It’s never over until it’s over. Or at least that’s what all combined events athletes have to believe when they run all the different possible outcomes through their heads as they line up for the final event.
Jessica Ennis-Hill knew she faced an uphill task of finishing about 10 seconds ahead of Nafissatou Thiam in the 800m in her bid to retain her Olympic heptathlon title. But she wasn’t going to give up without trying.
Thiam, meanwhile, lined up for the 800m knowing that she needed to produce the race of her life to stay within sight of Ennis-Hill if she were to maintain her lead in the overall standings.
And world indoor champion Brianne Theisen-Eaton wasn’t going to surrender the bronze medal without a fight.
Not long after the gun went for the final heptathlon 800m heat, Ennis-Hill darted to the front but was closely pursued by her fellow double-barrelled competitors: Theisen-Eaton, Laura Ikauniece-Admidina and Johnson-Thompson.
Ennis-Hill went through the first lap in 1:02.84, putting her on course for a potential lifetime best. The others in the lead pack were still close to Ennis-Hill as the covered the second lap, but the pace slightly faded, along with Ennis-Hill’s chance of an 800m PB.
The Briton stopped the clock at a season’s best of 2:09.07 with Ikauniece-Admidina running a huge PB of 2:09.43 close behind her. Theisen-Eaton crossed the line in 2:09.50, roughly one second ahead of Johnson-Thompson.
The big question – indeed, what the whole two-day contest boiled down to – was: how far behind was Thiam?
The Belgian was still half way up the home straight, but soon it became more and more clear that she wasn’t as much as 10 seconds behind Ennis-Hill. Instead the difference was little more than seven seconds as the 21-year-old clocked 2:16.54, her fifth personal best of the competition.
It meant that Thiam took the gold medal with a national record of 6810, moving to 16th on the world all-time list to sit in between 2000 Olympic champion Denise Lewis and Theisen-Eaton.
“It's crazy,” said Thiam. “I wasn't expecting that – maybe top eight, but not the gold.
“It was very hard coming back from being injured,” she added. “I wasn't sure if I would even make these Games, but we did a lot of work with the physio and it worked.”
Ennis-Hill settled for silver with a score of 6775, her best mark since winning Olympic gold four years ago. Theisen-Eaton took bronze with 6653, her best ever mark at a major championships.
Despite her huge PB in the final event, world bronze medallist Ikauniece-Admidina wasn’t quite able to make it on to another global championships podium, but finished with a highly respectable score of 6617. Only once before, in Barcelona 1992, has a score that high not been enough for an Olympic medal.
Germany’s Carolin Schafer clocked a season’s best of 2:16.52 in the 800m to stay ahead of Johnson-Thompson on the leaderboard. Schafer scored 6540, while Johnson-Thompson – who clocked 2:10.47 in the 800m – scored 6523, the second-best mark of her life.
In a competition of unprecedented depth, six women surpassed 6500 for the first time in history. Best marks-for-place were set for sixth, seventh, eighth, 10th, 11th, and every other position from 13th downwards.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF