A five-minute burst of action near the backstretch of the Olympic track served up the perfect snapshot of what is going right, and all that is going wrong, for the U.S. track and field team in Tokyo.
At one moment in the pole vault pit Thursday night, Katie Nageotte cleared 4.90 meters (16 feet, 1 inch) and went running up to the stands to celebrate a gold medal that had looked like a lost cause only an hour earlier.
At the next, just as the 400-meter sprinters approached the halfway point, American champion Michael Norman was steaming so far ahead of the competition, it became clear he could not sustain the pace.
He didn’t. Norman finished fifth. The U.S. men’s sprinters, once the dominant power across the global track game, left the stadium without having won a single gold medal over the first seven days of the nine-day meet.
But Nageotte’s gold, won in a tense back-and-forth with Russian athlete Anzhelika Sidorova, was the third victory in the field for the U.S., two of which have been won by women.
With only two days left at Olympic Stadium, what started as anomaly can now be considered a trend:
The U.S. women are doing well.
The U.S. men are not.
The U.S. overall is doing well in field events.
It is struggling overall on the track.
Other instances that played out Thursday for the Americans:
— Grant Holloway, the defending world champion who came .01 seconds short of the world record earlier this summer in the 110-meter hurdles, came .05 short of Jamaica’s Hansle Parchment, who won in 13.09. It was Jamaica’s third Olympic gold medal of the post-Usain Bolt era.
— Will Claye, considered as good a bet as any to win with the defending champion, Christian Taylor, on the sideline, finished fourth in triple jump. The winner: Pedro Pichardo of Portugal.
Other winners on a day where eight gold medals were awarded included Nafissatou Thiam of Belgium (heptathlon) and Damian Warner of Canada (decathlon).
Also, Massimo Stano won the 20-kilometer race walk, moved to Sapporo to try to beat the Tokyo heat, to give Italy its third gold medal in track.
The U.S. closed Thursday with five — and 20 medals overall, which is 13 more than anyone else — and there have been some exceptions to the trends.
Athing Mu and Sydney McLaughlin lived up to their hype to capture the country’s only two golds from the track. And Ryan Crouser gutted out an emotion-drenched victory to defend his Olympic shot put title.
Very few would’ve figured Crouser’s win Thursday would be the first in any event for the men, who make up about half of the deepest team in the world.
Norman’s fifth-place finish capped a dreary day of running for the red, white and blue.
He is something of a celebrity in Japan because his mother was born here and set a national middle-school record in the 100 meters. He was supposed to be part of a showdown with Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas, but Gardiner won this easily, in a time of 43.85 seconds, to add to his title from the world championships two years ago in Qatar.
Much earlier in the day came a rite of passage for the U.S. at the Olympics: A debacle in the men’s 4×100 relay.
This time, it was Fred Kerley and Ronnie Baker who got tangled up in an exchange, costing them precious time and leaving the U.S. not with a “DQ,” but with an unsightly “6” by its name. Sixth place means they won’t get to run for the first relay gold since Bolt left the scene.
One good chance — maybe the best one left — for the men’s sprinters might be in the 4×400 relay. The U.S. has won that event at seven of the last nine Olympics.
Michael Cherry is expected to be part of that team. The 26-year-old Cherry, who finished a spot ahead of Norman in the 400, tried to put a positive spin on things. It is, he insisted, a young team heading into the unknown. According to USA Track and Field, 81 of the 133 members of the team are at their first Games.
“We’ve got college kids, we’ve got guys who just got out of college,” Cherry said. “So we’re a pretty young team. We’re going to dominate soon. Just everybody’s got to grow up and adjust.”
Nageotte is 30, but fairly new to the major international stage. She’s now on a list with Jenn Suhr and Stacy Dragila as American Olympic champions in pole vault.
It was so close to not happening.
Nageotte, who battled COVID-19 earlier in the year only to return and go viral when she cleared a personal best (4.95) to win the Olympic trials, said she felt tightness in her leg during warmups.
She opened her evening with two straight misses at the first height, 4.5 meters.
“I know my family got up very early to watch and I would have felt very bad if I’d made them get up at 6 in the morning to watch me no-height,” she said. “So that was definitely going through my head.”
Facing elimination, she cleared the height on the third try and jumped for joy.
Much later, after she cleared 4.9 and Sidorova missed, Nageotte ran into the stands for hugs, and shared congratulations with her competitors on the track. Then, she taped up the pole, had the bar set at 5.01 and geared up for a chance at a new U.S. record.
She took off down the runway but pulled up short. She could not focus, given what she’d just been through.
“The emotion of winning,” she explained.
At this Olympic track meet, the U.S. is looking in lots of different places to find it.