Jessica Ennis-Hill was firmly on track to retain her Olympic heptathlon title as she led the field by 72 points after the first day in Rio, but ‘Super Saturday’ almost lost one of its key players as Greg Rutherford survived a major scare in the long jump.
Rutherford kept his hopes of retaining his long jump title alive by the skin of his teeth as he scraped into the final on his last qualifying attempt.
The 29-year-old left himself on the brink of a shock elimination by fouling his first two efforts before pulling out a leap of 7.90 metres on his third and final jump to go through in 10th place out of 12 qualifiers.
Rutherford’s leap also kept the chance of a repeat of ‘Super Saturday’ on track, with his fellow London 2012 gold medallists Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill also bidding to defend their crowns in Rio today.
In the heptathlon, Ennis-Hill’s team-mate Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s hopes of challenging for her crown were dealt a major blow by a woeful performance in the shot put as she lay 100 points behind her compatriot in fourth place after four events.
Ennis-Hill wasn’t best pleased with her showing in the discipline either as she had to settle for a best throw of 13.86m, down on her best this year of 14.29m.
“I was devastated with the shot put,” said the Olympic champion. “I’ve been throwing 14.50m in training and holding camp, then to do that was really annoying.
“The 200m was a bit of a slow time. It’s a mixed day, but I’m glad to be leading.
“It’s been challenging. It’s been a completely different day to normal. Being up at 5am, like we normally are anyway, but then having a massive break and running at this time of night, you don’t realise how much your boy is affected by it and I think that shows in the times.
“It’s always nice to be leading after the first day. Those girls have big jumps in the long jump and can all run good 800 metres. It’ll be a challenging day, and another long one. I want to go and put all the pieces together, rest up and come back tomorrow stronger.
“[Coach] Toni [Minichello] was not pleased after the shot put. He looked a little bit stressed, but I think he’ll be happy with me leading after the first day.”
Ennis-Hill will head into the second day on 4,057 points, 101 down on the same stage at London 2012.
With three more events to come today - the long jump, javelin and 800 metres - the 30-year-old from Sheffield is well-placed to make history by becoming the first British woman to retain an Olympic title in athletics, an incredible achievement two years after the birth of her son Reggie.
Ennis-Hill versus Johnson-Thompson was being talked up as a British head-to-head that could draw comparisons with the days of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett but the mouth-watering prospect of a titanic tussle for gold between the two heptathletes now looks unlikely to materialise.
Johnson-Thompson was visibly upset at the end of a day which had seen her perform brilliantly in the high jump, but the heir to her team-mate’s multi-eventing throne is still very much in medal contention, though, trailing second-placed Nafissatou Thiam of Belgium by only 28 points.
It could have been so much better but for that dreadful shot put showing.
The 23-year-old could only manage a best throw of 11.68m. The event is the Liverpool athlete’s weakest by far, but this was still a well below-par performance, given she has thrown a personal best of 13.14m this year.
She rectified the situation by clocking the fastest time in the 200m, her 23.26 seconds edging out Ennis-Hill’s 23.49secs, but was still left playing catch-up on her team-mate.
“It’s been a tough day, but a lot of the competitors have struggled,” said KJT. “I haven’t been good at the shot in any of the major championships. I’ve just got to add that into my score now, so it’s expected.
“I feel like I’m better than [my score today]. It’s quite hard competing at this time in the cold – it’s not good for the muscles. It’s not over, there a whole day tomorrow, so anything can happen.
“I can’t give up on my dream of winning gold. I was so happy after the high jump - I’ve been after that [height] for a while.”
Canada’s world No 1 Brianne Theisen-Eaton was struggling as she lay in sixth place overall, 186 points behind the leader.
The day started so promisingly for the British pair - and Johnson-Thompson in particular after she produced a British record clearance - and equal world heptathlon best - of 1.98m in the high jump.
It was some statement of intent from an athlete who was left distraught at last year’s World Championships in Beijing when three fouls in the long jump dashed her medal hopes. She will now be hoping her shot woes have not done the same.
Her team-mate, the defending champion, also got off to a flying start, clocking 12.84s in the 100m hurdles and then clearing 1.89m.
It was her third-fastest time since London 2012 - and her fastest in a heptathlon since then - and her best high jump since before the last Olympics.
Johnson-Thompson had clocked 13.48 over the hurdles, 0.11s down on her best this year, but a solid enough time given the rainy conditions at the start of the morning.
The Britons were hit by a wall of noise on their first morning of London 2012, a teenage Johnson-Thompson saying ‘wow’ at the roar which greeted her introduction.
There was no chance of that at a near empty Olympic Stadium for the start of competition here, even if the British fans were the ones making the most noise.
There looked to be barely a couple of thousand spectators in the 56,000-capacity venue when the action got under way in the morning and at the start of the evening session it was less than a fifth full as poor crowds continues to be an issue at these Games.
Elsewhere, Matthew Hudson-Smith clocked 45.26 to qualify for the semis of the 400m in third place, but there was agony for European champion Martyn Rooney, who retained hope of going through as a fastest loser following a time of 45.60 until the last of the seven heats knocked him out.
“It was awful, it’s just embarrassing,” was Rooney’s honest verdict.
Michael Rimmer qualified for the 800m semi-finals, but Elliot Giles, the European bronze medallist who has been troubled by hamstring issues, went out.
Ireland’s Mark English joined Rimmer in the next round.
As for Rutherford, he wasn’t too fazed by his flirtation with disaster. “For me, I draw on all the experiences I can,” said the Englishman. “You can say it wasn’t good but it is just a matter of making finals. These are stressful events at times for this exact scenario as you saw big names got out in qualification yet again and I was very close to being one of them. That was just an easy jump just to make sure I qualified.
“When you have two half decent jumps in your first two jumps, it gives you lots of confidence.
“Tomorrow will be very different. I have my mark for tomorrow, I’ll bring it on the first two jumps and I feel like I can do something. I feel good.
“Eight years ago, I was in Beijing in the final and I didn’t have the experience I have now.
“I panicked going into the last jump and I finished 10th and I was out of it. That is the difference now, I know I can draw on those experiences in order to actually qualify and get it done.
“Going into tomorrow, it is a completely new competition. It doesn’t matter what happened today. A few people might say Greg is not on form but it is up to me to go out there tomorrow and put it to rights.”