These Olympics will be remembered for any amount of athletic excellence but there are days when the acreage of empty seats in Rio’s showpiece stadium feels doubly depressing. If there is one man who should be guaranteed to attract a crowd it is Usain Bolt, the fastest and most marketable athlete on the planet. For him to run in front of a sea of vacant blue plastic really does damage the Games’ image.
Admittedly it was “only” a morning session and Bolt, by his own admission, was merely intent on easing into the 200m semi-finals. But sometimes it is the quiet Tuesday mornings that best reflect the true magnetism, or otherwise, of the modern Games. With fewer than half the 60,000 seats filled for the latest instalment of the Bolt roadshow on a sparklingly bright sunny day, the glaring inability of the local organisers either to sell enough tickets or grant free admission to those unable to afford them was exposed once more.
The announcement of the death of the 100-year-old João Havelange, the former Fifa president after whom this stadium has been named, also added to the contemplative mood, although Bolt, as ever, did his best to provide at least some value for money, dutifully performing a little dance during his warm-up before strolling to a comfortable 20.28sec victory in his heat like a man casually jogging for a stationary bus.
Given that Bolt, who will turn 30 on Sunday, has expressed a desire to break 19 seconds for the 200m, preferably this week, it was simply a case of going through the motions and trying to shake out some of the fatigue following his third Olympic 100m title success.
He openly admits he “loves” the 200m more than any other event and sounds determined to give it a rip as and when he reaches the final. “I’m always tired for the first round but the execution was OK,” he said. “The key thing is that I qualified and I qualified easy. It’s the morning session and I’m not a morning person.”
He also reckons it will help his cause that the schedule does not require him to run again until Wednesday. “I’m surprised this is how it is set out,” he said. “Normally we always have to do two rounds in one day. I think it’s actually much better for the 200m; we’ll have time to recover over the days. I’ll have enough rest and enough energy.”
There is no sense whatsoever, either, that his 100m exertions are about to catch up with him physically or mentally. “For me its easy because I’ve been doing this for years. You just celebrate on the night, be happy, get all your congratulations and then have to be focused to go again the next day. It was easy.”
How badly athletics will miss him when he is gone. There were plenty of other worthy performances in the heats, not least from GB’s Adam Gemili, Daniel Talbot and Nethaneel Mitchell‑Blake, who all clocked marginally quicker 200m qualifying times than the Jamaican superstar. But this is a sport not currently wallowing in feelgood stories. The triple jump and women’s discus finals came and went, with the US’s Christian Taylor and Croatia’s Sandra Perkovic both retaining their respective Olympic titles, but it would be stretching things to suggest the stadium came alive for either of them in the manner of London 2012.
Instead it was left to two runners in the women’s 5,000m to inject some unexpected warmth and humanity, restoring a little faith in the idea of Olympic integrity and countering the widespread assumption that too many athletes think purely about themselves.
It happened when New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin took a tumble in the bunch towards the end of the back straight and brought the US runner Abbey D’Agostino down with her. The American was visibly struggling to continue but both women subsequently encouraged each other to finish the race, trailing in way behind the rest of the field.
The pair shared a consoling embrace at the end before D’Agostino was taken away in a wheelchair and Hamblin later paid tribute to her fellow athlete. “When I went down I was thinking: ‘What’s happening? Why am I on the ground?’” she said. “Then suddenly there was this hand on my shoulder and someone saying to me: ‘Get up, get up, we have to finish this.’
“I’m so grateful for Abbey doing that. That girl is the Olympic spirit right there. She ran four and a half laps barely being able to run – I’m so impressed and inspired that she did that. Regardless of the race, and the result on the board, that’s a moment you’re never ever going to forget.” Both runners subsequently protested that they had been tripped up and have duly been allowed to advance, if sufficiently fit, to the final on Friday.
Meanwhile, Team GB’s Tiffany Porter and her younger sister, Cindy Ofili, qualified for the semi-finals of the women’s 100m hurdles, while Holly Bradshaw and Eilish McColgan both progressed smoothly to the finals of the pole vault and 5,000m respectively.
Chris O’Hare is through to the semi-finals of the 1500m after finishing fourth in his heat in 3min 39.26sec and qualifying 13th overall. His fellow Britons Steph Twell and Laura Whittle, however, were unable to progress in the women’s 5,000m.
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