TOKYO (AP) — A five-minute burst of action near the backstretch of the Olympic track served up the perfect snapshot of what is going right, and all that is going wrong, for the U.S. track and field team in Tokyo.
At one moment in the pole vault pit Thursday night, Katie Nageotte cleared 4.90 meters (16 feet, 1 inch) and went running up to the stands to celebrate a gold medal that had looked like a lost cause only an hour earlier.
At the next, just as the 400-meter sprinters approached the halfway point, America’s best chance in the race, Michael Norman, was steaming so far ahead of the competition, it became clear he could not sustain the pace.
He didn’t. Norman finished fourth to cap Day 7 of the nine-day meet at the Olympic Stadium. The U.S. men’s sprinters left the stadium not having won a single final.
But Nageotte’s gold, won in a tense back-and-forth with Russian athlete Anzhelika Sidorova, was the third field victory for the U.S., two of which have been won by women.
With only two days left, and not all that many races remaining, what started as anomaly can now be considered a trend:
The U.S. women are doing well.
The U.S. men are not.
The U.S. overall is doing well in field events.
It is struggling on the track.
There have been exceptions — namely Athing Mu and Sydney McLaughlin, who have the country’s only two golds from the track. And Ryan Crouser, who gutted out an emotion-drenched victory earlier in the day to defend his Olympic shot put title.
Very few would’ve figured Crouser’s win on Day 7 would be the first in any event for the men, who make up about half of the deepest team in the world.
Norman’s fourth-place finish capped a dreary day of running for the red, white and blue — at least on the oval.
He was supposed to have a showdown with Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas, but Gardiner won this easily, in a time of 43.85 seconds, to add to his title from the world championships two years ago in Qatar.
Much earlier in the day came a rite of passage for the U.S. at the Olympics: A debacle in the men’s 4×100 relay.
This time, it was Fred Kerley and Ronnie Baker who got tangled up in an exchange, costing them precious time and leaving the U.S. not with a “DQ,” but with an unsightly “6” by its name. Sixth place means they won’t get to run for the first relay gold in the post-Usain Bolt era.
One good chance — possibly the only one left — for the men’s sprinters might be in the 4×400. The U.S. has won that event at seven of the last nine Olympics.
Michael Cherry is expected to be part of that team. The 26-year-old Cherry, who finished a spot behind Norman in the 400, tried to put a positive spin on things. It is, he insisted, a young team heading into the unknown.
“It’s 23-year-olds, 24-year-olds, 25-year-olds. We’ve got college kids, we’ve got guys who just got out of college,” he said. “So we’re a pretty young team. We’re going to dominate soon. Just everybody’s got to grow up and adjust.”
Nageotte is 30, but fairly new to the major international stage. She’s now on a list with Jenn Suhr and Stacy Dragila as American Olympic champions in pole vault.
It was so close to not happening.
Nageotte, who went viral when she cleared a personal best (4.95) to win the Olympic trials earlier this summer, opened her evening with two straight misses at the first height, 4.5 meters.
Facing elimination, she cleared the height on the third try and jumped for joy.
Fast forward an hour, after she cleared 4.9 and Sidorova missed. Nageotte ran into the stands for hugs, and after sharing congratulations with her competitors on the track, she taped up the pole, had the bar set at 5.01 and geared up for a chance at a new personal record.
She took off down the runway but pulled up short. She could not focus through the tears streaming down her face.
An unlikely scene, especially after what had gone down to start the evening. But then again, U.S. track and field has been providing its fair share of the unexpected in Tokyo.
For better and for worse.