Thunderstorms roared through Helsinki on the evening of Aug. 9, turning the sky gunmetal grey. There had been wind, rain and cold during the first days of the 10th World Track and Field Championships, and now there was lightning, too. Decathletes were rushed from the high jump pit of Olympic Stadium into a cramped room beneath the stands, where Bryan Clay, the 25-year-old American who was leading through three events of the two-day competition, huddled on a bench and punched in the cellphone number of his wife, Sarah, in California. "Hey!" he shouted over the thunder. "You won't believe what's going on here."
His words applied to much more than the weather. In the midst of a midsummer meet that seemingly had been transported into late autumn, U.S. athletes were on their way to a performance that ranked with their best of the last half century. Not that anyone in America noticed--the meet received no network TV coverage in the States--but by the time the competition ended on Sunday, Team USA had won 14 gold medals, more than at any previous world championship or any nonboycotted Olympics since 1968. The U.S.'s 25 total medals matched its track and field haul at the Athens Games and tied its take at Stuttgart, Germany (1993), for the second most in world championship history. Moreover, the average age of the U.S. gold medalists was a youthful 23.5. As recently as four years ago in Edmonton it was 27.1.
It was a typically American success, complete with controversy. There were a pair of relay disqualifications--denying the U.S. two more likely golds--and a rift between old and young members of the team over alleged mild hazing incidents. Though lost at times in the buzz over the American success, athletes from other countries performed superbly as well, of course, among them 23-year-old pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia (who set her 18th world record of the last two years by clearing 16'5 1/4"), 20-year-old female distance runner Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia (the first 5,000-10,000-meter double gold medalist of either gender in worlds history) and 25-year-old Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain (the first 800-1,500-meter double gold medalist of either gender in worlds history). And no one drew louder cheers than Finnish long jumper Tommi Evil�, who sailed in his Mohawk braid to third place behind winner Dwight Phillips of the U.S. last Saturday, finally rewarding fans who had packed the ancient stadium every night hoping to see one of their countrymen on the medals stand. But most of the star turns in Helsinki were by the red, white and blue.
Clay's decathlon victory bridged the gap between U.S. sprint success on the opening weekend and the cascade of medals that followed. The silver medalist in Athens last year behind world-record holder Roman Seberle of the Czech Republic, Clay--who looks more like a cornerback than the linebacker types who customarily contest the decathlon--came to Helsinki at 5'11", 185 pounds, 10 pounds more than he weighed at Athens. It was raining when his event began and raining when it ended. "Definitely the hardest decathlon I've ever done," he said. He scored personal bests in three events (the shot put, 400 meters and javelin) and had wrapped up the gold (he finished with 8,732 points) long before grinding out the 1,500 meters.
" Bryan Clay--big, big talent," said three-time world champion and former world-record holder Tomas Dvor�k of the Czech Republic. "He will break the world record and maybe score 9,200 points. He is the future of the decathlon." Only Seberle has surpassed 9,000 points on the arcane decathlon scoring tables.
Clay is the son of a Japanese immigrant mother, Michele Ishimoto, and an African-American father, Greg Clay, who divorced when Bryan was in fifth grade. He was raised in Hawaii under the strong influence of his mom's Japanese culture. "Our house was always full of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins," says Clay. "We ate ozoni [a traditional Japanese rice soup] on New Year's Eve. My life was very Japanese."
Some of the culture Clay embraced, some he resisted. He was an indifferent student. "When the waves were good, I went to the beach," Clay says. He showed promise as a sprinter and hurdler in high school, but when he arrived at Azusa Pacific University in California in 1998, the decathlon brought focus to his athletic skills and maturity to his life. Within three years he was the third-best decathlete in the U.S., and with his title in Helsinki, he joins a group of greats that he has only recently begun to study.
" Dan O'Brien, Bruce Jenner, Bill Toomey, J�rgen Hingsen, Daley Thompson," said Clay a day after winning gold. "I've tried to learn about these guys, and I've dreamed of being like them someday. People are telling me I'm there now. That's hard for me to grasp."
U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin has been at the top for more than a year, and he validated his Olympic 100-meter title with a win on the first weekend in Helsinki. Then there was a slice of unfinished business: Gatlin had finished third in the Olympic 200 behind countrymen Shawn Crawford (also his training partner) and Bernard Williams. In Helsinki, Gatlin was bidding to join Maurice Greene (1999) as the only 100-200 male double gold medalist in the history of the world championships.
Between races he chilled at the U.S. team hotel in the athletes' village, playing Midnight Club 3, a frantic car-racing game, on his PlayStation Portable to keep his nerves sharp. "It gets me in racing mode, where I feel competitive," said Gatlin. He visited the Nike hospitality center and schmoozed with fans. His mother, Jeanette, worried that he was staying too active between events.