Justin Gatlin

Ato Boldon’s track and field season awards

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The track and field season is just about wrapped up. The non-global championship year provided plenty of highlights, even if few of them included Usain Bolt, who ran a total of 400m in competition this year.

Here are NBC Olympics track and field analyst Ato Boldon‘s awards for the 2014 season:

Male Athlete: Justin Gatlin (Undefeated in the 100m and 200m with world-leading times of 9.77 and 19.68)

Ato’s Take: A no-brainer. He’s still a very controversial figure for obvious reasons, but this was one of the best sprint seasons ever. When you get Usain Bolt to admit he wouldn’t have beaten him this year, that means a lot. If Gatlin didn’t have the 200m season that he had, I would have given the edge to Mutaz Barshim, simply because he became the No. 2 high jumper ever behind Javier Sotomayor. Statistically, Barshim had better marks than Gatlin, but Gatlin gets the edge for being undefeated in two events.

Female Athlete: Valerie Adams (Undefeated in the shot put, 56 straight competitions without a loss)

Ato’s Take: She started to make it look a little ridiculous this year. Not only is she winning, but nobody is really close. She might be the most dominant athlete in any track and field event for the last couple years. I also like Sandra Perkovic (Croatian who won six of seven Diamond League discus competitions) and Jenny Simpson (Diamond League 1500m champion). Simpson is so much better now than when she won the World title in 2011.

Jenny Simpson on Olympic embarrassment, meeting Mary Slaney

Men’s Event: High jump (five men cleared 2.40m, with Qatar’s Barshim and Ukraine’s Bohdan Bondarenko taking several attempts at breaking the 21-year-old world record of 2.45m)

Ato’s Take: No question here, and I don’t even know what second place would be. This really started last year at the World Championships (won by Bondarenko at a championship-record height, followed by three world record attempts). It’s very rare that an event is able to sustain that momentum to another year. We’ve had good 100m, 200m seasons that dovetail a little bit into the season that follows. I don’t see any reason, especially with their ages, why they’re not going to keep this going (Barshim is 23, Bondarenko 25).

So infrequently in my career did everything stop for a field event. That was the case a lot this season. These guys rewrote the all-time top 10, they beat up on each other every week, and we were the better for it because they were jumping heights we haven’t seen in quite some time.

Photos: #ThingsBarshimCouldJumpOver

Women’s Event: 3000m Steeplechase

Ato’s Take: When I ran, the U.S. just did not factor in this race, but Emma Coburn was the third-fastest woman in the world this year. The season’s over with just two Ethiopians in front of her, and she’s younger than them (23). For the U.S., gone are the days where the medals come just from the sprints and relays. This year has indicated where there are some medals available in events that the U.S. hasn’t previously medaled in.

Men’s Singular Performance: Mutaz Barshim jumping 2.43m in Brussels

Ato’s Take: To become the second-highest jumper of all time. Gatlin’s 19.68 (200m in Monaco) because of the other people in that race (Nickel Ashmeade, Christophe Lemaitre, Tyson Gay, Curtis Mitchell) and because of the margin of victory (.31) is honorable mention, as well as Renaud Lavillenie‘s world record in the pole vault (in the indoor season).

Women’s Singular Performance: Tori Bowie’s 10.80 in Monaco

Ato’s Take: Also, Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk breaking the world record in the hammer throw (the only women’s Olympic event world record broken this year).

Men’s Surprise: Justin Gatlin’s 200m running (19.68 in July; 19.71 in September)

Ato’s Take: He had never broken 19.80 before this year, despite the fact he won Olympic and World Championships medals in the event. What also bears mentioning is the 110m hurdles. Of the 10 fastest times this year, Pascal Martinot-Lagarde had five of them. Nobody could have predicted that at the beginning of the year. And the U.S. only had one of the top 10 in Ronnie Ash.

Brussels Diamond League replay: Sunday, 2-3 p.m. ET, NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra

Women’s Surprise: Tori Bowie

Ato’s Take: Nobody knew who she was in 2013. This year she’s ending the season with the fastest time in the world in the 100m, and, for most of the season, she had the fastest time in the 200m. If she’s healthy (Bowie pulled up in her last race Aug. 24 with a leg injury), she makes the next three global championship teams and is winning medals.

Looking Forward to in 2015: The return of the Jamaicans to face Gatlin

Ato’s Take: I think Bolt’s people have figured out something. It doesn’t matter what they do from now up until the day of the 100m final in Rio. The reality is that Bolt could potentially lose Worlds next year, and I don’t think that’s going to damage his legacy. His legacy is an Olympic legacy. One thing I expect to see from Bolt is he’s going to run more 200s, and he’s already talked about it (wanting to break his 19.19 world record). The 100m is harder for him as he ages.

Also, Sanya Richards-Ross versus the world in the 400m, because she appears to be fully back (from the post-Olympic toe injury). And Christian Taylor versus Will Claye in the triple jump.

Don’t Forget AboutAshton Eaton coming back after a 400m hurdles season

Ato’s Take: He and I had a conversation about running the 400m hurdles last year, and he was really trying what many people think is one of the hardest events in track and field. He got all the way down to 48.69 seconds and ended up beating some guys who specialize in it (like the Olympic gold and silver medalists in Glasgow). A lot of people may scoff at the whole notion of the world’s greatest athlete, but in his case it’s not up for debate.

Yelena Isinbayeva set to return to pole vault training, report says

Who is Italy’s greatest Olympian?

Alberto Tomba
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Italy ranks sixth on the total Olympic medal list, thanks in large part to its fencers. Italian fencers have won a leading 125 medals, more than double the nation’s total in any other sport. The Italians are known for their personalities, from La Bomba to the Cannibal, with six of their best detailed here …

Deborah Compagnoni
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only Alpine skier to earn gold at three straight Olympics. Compagnoni overcame a broken knee as a junior racer and life-saving surgery to remove 27 inches of her intestine in 1990 to win the Albertville 1992 super-G by 1.8 seconds. It remains the largest margin of victory in the discipline for either gender since 1968. The following day, Compagnoni tore knee ligaments in the giant slalom. She returned to win the GS at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Compagnoni ended her Olympic career with the biggest rout in a GS at a Winter Games, prevailing by 1.41 seconds in Nagano.

Klaus Dibiasi
Diving
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only diver to win the same individual event three times. The Austrian-born Dibiasi took platform silver in 1964 at age 17, then three straight golds through 1976. Dibiasi was coached by his father, who was 10th on platform at the 1936 Berlin Games. In his final Olympics, Dibiasi held off a 16-year-old Greg Louganis, who would go on to challenge, if not overtake, Dibiasi as the greatest male diver in history.

Eugenio Monti
Bobsled
Six Olympic Medals

Regarded by many as the greatest bobsled driver in history. Monti captured two silver medals in 1956, missed the 1960 Winter Games that didn’t include bobsled, then two bronzes in 1964 and a pair of golds at age 40 in 1968. On top of that, the nine-time world champion is remembered for an act of sportsmanship in 1964. In between runs, Monti lent a bolt off his own two-man sled to a British team whose sled was damaged. The Brits took gold, ahead of both Italian sleds.

Alberto Tomba
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

“La Bomba” dazzled by sweeping the giant slalom and slalom at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, after dubbing himself the “Messiah of Skiing“ beforehand. Known for his man-about-town ways, Tomba offered one of his gold medals to East German figure skater Katarina Witt should she fall short in her event. After Witt repeated as gold medalist, the story goes that Tomba showed up with a bouquet of roses and an autographed picture of himself, made out out to “Katerina.” “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m.,” Tomba once said. “Now I live it up with five women until 3 a.m,”

Valentina Vezzali
Fencing
Six Olympic Gold Medals

An 18-year-old Vezzali was an alternate for the 1992 Olympics, forced to watch on TV as the Italian women took team foil gold. Vezzali made the next five Olympics, winning medals in all nine of her events, including three straight individual titles, the last as a mom. Vezzali finished her career with nine total Olympic medals, 25 world championships medals, a flag bearer honor at the 2012 Opening Ceremony and as a member of Italy’s parliament.

Armin Zoeggeler
Luge
Six Olympic Medals

“The Cannibal” retired in 2014 as the first athlete to earn a medal in the same individual event at six straight Olympics. Zoeggeler earned silver and bronze medals in 1994 and 1998, then overtook German legend Georg Hackl for gold in 2002, followed by winning at home in Torino in 2006. He held on for bronze medals in 2010 and 2014, behind the new German luge star, Felix Loch, who would be coached by Hackl. Growing up on top of a steep hill, Zoeggeler began sledding at age 7 to catch the school bus at the bottom.

GREATEST OLYMPIANS: Germany | Liechtenstein | Japan

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Kurt Angle recalls devastation, exultation of Olympic wrestling gold medal

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Kurt Angle doesn’t remember much from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but he won’t forget that moment of deep emotional pain.

In the 100kg final, Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi were tied 1-1 after regulation and an overtime period.. Eight total minutes of wrestling. They also had the same number of passivity calls, forcing a judges’ decision to determine the gold medalist.

After deliberation, the referee stood between each wrestler in the middle of the mat. He held each’s wrist, ready to reveal the champion to the Georgia World Congress Center crowd — and to the athletes. Angle, now 51, has rarely watched video of the match. But he distinctly remembers, in his peripheral vision, Jadidi’s left arm rising.

“I thought I lost,” Angle said by phone this week. “So right away, I was like, s—, four more years.”

Turns out, the Iranian was raising his own arm. An instant later, the referee suppressed Jadidi. He lifted Angle’s right arm. The wrestler sobbed.

“I had so much emotion because I was devastated and then I was told that I won,” Angle said. “It was a very odd experience. I didn’t know how to handle it. It felt like my father died all over again. That’s how much grief I had. Then, all of a sudden, you won.”

Angle thought of two people immediately after he won, falling to his knees in prayer. First, his father, David, who died in a construction accident when Angle was 16. Second, the 1984 Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, his coach who was murdered by John du Pont six months before the Games.

Angle went on to become one of the most famous U.S. gold medalists of the Atlanta Games, due largely to a two-decade career as a professional wrestler, including as a world heavyweight champion with the WWE.

It would have been different if the referee kept Jadidi’s arm in the air. Angle went into the Olympics knowing it would be his last competition, but only if he took gold. Anything less, and he would continue on, perhaps into his 30s and the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite everything Angle went through just to get to Atlanta.

In the year leading up to the Olympics, Angle lost Schultz, broke his neck at the U.S. Open and, five minutes before each match at the Olympic Trials, received 12 shots of novocaine to numb the pain long enough to advance to the next round. Angle later developed a painkiller addiction.

Angle, a Pennsylvania native, was part of the Foxcatcher club when du Pont shot and killed Schultz. Angle said he wasn’t consulted for the 2014 film “Foxcatcher,” but he thought it was well done save a few instances of dramatic license.

“Unfortunately, I hate to admit this, but if it weren’t for Team Foxcatcher, I probably wouldn’t have won my gold medal,” Angle said. “I probably wouldn’t have known Dave Schultz, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did. It sucks because, to have to thank John du Pont for the ability of allowing me to pay me to wrestle full time and win a world championship [in 1995] and Olympic gold medal, that was huge, but he killed Dave Schultz. The club would have thrived to this day. It just sucks it turned out the way it did, because it made me the best wrestler in the world. Dave Schultz had a lot to do with that, but a lot of wrestlers that followed could have not had to worry about money and could have trained and competed.”

Angle shared his gold medal with, he estimated, thousands of people before housing it in a safe.

“The gold was wearing off,” Angle said. “One kid, I remember, I was at an elementary school, and he grabbed my medal by the ribbon and started twirling it around real fast. He let go of it, and it hit the wall. There’s a big dent in my gold medal. That was the last time I brought it to an elementary school.”

Angle announced in 2011, at age 42, that he was training to come back for the 2012 Olympic Trials. He never made it, calling it off with a knee injury.

“But I trained hard for it,” Angle said, noting he still kept up appearances with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. “I will tell you this, I wouldn’t have made the team. My goal was to place in the top three. I just missed the [thrill of] competition.”

It meant that Angle’s last match remained that Olympic final. His last moment as a freestyle wrestler having his arm raised.

“All I wanted to do was win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal, and I did them both,” Angle said, sobbing, just off the mat that night in Atlanta. “If I died tonight, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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