For Canada's men's relay team, a single misplaced step meant the difference between a bronze medal and broken hearts.
Canada was disqualified from the 4x100-metre relay at the London Olympics on Saturday, losing the bronze after third-leg runner Jared Connaughton stepped on the line marking the border of his lane.
"It's unforgiving this rule, one foot on the line," Connaughton said afterward. "I take full responsibility, I'm the captain of this team, and we ran a great relay tonight. We're one of the best relay teams in the world and one step took that away."
The drama played out on the scoreboard at Olympic Stadium, with Canada originally listed third behind Jamaica and the United States. A moment later, new results were posted with Canada at the bottom alongside the letters "DQ."
Connaughton patted a hand to his chest to say the mistake was on him.
The native of New Haven, P.E.I., teamed up with Gavin Smellie of Brampton, Ont., Ottawa's Oluseyi Smith and anchor Justyn Warner of Markham, Ont., to run 38.07. The Jamaicans blazed to a world record time of 36.84 in front of a roaring crowd of 80,000 fans that included English soccer star David Beckham and his children. The Americans ran 37.04.
The Canadians were delirious in celebration when Warner crossed the finish line in third place. They clutched a Canadian flag to begin their victory lap, but their elation was short-lived. Trinidad and Tobago's runners were suddenly the ones celebrating the bronze and the devastated Canadians were doubled over in tears, cradling their heads in stunned disbelief.
"It sucks, it sucks to see the DQ on the side. After we put everything into it," Warner said. "We knew it was ours to lose. You know, that sucks, that's the worst way to lose, that's the worst way to lose a medal."
Warner was so distraught that he spoke to reporters bent at the waist, hands on knees, tears streaming down his face.
The team had been gunning for the country's first Olympic medal in the event since Canada captured gold in 1996 in Atlanta. The runners had suffered a barrage of criticism about how weak Canada's sprint program was, and they hoped to prove people wrong.
"We came in here and no one thought we could do this, it was maybe a handful of people thought we could do this and we showed them we could," Connaughton said. "We earned it tonight, nobody can take that away from us. Trinidad's doing a victory lap and they know they didn't earn it."
Connaughton is a 200-metre specialist appointed to run the third leg of the relay because he's so strong on the corners. But on Saturday night, the 27-year-old just touched the edge of his left foot on the line.
Runners used to have to step on the line three consecutive times to be disqualified, but the rule was changed to just one step in 2006.
"It's like the one false start rule is stupid, the one step on the line is stupid," said Connaughton, who had been disqualified for stepping on the line just once before. "Some of the officials in the sport set athletes up to fail, it's a game of inches and the athletes have got to take responsibility. It's so unforgiving that sometimes I'm baffled that that's the rule."
Despite video replay showing Connaughton's foot on the white lane line, Canada appealed the decision. It was denied.
"That's what you work for, just to get the medal," Smellie said. "To feel like that and then to have that moment taken away is really harsh."
Twitter was flooded with messages of congratulations, but they soon turned to tweets of support, many telling Connaughton he had no reason to apologize.
"We're a team Jared," tweeted Simon Whitfield. "Ride the ups & downs out together. Proud of you guys, you'll recover from this and be even better next time."
Star Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey was quick to weigh in on the result via Twitter.
"I feel for the team," he said. "U guys brought it today..."
Some tweets even suggested Connaughton should be Canada's flag-bearer in the closing ceremony for the courage he showed in owning up to his mistake.
Connaughton said mistakes happen in relays, and the four runners "live and die as a team."
"It's like when (New England Patriots receiver) Wes Welker last year in the Super Bowl dropped that pass and they all blamed him," Connaughton said. "It's four legs of running, everybody took responsibility, everybody ran a hell of a leg. We won a bronze medal and nobody can take that away from us. Maybe we don't have it around our necks, but. . . it's my fault if that's the case."
Coach Glenroy Gilbert, a member of Canada's victorious team in Atlanta, has been building the relay program since 2004. He said he was absolutely devastated for the runners.
"They've worked hard for four years to get to this point with our national relay program, and to be DQ'd like that is a hard pill to swallow," Gilbert said. "I feel badly for them because they've put in the work, they've put in the time, they've run clean races all year, and the one that counted the most, tonight, was not, and they're disqualified.
"They say things happen for a reason, right now I don't know the reason. . ."
Gilbert watched the race on a TV at the adjacent warmup track. He said he gets too nervous to watch from inside the main stadium.
"I screamed, I ran, I high-fived I think just about everybody. Everybody on the warmup track was so happy to see Canada finish third, the Americans, the Jamaicans, everyone was like 'Canada's back,' big hugs," Gilbert said. "I think I strained my calf I reacted so quickly to the third-place finish."
Gilbert didn't disagree with the officials' ruling Saturday, nor does he believe the rule is unfair.
"As sad as I am for them, they know the rules, they know how to play the game, and they have to play it by the rules," he said. "Ultimately there was a mistake, you're caught up in an Olympic final, a world-record race. . . a lot of emotions, a lot of nerves, it was a slip at the wrong time."
Canada's emerging distance star Cam Levins had his own difficulties on the track earlier Saturday. Battling a bad cold that left him gasping for breath, the 23-year-old from Black Creek, B.C., finished 14th in the 5,000 metres.
Levins, who was 11th in the 10,000 metres a week earlier, ran 13 minutes 51.87 seconds.
He was being treated with antibiotics for a chest cold that he said he picked up from a member of the Canadian team in the athletes village.
"It was just a bad cold that's moved down into my chest, into my lungs, and you kind of need those to run well," Levins said. "When they're filled up with junk, it's kind of hard to breathe.
"I was hoping I could sort medicate it off to where I could run well. But it still didn't work out the way I wanted. I hate making excuses but I just didn't feel like myself at all when I started."
Mo Farah of Farah of Great Britain captured his second gold medal of the Games in spectacular fashion in the 5,000, outsprinting the field down the home stretch to win in 13.41.66. Farah also won the 10,000.
Dejen Gebremeskel of Ethiopia won the silver in 13:41.86 while Kenya's Thomas Pkemei Longosiwa raced to bronze in 13:42.36.
Levins has burst onto the international distance scene this season, winning both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres at the NCAA championships.
He's well-known in running circles for the incredible mileage he logs — close to 260 kilometres per week. Levins said he plans to increase that next season in his quest to keep pace with the East Africans, and others like Farah and American Galen Rupp.
"I realize what it takes, and as hard as I've worked, I know there's still another level I can go to and more I can do, and I feel like I'm willing to do it," Levins said. "I will probably move mine (mileage) up beyond a little bit. I'm not going to jinx it or anything (by saying how much he'd increase it), but when I get to it, I'll be letting everybody know I guess."
The relay capped a spectacular track and field competition at an Olympic Stadium that saw jam-packed crowds every day for both the morning and evening sessions.
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