At the end of the Men’s Decathlon, the mettle-testing two-day event spanning ten different events of track and field, American world recorder and defending Olympic champion Ashton Eaton entered the final challenge, the 1,500 meters, with France’s Kévin Mayer unexpectedly snapping at his heels. To win Gold, Mayer had to outrun Eaton by seven seconds in their four laps of the track. As the race commenced, Eaton did as expected, locking into place directly behind Mayer so that if the Frenchman made a push to try and garner seven seconds distance, Eaton could respond. Mayer, however, did not have the legs to go for broke, and so Eaton would have done fine to remain just off his competitor’s shoulder, stay within seven seconds, pragmatically get the job done. But then, with roughly 300 meters left, and no need whatsoever to push it, Eaton pushed it anyway, going up a gear, passing Mayer, surging forward, around the final turn and down the stretch. Eaton did not win the race itself, but he finished ahead of Mayer, which seemed to be his intent. Afterwards, in the obligatory out-of-breath post-race interview, when asked where he found the strength, or some such, to keep going, he name-checked his competitors and his wife and the whole United States (really!), and maybe he meant that, but to me he looked less driven by Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, etc., than by an intrinsic embodiment of Citius Altius Fortius.
Citius Altius Fortius was the jejune sounding ideal proposed by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, as the sporting celebration’s motto, the one that dictates Faster Higher Stronger. Not, as Donald Sutherland so memorably explained in “Without Limits”, being “faster, higher and stronger than who you're competing against... Just faster...higher...stronger.” That idea can be hard sometimes to wrap our heads around in a shouty society where everyone wants to pit someone against someone else, and where you are either a winner or a loser. In that moment, however, Eaton lived it.
Last Friday, Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia shattered the 10,000 meter world record that had stood since 1993. But what I found just as compelling was the plight of American Molly Huddle. I had high hopes she could land on the podium; a lot of people had high hopes she could land on the podium; she had high hopes she could land on the podium. But in the race’s early stages, the pace was positively furious. The giant pack of runners got strung out quick, and Huddle clung to the back of the lead pack, intent on not letting them go. Problem was, as NBC’s Tim Hutchings pointed out, Huddle was at a pace well past that of her personal best. To keep going with them was folly; to fall back was to bid the podium goodbye. A minute or two passed and the inevitable slowly played out. She fell back, and as she did, the cameras lost sight of her, partially because there were so many entrants in the field, and people were getting lapped, and there were runners everywhere, and the camera was most intoxicated by Ayana who was refusing to let up in running away from everyone. Even so, in the end, despite earning no medal, Molly Huddle broke the American record in the event by a fairly shocking ten seconds.
Her post-race comment wrecked my heart: “I just couldn’t hang with the top three. I just…” And then she paused, trying to concoct a delicate way to phrase it, but there is no delicacy for such a harsh truth. She said: “They’re better runners.” Maybe they are, but no American had ever been better than her and, as such, she had never been better than herself. She went faster, and sometimes being faster is as good as being fastest.
Usain Bolt wanted to go faster in his 200 meter final. It is and has always been his best event, the one where his majesty, his length and physical imposition, is on starkest display. He ripped up the turn like he always does, poetry in furious motion, but the last 100 felt oddly less dominant than usual, even if he finished, as he generally does, leagues ahead of everyone else. The guy whose transcendence partially stems from never appearing to try looked like he was really trying. He actually grimaced, he pushed all the way to the finish line, and he even leaned. Afterwards, he expressed happiness for the win, of course, but he also admitted disappointment at his stellar yet pedestrian (for him) 19.78. “I wanted to go faster,” he confessed.
“My body wouldn’t respond to me,” he continued, “so I guess it’s just age and all around taking a toll.” It was weird. I had to come to grips with it. Maybe I expected too much of him; maybe he expected too much of himself; maybe it was just the natural course of things and Usain Bolt - yes, even him - is getting the athletic version of old. Still, in dismissing what he had accomplished, in expressing disbelief at his body’s refusal to follow him where he wanted it to go, he summed up a strange, beautiful truth. His opponent was never the other runners because he was too advanced for them, and his opponent was never the clock because he always seemed capable of defying time when he ignored showboating. No, Usain Bolt’s primary competition was his idea of his own ability and his body’s capacity to assert that idea.
Usain Bolt was always running against himself.