Why the U.S. is relying on Grant Holloway to avoid making ignominious history

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There will be a little extra pressure on gold medal favorite Grant Holloway on Thursday when he runs in his first Olympic final.

The reigning world champion in the men’s 110-meter hurdles is Team USA’s best hope to avoid making some ignominious history.

An American man has won gold in an individual running event at least once at every Olympics in which the U.S. has participated. The only exception is the 1980 Moscow Games that the U.S. famously boycotted.

That streak is in some real jeopardy in Tokyo with six of the 10 men’s running events already complete. The U.S. has claimed three second-place finishes and a third so far in those events but has yet to produce a gold medalist.

Holloway’s presence in the men’s 110 hurdles final gives the U.S. a good chance to preserve its gold medal streak. The 2019 world champion ran 12.81 seconds in June at the U.S. Olympic Trials, the fastest 110 hurdles time in the world this year and only one hundredth of a second shy of Aries Merritt’s 2012 world record.

So far in Tokyo, Holloway has performed well but not been dominant. He was first to the hurdles in his semifinal on Wednesday and voraciously attacked the first half of the race, but he appeared more vulnerable in the latter half. His time of 13.13 seconds was the fastest of any semifinalist, but five other men who reached the final, including fellow American Devon Allen, ran 13.25 or better.

USA's Grant Holloway competes in the men's 110m hurdles semi-finals during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on August 4, 2021. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP) (Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)
USA's Grant Holloway competes in the men's 110m hurdles semi-finals during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on August 4, 2021. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP) (Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)

Allen, the three-time national champion in the 110 hurdles, gives the U.S. another medal hopeful in Thursday’s final. The former Oregon wide receiver has a track record of making finals at the Olympics or World Championships but he does not yet have a medal to show for it.

If neither Holloway nor Allen wins the 110 hurdles, the odds of the U.S. extending its gold medal streak begin to dim. The Americans have medal contenders in the remaining running events but no one who will be favored to win gold.

Michael Norman might once have been the favorite in the men’s 400, but he hasn’t run as well this summer as he did in 2019. Not only did he finish second in his semifinal heat to Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas, his time of 44.52 seconds was only the fifth fastest of Thursday’s eight finalists. Norman may have to run in the 43s for the first time all season to challenge 2012 Olympic gold medalist Kirani James, who produced a blistering 43.88 in the semifinals.

America’s gold medal hopes are dicier in the other two remaining running events, the 1,500 and the 5,000.

Kenya’s Timothy Cheruiyot is the favorite in the 1,500, though races in that distance have produced upsets in the past. If the pace is slow early and Cheruiyot falters, that could bring Americans Matthew Centrowitz and Cole Hocker into play. Centrowitz, the reigning Olympic champion, has shown an ability to position himself strategically and close strong in a race in the mid-3:30s. And Hocker has a devastating final 200 if he can stay in striking distance. But a fast early pace could also eliminate both.

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 13 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 13 slideshow embed

There’s no overwhelming favorite in the 5,000, but there is a deep field of contenders from Uganda, Ethiopia, Spain, Canada and, yes, the United States. Of the three Americans to make the 5,000 final, Paul Chelimo, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist, is probably once again the U.S.’s best hope of a medal.

The lack of a gold medal from the running events doesn’t mean that this Olympics has been a failure so far for the U.S. men. Kenny Bednarek, Noah Lyles and 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton went 2-3-4 behind Canada’s Andre De Grasse in the men’s 200 on Wednesday. Rai Benjamin bettered the existing world record in the 400 hurdles and nearly won an epic duel with Karsten Warholm of Norway.

And yet there’s a level of success that is expected from USA Track and Field — and that means piling up gold medals on the track.

Only three times in Olympic history has the U.S. even been held to even one gold in the men’s individual running events. The Americans don’t want this to be the first Olympics they leave with none.

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