Jessica Ennis-Hill wasn’t going to die wondering. As she lined up for the 800m, the final event of the women’s heptathlon, she knew she needed to overturn a 142-point deficit to surpass Nafissatou Thiam, the brilliant young Belgian – nine years her junior – if she was to retain her Olympic title. That equated to 9.47 seconds: the exact difference between their two personal bests.
Ennis-Hill charged out into the lead, quickly establishing a gap on the field as she tried to squeeze every last drop from her 30-year-old body. When she won gold at London 2012, the 800m turned into an early victory lap. This time it was pure torture.
She passed halfway in just over 62 seconds, with Thiam four seconds back. The gap never never stretched enough and when Ennis-Hill crossed the line in 2:09.07 to score 978 points, Thiam was close enough behind to finish in 2:16.54 for 871 points.
That gave the Belgian a score of 6,810 points – a personal best by 302 – with Ennis-Hill second in 6,775 and the Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton third with 6,653 points. Britain’s Katarina Johnson-Thompson was a disappointing sixth with 6,523 points.
“I knew I had to beat Thiam by about 10 seconds,” Ennis said. “When I came off from the javelin I had to speak to Toni [Minichiello, Ennis’s coach] and I said ‘what have I got to do?’. He said ‘10 seconds’ and I was like ‘oh god that’s so much’, but I just thought I’m going to run hard like I always do at 800m and see what I can do and come away and give it.
“I knew she was going to run hard – I knew she was running for that gold medal. She’s had two great days she wasn’t going to give that up.”
Afterwards Ennis-Hill refused to say whether it would be her last event, but it certainly sounded like it might be. “I’m just really emotional,” she said. “Now I’ve got to go away and make a big decision.” When asked whether it might be her last one, she said: “Possibly. I just want to go away, have some time with my family and make a decision.
“I think it’s a mix of thinking back to the last few years. I’m just so emotional and yeah I’ve just got to make a decision as to whether this is my last heptathlon or not.”
Thiam’s rise has been rapid and staggering. A month before Ennis-Hill won gold at London 2012, she finished 14th at the World Junior Championships, but her progress was such that she came 13th in the senior World Championships in Moscow. Until Saturday night, however, her personal best was 6,508 points – enough to put in the mix for a bronze, some thought, but no one was tipping her for gold. Even three days ago the bookies thought she was a long shot, at 50-1, for gold.
But the quietly spoken 21-year-old, who was born to a Belgian mother and Senegalese father, and studies geography at the University of Liege, had other ideas.
The performance of her life started with a personal best in the 100m hurdles on Saturday, then another with a huge leap of 1.98m in the high jump – the best ever clearance in a heptathlon – to put her into contention at the end of the first day.
At that stage she was second, 72 points behind Ennis-Hill and the Briton was clear favourite. But then Thiam produced three more personal bests on the second day, first producing a 6.53m leap in the long jump, then a javelin throw of 53.03m before rounding it off with the 800m.
Ennis-Hill performed well – indeed her score was her best since London 2012, since which she has given birth to her now two-year-old son Reggie. But she just wasn’t quite able to hit the highest notes enough, her long jump of 6.34m and javelin of 46.06 on the second day being good but not exceptional.
Meanwhile, Johnson-Thompson’s chances of bronze bit the dust after a sub-par 6.51m leap in the long jump and a terrible performance in the javelin. Her first effort was just 36.36m, nearly six metres below her personal best, while her second was so poor she purposely stepped over the line so it counted as foul. Before her final attempt the likeable 23-year-old sat on her chair repeatedly rehearsing her throw, but she was unable to improve her score of 598 points.
The great irony is that Johnson-Thompson’s coach, Mike Holmes, is a specialist throws expert: he has spent years trying to get her shot put and javelin up to scratch. And yet for her brilliant athleticism, success in both events still eludes her.
“It’s obviously not what I came for,” she said. “I should have done better but I’ll go back now. It was more than my throws this weekend – it was my hurdles, the long jump and the two. Not many people were getting PBs apart from Thiam and it showed because she won. We always said it was going to take 6,800 to win and it did – 6,810, so I feel like I was capable of it but there’s nothing I can do.
“My training was going well, my 200m in particular, so I was a bit confused. The timetable and sleeping didn’t help for everyone not just me. It was crazy – we all had four hours sleep last night and we were finishing at, well, I don’t know what time it is now. Then it was freezing yesterday – so the performances weren’t really working for me.
“I’ve got no excuses, I just didn’t execute.”
The same can’t be said of Thiam, whose brilliance in Rio suggest a long and successful career ahead of her. Ennis-Hill will surely head into the sunset, her head held high as Britain’s greatest female track and field athlete.
This article was written by Sean Ingle at the Olympic Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, for theguardian.com on Sunday 14th August 2016 05.07 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010