Jared Connaughton's one misplaced step brought broken hearts instead of bronze to relay team

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

LONDON -- "We did it!" they screamed. The proof was right there on the Olympic Stadium screen Saturday night -- Canada third in the men's 4x100-metre relay, behind only the Jamaican and American powerhouses. They had come to put Canadian sprinting back on the podium, and they had done it.

Gavin Smellie, Oluseyi Smith, Jared Connaughton and Justyn Warner celebrated their bronze medal, linking arms and huddling on the track, grabbing Canadian flags to carry on their victory lap.

This was one of Canada's proudest moments of the Games. The Jamaicans had set a world record of 36.84 seconds, the Americans had set a national record of 37.04 and the Canadians had been right behind at 38.07, winning a medal in this event for the first time since they had won gold in 1996 in Atlanta.

Then Connaughton saw the replay.

"I was a little worried," he said.

Then he saw it again -- his left foot stepping just outside his lane, by a toe or two.

"I said, 'Well, it's my fault,' " he said.

And they all saw the devastating revised result on the same stadium screen -- Trinidad and Tobago elevated to third, Canada dropped to "DQ." Smellie stood in shock, hands on his hips. Smith looked up, then buried his face in his Canadian flag. Warner stayed on all fours, his chest heaving. Connaughton wrapped his shoes in his Canadian flag, then tapped his chest.

"I'm really hurting inside," Smellie said. "I can't express how I feel."

"It's just disappointment," Smith said.

"That's the worst way to lose a medal," Warner said, doubled over, never taking his hands off his knees, never raising his head. "That sucks. That really sucks. I'm sorry. To have a medal like that, and to just have it taken away, it sucks."

You want to say the Canadians were screwed. You want to compare this to that women's soccer semifinal, when the Norwegian referee invoked a rarely enforced rule with no warning. She whistled Canadian keeper Erin McLeod for holding onto the ball longer than six seconds, which led to the tying goal and a heartbreaking loss to the United States. Captain Christine Sinclair is still bitter she didn't get to play for gold.

Connaughton was caught violating Rule 163 3(a), which says that each runner "shall keep within his allocated lane." All he had done was let the left side of his left foot barely creep over the inside lane line -- and for only one step -- as he finished the third leg and prepared to hand the baton to Warner. Coach Alex Gardiner said the Canadians argued the rule was not "clear enough" and Connaughton had "no gained advantage."

"It's unforgiving," Connaughton said. "It's just a stupid rule."

But the Canadians were not screwed, and even as they appealed, they seemed to know it. Gardiner acknowledged they might be "grasping at straws," and sure enough, in a matter of minutes, he was handed a sheet of paper saying the appeal was denied.

With high-definition replays, it was hard to argue Connaughton's foot did not cross the line. Even if it crossed it just barely, it crossed it. And he said himself that he was focused on getting to Warner, and he gave him the baton "in perfect, perfect position," and that "really made the difference for him to finish as well as he did." Maybe that inch mattered.

Connaughton, a veteran, the captain of the team, was chosen to run the third leg because his best event is the 200 metres. He is an expert at running corners. He should have known better.

"It is not unjust," said relay team coach Glenroy Gilbert, who ran the second leg when Canada won gold in Atlanta, "because everyone that goes out on the track understands the rules of the track, and No. 1, you can't touch the inside lane line.

"I wouldn't call it unjust, 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, and ultimately there was a mistake. You're caught up in an Olympic final, world-record race. There's a lot of emotions, a lot of nerves. It was a slip at the wrong time."

The better comparison here is to Simon Whitfield, the Canadian triathlete who hit a speed bump at an awkward angle while trying to put his feet into his shoes, then crashed his bike. He fell out of the race while they sewed up his big toe and treated other injuries.

This was worse. Whitfield didn't finish third, didn’t think he won bronze and then have his medal removed. But the point is, these are the Olympics, and stuff happens -- gut-wrenching, horrible stuff. You can train for four years, and you can do your best, and one little mistake, one slip at the wrong time, a toe or two, and that's it.

"I take full responsibility," Connaughton said. "I'm the captain of this team, and we ran a great relay tonight. We showed the world that we're one of the best relay teams in the world, and one step took that away."

But if there is any consolation, that is it: They did it. They still did it. Even though they weren't rewarded for it, they ran right with the best. Warner was awesome on the anchor leg, flying to pass Frenchman Ronald Pognon, nosing ahead of Trinidad and Tobago's Richard Thompson.

This was a huge step for a team that had done little since Atlanta, finishing 11th, ninth and sixth at the next three Olympics. It was an accomplishment for a team without a man in the 100-metre final.

"Some people didn't think we could do it," Smith said. "They were calling us to come in fifth and sixth, and we rallied against the best teams in the world, and we were on the podium."

"We've shown today that we're back," Gilbert said. "We're back on top the world in sprinting, and we still have four or five other young guys waiting and desperate to get on that track. You saw some of our best. We've got other guys that are ready to step in. It's just that the Olympics come every four years. You want these ones."

Bottom line: The Canadians were one step from returning to the podium.

"You guys saw what happened," Connaughton said. "Trinidad's doing a victory lap, and they know they didn't earn it. … 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."

They will have to live with that. It's gonna be tough.

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