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Olympic Games Replay: Canada gets faster, higher, stronger at Rio 2016

On this week's edition of Olympic Games Replay, CBC Sports showcases some of the most memorable track and field moments from the Rio Olympics.

De Grasse takes on Bolt as Canadians post best athletics results in 84 years

Canada's Andre De Grasse, left to right, Brendon Rodney, Aaron Brown and Akeem Haynes show off their 4x100-metre bronze medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Saturday, August 20, 2016. Canada won six medals at those Games, the most won by Canadian track and field athletes since they captured nine at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. (File/The Canadian Press)

In the middle of the month of March, global sport abruptly ground to a complete halt.

As the world struggles to curb the advance of COVID-19 and the spread of the coronavirus, the fields of play have been silent locally, nationally, and internationally, ever since.

There are few things which have the raw, congregating, power of sport. For the immediate future, the instinctual tendency to gather, compete, and become witnesses as spectators, has become forbidden.

Until the whistle blows and the action begins again, many of us can only reminisce about the often fleeting and spectacular nature of seminal sporting events we have seen in the recent past.

WATCH | Olympic Games Replay: Rio 2016 Track & Field:

Watch Canada's athletes go for gold at the Summer Games in Brazil. 2:18:23

The Saturday, April 11 broadcast is the fourth of several weeks of programming at CBC Sports which showcases some of the most memorable moments from various editions of the Olympics, both winter and summer.

Episode #4 of Olympic Games Replay features athletics competition from the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in particular the impact that young sprinter Andre De Grasse of Markham, Ont., made by winning three medals on the track.

De Grasse and his playful rivalry with the world's fastest man, Jamaican legend Usain Bolt, became one of the signature stories of the Games and a tale which will long be remembered as one of the high-water marks in Canadian track and field lore.

WATCH | Olympic Flashback: De Grasse shines in showdown with Bolt:

Watch highlights of Andre De Grasse and Usain Bolt battling it out and building a bromance at the Rio 2016 Olympics. 0:43

Athletics has been the foundation sport for the Olympics since the first modern Games were staged in Athens, Greece in 1896. The Olympic motto, "Citius, Altius, Fortius," "Faster, Higher, Stronger," has its basis in the track and field events of running, jumping, and throwing.

But over the years, Canadians have rarely had as much success in athletics as they did at Rio 2016 where they combined for six medals and tied swimming as the most productive sport for Maple Leaf men and women in Brazil.

Success at worlds foreshadowed Olympic triumphs

Those six medals were the most won by Canadian track and field athletes since they captured nine at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. The Canadians in Rio were fresh off a best-ever performance at the IAAF World Athletics championships the summer before in Beijing. That's where they won eight medals, including gold by high jumper Derek Drouin and pole vault's Shawnacy Barber.

Not since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when Donovan Bailey recorded double gold in the men's 100m and 4x100m relay, had there been as much buzz about Canadian athletics.

WATCH | De Grasse recalls showdown with Bolt:

Listen as Andre De Grasse takes you moment by moment through the 2016 Olympic Games, from his 100m and 200m medals, to his constant battle with Usain Bolt. 4:44

And then, as track and field opened up in Rio, the 21-year-old De Grasse roared into the fast lane and won bronze in the men's 100m against the mighty Usain Bolt and the American veteran Justin Gatlin.

"He was basically a college kid still learning to sprint," marvelled CBC track and field play-by-play caller Mark Lee.

"A skinny prodigy who had quit school to sign a multi-million dollar pro contract and was now joining the elite ranks of full grown Olympians like Bolt, Gatlin, and Yohan Blake. His rise was meteoric."

Canada's Andre De Grasse taps Jamaica's Usain Bolt on the chest after finishing second to him in the men's 200m final at the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016. (File/The Canadian Press)

But it was in the unfolding of the men's 200m competition that De Grasse really made his mark. There was the precocious youngster challenging the giant-like Bolt in the semifinal and the famous turn of the head, smile, and finger wave, that gave rise to the 'bromance' which the 'Jamaican King' and 'Canadian Kid' enjoyed for all to see in Rio.

"De Grasse's silver medal in the 200m behind Bolt was his coming of age," said Lee. "Even Bolt suggested the lanky Canadian might be his heir apparent. It was an exponential achievement."

De Grasse also combined with Aaron Brown, Brendon Rodney, and Akeem Haynes to win a third medal, a bronze, in the men's 4x100m relay. Brianne Theisen-Eaton of Humboldt, Sask., won bronze in the gruelling heptathlon while London, Ont., native Damian Warner equalled that effort in the decathlon.

Canada's bronze medal winner Brianne Theisen Eaton catches her breath after the 800-metre of the heptathlon at the 2016 Summer Olympics Saturday, August 13, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (File/The Canadian Press)

Drouin claims Canada's lone gold medal in track

The lone Canadian gold medal in athletics came near the end of the Games in the men's high jump. Derek Drouin of tiny Corunna, Ont., near Sarnia, came to Rio as the reigning world champion. Drouin won Canada's only track and field medal at the previous Olympics in London in 2012 having tied for bronze.

In Rio, at the only Olympic high jump competition broadcast in its entirety in Canadian history, Drouin didn't miss a single attempt and became the gold medal champion by clearing the bar set at 2.38 metres.

"From the moment I started warming up for my qualification round until I raised my arms in appreciation for the fans after my final, I felt like I could do no wrong," Drouin reminisced.

Canada's Derek Drouin competes in the men's high jump final during the athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 16, 2016. (File/AFP via Getty Images)

"Every athlete dreams about this kind of Olympic experience; I was lucky enough to live it. I almost had to give my head a shake when my last competitor had exited the competition before I truly understood the magnitude of the situation."

For his part, Mark Lee was thrilled by Drouin's perfect performance.

"I would say his gold medal was one of those rare moments in sport when you watch an athlete having their best day when it matters most," Lee concluded.

"To think Derek became the first Canadian to win an Olympic field event since Duncan McNaughton's high jump gold in Los Angeles in 1932 really put his accomplishment into perspective. When competition in your sport comes from more than 200 countries around the world, it's pretty awesome to be the best."

Van Niekerk blazes to new record in the 400

In addition to the Canadian performance, CBC's track and field analyst, decathlete, and Olympian, Michael Smith pointed to another stellar moment from Rio 2016.

It was South African Wayde van Niekerk setting a blistering world record on the way to the gold medal in the men's 400m final.  

The time was 43.03 seconds and erased a 17-year-old mark posted by American superstar Michael Johnson, the 1996 and 2000 Olympic champion in the 400m.

"The fact that van Niekerk did this solo, running blind from lane No. 8, made it even more of a performance of a lifetime," Smith reckoned.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt, right, winner of the men's 100-metre final embraces South Africa's Wayde Van Niekerk, winner of the men's 400-meter final during the athletics competitions of the 2016 Summer Olympics at the Olympic stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016. (File/The Associated Press)

"Everyone knows and speaks of Usain 'The King of Sprinting' Bolt, but van Niekerk is not as much of a household name – despite the fact he is the only human to run sub 10 seconds in the 100m, sub 20 seconds in the 200m, and sub 44 seconds in the 400m. I'm still a sports physiology geek and those simple stats are otherworldly!"

All in all, athletics, from any angle, lived up to hype in Rio making it one of the most interesting meets in history from both a Canadian and international perspective.

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