It’s Saturday night in Luzhniki Stadium and the crowd is rockin’.
It’s the second ‘Russia night’ in a row as home country athletes surprise and delight the hometown crowd.
The rhythmic chant of RUUSSS-EEEEEE-YYYAAA!!!!!!!! will wake me for weeks to come.
Russian success reaches deep beyond the favorites. Yuliya Kondakova PRs in the 100m hurdles for the second consecutive race and advances to the final. No pressure, mind you, as the crowd goes ballistic every time a Russian is introduced, not to mention what happens when they perform well.
The bubble bursts as Kondakova finishes last in the final - but hey, that introduction! I’d wear that around my neck for the next lifetime or two.
Favorite Anna Chicherova falters to tie for third in the high jump. No problem – insert Svetlana Shlokina for gold instead and give the crowd two medals to cheer.
Dimitri Tarabin steals bronze from Kenya’s Julius Yego with his dramatic last throw, thereby ruining a terrific story line about Kenya’s first javelin medal; the year before, Yego became Kenya’s first field event entrant in the Olympics and finished 12th.
Ruined? Not for this crowd.
And most memorably, the Russian women take gold in the 4x400m relay as Antonina Krivoshapka fulfills her great potential with the anchor leg of a lifetime.
I’ll not attempt to catalogue every Russian success of this scintillating evening. However, it fairly predictably goes something like this:
A Russian medals: cue bedlam.
One of the unexpected pleasures of my many Worlds is learning the music of national anthems. Two of my favorites are from Jamaica and Russia, the Jamaican beautiful and elegant and the Russian beautiful and majestic.
Not a bad way to end the evening than to have a stadium full of Russians honor their relay team with a harmonized chorus of 40,000.
The Russian relay win is widely viewed as an upset, but I had Russia picked for gold long before the US lost Allyson Felix in this event, just as I had the Russian men for bronze. And I don’t think either pick was a stretch. Why?
The Russians have known for years that they would be hosting Worlds. This gave them the opportunity to plan and to focus on earning medals in every possible way so they could be their best on this world stage. After all, the estimated worldwide television audience is over 2 billion (one source has it at 5); the marathon course was clearly designed as a travel brochure for Moscow.
The US waits until nationals to create a relay pool less than two months before Worlds and takes it from there. Handoff practice, anyone?
An awkward 3-4 exchange costs the US dearly in the 4x4. What you don’t want to do is give Krivoshapka hope. In Moscow. Tonight.
Observing that we need a stronger focus on relays is nothing new. It’s just painful to see it cost us again, especially when Russian success highlights the effectiveness of their system and the inefficiencies of ours.
Earlier in the evening I stand outside the stadium and watch the marathoners finish. Champion Stephen Kiprotich streams by, waving vigorously.
I watch several marathoners on the screen, straining to break 2:20. I note to myself how important this milestone is on a hot day like this, no matter the original goal. One of them is Jordan Chipangama of Zambia, who accomplishes this with 2:19:47, 29th place. The crowd claps and cheers at the screen and at his effort.
I feel somewhat disrespectful as I step away from my outside vantage point while runners are still finishing. But it’s time for the hurdles semis, my entrance is blocked by the marathon finish, and I know by now that this will create hurdles of my own in getting to my seat, the Russian military staffing this event not yet having established a reputation for flexibility.
During the evening Ben Rosario of Flagstaff, AZ, US, running entrepreneur, two-time US Olympic marathon trials qualifier, and founder of RunFanShop.com, takes his seat next to me. He is Jordan Chipangama’s coach. He and I speak track and field, and we’re in the zone. It’s the second major meet in a row I’ve met a thoughtful and engaging guy named Ben, and my track and field family grows again.
Ben can’t reach Chipangama on his cell phone, and he tries repeatedly. His concern for his athlete is affecting, and he can only trust that he is being taking care of down below. While Chipangama had hoped for more - he had a 2:10 in mind – all that matters now is that he is OK.
Brianna Rollins wins the 100m hurdles. In consecutive races we have two Olympic champions side-by-side, Dawn Harper-Nelson (2008) and Sally Pearson (2012). Neither wins as young Rollins overcomes a dismal start to win by .06.
As Rollins celebrates, the young Russian mother next to me turns and says, “Congratulations!”
If we could just leave the governments out of this...
Her husband and two-year-old are next to us, and in a gold medal performance, the two-year-old cheerfully withstands a withering setting sun assault without a peep.
I’d stand and sing for her anytime.