Gong Lijiao in action at the Tokyo Olympics (© Getty Images)
After bronze in 2008 and silver in 2012, Gong Lijiao finally added a gold medal to her Olympic collection.
The 32-year-old Chinese athlete won the women’s shot put at the Tokyo Games on Sunday (1) with the best throws of her life – including a massive final effort of 20.58m – in a captivating final on a sweltering morning session on day three of athletics competition.
USA’s Raven Saunders, sporting dyed purple and green hair and wearing a Hulk mask, earned silver with a throw of 19.79m and New Zealand’s two-time champion Valerie Adams claimed bronze with 19.62m to become the first woman to win four Olympic medals in a single field event.
With trackside temperatures reaching 40C, the shot putters put on a show to remember.
Gong took command quickly with a 19.95m effort in the first round and never looked back. After throwing 19.98m in the third round and 19.80m in the fourth, Gong unleashed a personal best throw of 20.53 in the fifth round – 10 centimetres better than her previous best from 2016. Already assured of the gold, she then improved on that by five more centimetres on her final throw.
“I was pretty nervous for the first three throws, but after the last few throws I just relaxed, and I got my two best scores,” Gong said. “I really wanted to break the 20m mark, and today I got that twice for my personal best. I think all of my efforts were worth it.”
The three medallists’ emotional celebrations were as entertaining as the competition.
An Olympic champion at last, and the first Chinese woman to win an Olympic shot put gold, Gong cried and wrapped herself in a Chinese flag. Saunders twerked, mugged for the TV cameras and posed with an American flag around her shoulders. Adams held up a picture of her two young children – three-year-old daughter Kimoana and two-year-old son Kepaleli – and kissed the photo.
After finishing fourth at the 2016 Rio Games, Gong won consecutive world titles in 2017 and 2019. But she was still missing that elusive Olympic title. On this day, she asserted herself as the successor to Adams as the world’s best shot putter.
“This gold medal is not only for myself; it’s for all of my country, for the people who supported me,” Gong said. “It's my great pleasure to win this gold medal.”
It was also a triumph for Adams, back on the podium again at age 36, 13 years after winning her first medal in Beijing. When she was assured of the bronze, she shrieked in delight, threw up her arms and waved to the New Zealand delegation in the stands.
Adams was already the first shot putter in history to reach five Olympic finals. A gold medal in Tokyo would have made her the first woman to win a single individual athletics event three times.
"The feeling of winning a bronze medal was just as good as when I won the gold medal,” Adams said. "It just goes to show the strength of a woman. You can be a mom and come back and be a mother as well.”
Saunders, meanwhile, said she hoped she could serve as an inspiration to others by the way she overcame injuries and mental health issues to reach the Olympic podium.
“To be able to go out here and really inspire so many people of the LGBTQ community, so many people who've been dealing with mental health issues, so many people within the African American community, and so many people who are black, all around the world, I really just hope that I can continue to inspire and motivate,” she said.
In other morning session events, Michael Cherry of the United led all qualifiers in the men’s 400m with a time of 44.82, followed by Isaac Makwala of Botswana (44.86) and Anthony Jose Zambrano of Colombia (44.87).
US champion Michael Norman, considered by many as the gold medal favourite, finished second in his heat in 45.35 and had only the 14th best time of all qualifiers. 2012 Olympic champion Kirani James of Grenada advanced in 45.09, while reigning champion and world record-holder Wayde Van Niekerk of South Africa went through in 45.25.
In a surprise, world-leader Randolph Ross failed to qualify for the semi-finals. Having clocked 43.85 in June, the US sprinter ran only 45.67 on Sunday and finished fourth in his heat.
Bahrain’s Winfred Yavi ran the fastest ever Olympic qualifying heat in the women’s 3000m steeplechase, clocking 9:10.80. Uganda’s Peruth Chemutai and US champion Emma Coburn finished second and third in 9:12.72 and 9:16.91, respectively, to advance automatically. Genevieve Lalonde broke the Canadian record with 9:22.64 in fourth.
Also qualifying from the three heats were 2017 world silver medallist Courtney Frerichs of the United States (9:19.34), Kenya's world record-holder and world champion Beatrice Chepkoech (9:19.82) and 2015 world champion Hyvin Kiyeng of Kenya (9:23.17).
In women’s hammer qualifying, two-time defending Olympic champion Anita Wlodarczyk of Poland wasted no time in advancing to the semi-finals. The world record-holder threw 76.99m on her first effort, nearly three-and-a-half metres better than the 73.50m automatic qualifying standard.
Also progressing were China’s Zheng Wang (74.29), Brooke Anderson of the United States (74.00m), France's European silver medallist Alexandra Tavernier (73.51m) and Canada’s Camryn Rogers (73.97m).
World champion DeAnna Price, who threw a world-leading 80.31m at the US Trials in June, qualified with only the ninth best throw of the morning (72.55m) and later explained that she picked up a foot injury shortly after the US Trials.
Women’s long jump qualifying went according to form as two-time world bronze medallist Ivana Spanovic of Serbia, competing in her third Olympics, led the way with a leap of 7.00m.
World champion Malaika Mihambo of Germany had the second-best jump of 6.98m. 2012 Olympic champion Brittney Reese jumped 6.86m and US teammate Tara Davis also advanced with 6.85m. World leader Ese Brume of Nigeria, bronze medallist at the 2019 World Championships, qualified with 6.76m.
There was also some major news away from the competition, with Dutch distance running star Sifan Hassan confirming she would be attempting an unprecedented 1500m/5000m/10,000m triple.
“For me it is crucial to follow my heart," Hassan said in a statement released by her management company. “Doing that is far more important than gold medals. That keeps me motivated and it keeps me enjoying this beautiful sport.”
Hassan, who completed a 1500m/10,000m double at the 2019 World Championships, breezed through the 5000m semi-final on Friday. She will return to the track on Monday for the opening round of the 1500m. The semifinals in that event are on Wednesday and the final on Friday. The 5000m final is also on Monday while the 10,000m takes place next Saturday.
Steve Wilson for World Athletics