By Jonathan Gault
August 19, 2016
RIO DE JANEIRO — In case you haven’t noticed, the U.S. track and field team has been crushing it at the 2016 Olympics. On Wednesday and Thursday alone, Americans won a staggering 13 medals (including six gold) — five more than any other country over the course of the entire meet so far. Through Thursday, the U.S. has earned 25 medals in total — seven more than it claimed at the 2015 World Championships, and that’s with three days of competition remaining.
The U.S. has put together some groundbreaking performances across all events. Michelle Carter (women’s shot put) and Dalilah Muhammad (400 hurdles) were the first Americans to claim gold in their events, and Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali and Kristi Castlin became the first American women to sweep any Olympic track and field event when they went 1-2-3 in the 100 hurdles on Wednesday night.
One area where the U.S. has really exceeded expecations is in the mid-d/distance events (800, 1500, 5k, 10k, 3k steeple, marathon). So far, the U.S. has claimed four medals and has a chance to add more with the men’s 1500 (Matthew Centrowitz), men’s 5,000 (Bernard Lagat) and men’s marathon (Galen Rupp) all still to come. Getting to five would be historic; the U.S. hasn’t taken home that many medals from an Olympics since 1924. How long ago is that? Consider three of the events in which the U.S. medalled (individual cross country, team cross country, team 3,000-meter track race) have not been part of the Olympic program in over 90 years.
When you look at the athletes who have taken home medals in 2016 compared to last year, when Emily Infeld was the sole World Championship medallist in the distance events for Team USA, not much has changed apart from the emergence of Clayton Murphy. The other medallists — Evan Jager, Emma Coburn and Jenny Simpson — all had similar odds of a medal this year than they did in 2015 (Jager and Coburn’s were a bit better this year, Simpson’s a bit worse) but all ran great races in Rio as opposed to their disappointing efforts in Beijing (Simpson’s run at Worlds was simply unlucky; she lost her shoe with 650 meters to go).
Even in the events in which Americans haven’t medalled, they’ve acquitted themselves well. Molly Huddle broke the American record in finishing 6th in the 10,000, while the U.S. placed three women in the top 10 in the marathon for the first time ever. But it’s hard to definitively call this the U.S.’s best mid-d/distance meet since 1924. For starters, there have never been more mid-d/distance medals available. The women’s steeplechase was only added in 2008, the 10,000 in 1988 and the 3k/5k in 1984. Before 1960, women didn’t compete in events longer than 200 meters at the Olympics. In addition, not all medals are created equal. The U.S. has three bronzes and a silver, but is that better than 2007, when the U.S. earned two golds and a bronze thanks to Lagat and Kara Goucher?
However you slice it, Team USA has been doing great and has a chance to do even better. One drought remains, however: the U.S. has not earned Olympic gold in a distance event since Joan Benoit won the marathon in 1984 (the last men’s gold medallists were Frank Shorter and Dave Wottle in the marathon and 800 in 1972). End that drought, and then American fans can really go crazy.
Olympics/World Championships in Which the U.S. Has Earned 4+ Distance Medals (Since 1924)
2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro
Silver, Evan Jager (steeplechase)
Bronze, Emma Coburn (steeplechase)
Bronze, Jenny Simpson (1500)
Bronze, Clayton Murphy (800)
2013 World Championships, Moscow
Silver, Nick Symmonds (800)
Silver, Jenny Simpson (1500)
Silver, Matthew Centrowitz (1500)
Bronze, Brenda Martinez (800)
1984 Olympics, Los Angeles
Gold, Joan Benoit (marathon)
Silver, Kim Gallagher (800)
Bronze, Earl Jones (800)
Bronze, Brian Diemer (steeplechase)
1983 World Championships, Helsinki
Gold, Mary Decker (1500)
Gold, Mary Decker (3000)
Silver, Steve Scott (1500)
Silver, Marianne Dickerson (marathon)
1968 Olympics, Mexico City
Gold, Madeline Manning (800)
Silver, Jim Ryun (1500)
Bronze, George Young (steeplechase)
Bronze, Tom Farrell (800)
1924 Olympics, Paris
Silver, cross country team race
Bronze, Schuyler Enck (800)
Bronze, Clarence DeMar (marathon)
Bronze, Earl Johnson (cross country)
Bronze, 3000m team race