (AP) -- Sanya Richards needed a furious comeback. Jeremy Wariner could have walked to the finish.

The results were the same, though.

No dropped batons.

And gold medals. Finally.

In a pair of races that brought some redemption after a disappointing Olympics for the U.S. track and field team, Wariner, Richards and Allyson Felix led a sweep of the 1,600-meter relays Saturday, an event that might as well have been designed to bolster the country's gold-medal count.

Richards anchored her team to a come-from-behind victory in 3 minutes, 18.54 seconds, the world's fastest time since 1993. It was the fourth straight Olympic win in the event for the United States.


A few minutes later, Wariner crossed the line 12 strides ahead of Christopher Brown of the Bahamas, finishing in 2:55.39 to break the Olympic record by 0.35 second.

"To end it with an Olympic record after everything those guys have been through, that shows you they care about representing America," U.S. men's coach Bubba Thornton said. "They wanted to end it with a good dose of good ol' American apple pie."

The women's race was hardly a breeze -- unless you count that huge sigh of relief that came from the U.S. foursome.

In the final leg, Richards trailed Russia's Anastasia Kapachinskaya for more than 300 meters, with no signs of closing the gap. But down the stretch, Richards finally took over -- something she couldn't do in her bronze-medal performance in the 400-meter race on Tuesday -- for a 0.28-second victory.

When she crossed the line, she threw out her right fist -- baton tightly clenched inside of it -- knowing a gold medal would soon be hung around her neck. The team huddled and cried. Tears of joy this time instead of disappointment.

"You get down on yourself," Richards said. "So we used that as motivation. We kept our heads high and we ran great."

There was no such drama in the men's race, which featured two gold-medal winners to start and the defending world and Olympic champion to finish. LaShawn Merritt, who upset Wariner in the 400 gave the U.S. the lead; Angelo Taylor, the 400 hurdles winner, widened it; David Neville held it; and Wariner romped to the finish.

It was the 18th time in 22 relays they've entered that the American men have won the long relay at the Olympics. Their gold medal in 2000 was recently stripped because of a doping case.

Despite the late success, the Americans are likely to finish with seven gold medals, one fewer than the last two Olympics but one more than their worst showings in 1972 and 1976, when there were fewer events.

The golds gave the Americans 23 overall medals, so with only Sunday's marathon left, they're virtually assured of falling short of the 25 they won in Athens four years ago.

The men could wind up with only four gold medals, their worst showing ever at an Olympics.

A big part of the slide had to do with Jamaica, which won five of the six sprint races and set world records in three (Usain Bolt's 100 and 200 and the men's 400 relay).

"I thought it was a great performance," Thornton said, countering the thought that America wasn't doing so well. "We've had a couple things happen."

Wariner, Felix and Richards were among a big handful of Americans who came to Beijing with gold-medal hopes but were still unfulfilled going into the final weekend.

Richards' hamstring started tightening up in the last 80 meters of the 400 on Tuesday and she walked away with a bronze, crying into her cell phone when it was over. Two days later, Felix finished behind Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown, who ran the best time in a decade in the 200, and also was weeping after the race.

Felix and Richards had also hoped to line up for the Americans in the final of the 400-meter relay -- Richards would have been a long shot to make that team -- but never got the chance because the team dropped the baton in qualifying, blowing a sure shot at a medal and maybe even a gold.

The American men dropped the stick, too, blowing yet another medal opportunity in an event where they usually dominate.

Wariner was the defending world and Olympic champion, a favorite to win the 400, but labored mightily down the stretch, losing badly to Merritt. Merritt, Wariner and Neville still swept the event, though -- a pretty good sign that there would be gold in their relay future to help set aside some of the disappointments.

"A lot of things happened in this Olympics that we weren't expecting," Wariner said. "But we'll use that to build on. I know next year at the world championships it's going to be different."

World championships, of course, are not the Olympics -- something that became painfully obvious as this meet wore on.

Reese Hoffa (shot put), Brad Walker (pole vault), Tyson Gay (100 and 200) and Bernard Lagat (1,500 and 5,000) all came in as defending world champions. None of them won a thing in Beijing.

Lagat closed his Olympics by finishing ninth in the 5,000 meters, meaning he'll go home empty-handed after failing to even make the finals in the 1,500.

Born in Kenya and competing for the United States for the first time at the Olympics, Lagat never found his stride -- or the late kick that made him one of the world's best for nearly a decade. Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia won to complete an Olympic 5K-10K sweep.

Lagat told reporters he was dealing with an injury to his left Achilles' heel.

"It was a tough night," he said. "The boys ran a good race. They ran a tough race. Bekele took charge. He seems like he was having an easy day today."

In the women's 1,500, Nancy Jebet Langat of Kenya won the final in 4 minutes, 0.23 seconds to give her country its fourth gold of the track meet. Her victory came moments after Wilfred Bungei of Kenya won the men's 800 meters.

In the javelin throw, Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway defended his Olympic title with a throw of 297 feet, 1 inch (90.57 meters), an Olympic record.

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