The Rio Olympics are in the books. In spite of all the “worries” heading into the meet, it was the competition that ultimately (always does) stood out! Such is the nature of track and field – when we get our best together, the sport shines brightly.
I’ve commented on most of the events during the course of the meet. Following are some additional “thoughts” on the competition as we head towards the completion of the season.
US medal count
The United States brought home 32 medals! Yes, we’ve won more – 35 back in 1932. But that was back when the entire world, specifically the African nations, did not compete. Given how competitive the world has become, 32 medals is HUGE! In Beijing ’08, Team USA looked lost and confused. Even at last years World Championships we looked like anything but the best track and field squad on the planet. In Rio we looked like the dominant nation that we once were. And we did it with a shortage of medals in traditionally strong events. I’ll address this shortly. Rio was a major step forward for Team USA.
The American Women
Our women proved to be truly “equal” to the men as they won half of the 32 medals (16). In the process, they also set 4 American Records – shot put, steeplechase, triple jump, and 10,000 meters. And in the traditionally strong sprints and hurdles, it was the women leading the way, as they scored in every event – something the men failed to do – including a first ever sweep in the 100H. Major props to the women!
US Middle Distance
In the not too distant past, the African dominance in the middle and long distance events, has shut out most of the rest of the world from the medal stand in the Games. Before the Africans got involved however, way back in 1904 and 1912, we won 8 medals in events 800 and above. And at home in the 1984 Loss Angeles Games we won 9 medals in these events. In Rio we once again won 8 medals. More important than the number were the events that we medaled in. We won medals in both the men and women’s 1500. Jenny Simpson winning the first ever 1500 medal with her bronze and Matthew Centrowitz winning the first gold medal since 1908! Similarly we won medals in both the men and women’s steeplechase! Emma Coburn’s bronze the first ever medal in the event, and Evan Jager’s silver the first medal since 1984! Clayton Murphy’s bronze in the 800 was the first medal since 1992. While Paul Chelimo’s silver in the 5,000 was the first medal since 1964! Suddenly it’s all coming together for America’s “distance” crew. I believe in large part to the Oregon camps. Working together in clusters, these athletes are getting the competitive training necessary to succeed – and they are.
US Men’s Sprints and Hurdles
The above strategy of working in camps used to be the base for most of America’s greatest sprinters. San Jose State and the SCVYV (Santa Clara Valley Youth Village) in the 60’s; The Santa Monica Track Club in the ’80’s/’90’s; HSI in the 90’s/00’s, and Sprint Capitol in the 00’s. These “camps” had the best coaches and produced the bulk of the top sprinters (and global medals) throughout the decades. Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Lee Evans, Maurice Greene,Mike Marsh, Joe DeLoach, Quincy Watts, Danny Everett, Steve Lewis, Dennis Mitchell, Carl Lewis, Kirk Baptiste, Leroy Burrell, Justin Gatlin and Shawn Crawford are just a few of the athletes developed in these camps.
Once upon a time it was an honor, and a goal, to belong to one of the elite sprint camps – because you knew that greatness was imminent. But during the 00’s individualism seemed to take hold in America. Sprinters decided they wanted to do it their way. Wanted to stay with their own coaches. Didn’t want to leave the comforts of home. So while camps and coaches continued to court the best talent, that talent started making other choices; choosing other coaches/programs ; and having spotty success!
Ironically as American sprinters became individualistic, Jamaican sprinters began adopting America’s old ways. They began encouraging their athletes to stay home and go to one of two elite camps. MVP, the home of Asafa Powell, Nesta Carter and Michael Frater. And Racers TC , the home of Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. Funny thing, that old “camp” system STILL WORKS! As the number of truly elite, medal contending sprinters in the US has dropped, the number of truly elite, medal contending sprinters in Jamaica has gone up! Hell, look at US distance runners who’ve also become a viable product on the world’s stage by using the camp method! Our distance runners are getting better while our sprinters and hurdlers are having difficulty getting to the medal stand – and Jamaica is handing us our lunch! And NO its not just about Bolt.
There’s an old saying – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But somehow here in the US we’ve managed to take a very simple sport and complicate it to death. I will talk about some of these complications in another post, but perhaps the worst case of fixing something that wasn’t broken has been the departure of sprinters from the camp method of training. And I believe it’s incumbent upon USATF CEO Mac Siegel to get more involved in the selection and funneling of talent to the proper resources – which should include getting us back to what works “best” in the sprint world. That means our best athletes and coaches working in tandem and pushing each other to the next level. From high school to college to elite programs, getting the best together to train works.
Speaking of sprinting and Bolt. Three Olympics in a row this man has won the sprint double. Unprecedented. I have no problem calling him the greatest championship sprinter ever. I must say that Edwin Moses was as dominant in the 400 hurdles and but not for the boycott in ’80 would have had a triple in that event. But Bolt has repeated in not one event, but two. A masterful feat.
I do have issue with the “Triple Triple” however – for two reasons. The first is simple, the ’08 relay win came via a doped lead off leg – who is currently serving a ban for same. Every other relay team has had to forfeit titles and return medals when a doped athlete is discovered, Jamaica should be no different – Bolt or not. Especially given the head of the sport – Sebastopol Coe – has verbalized a hard core stance against doping! It’s about rules, not trying to create a narrative. The other reason is that relay medals are a team product, not individual. Shelly Ann Fraser destroyed the field in her two Olympic 100 wins, yet her relay mates were no match for the WR thrown down by the US in London. Gatlin has run storming back straights, then watched the team fail. Nor has Bolt had to carry his squads a la Bob Hayes in Tokyo – coming from way behind to win going away. Bolt and his teammates kicked our collective tushes for three Games in a row now, while Bolt won individual sprint doubles in THREE consecutive Olympics. All hail the King of Championships.
If Bolt is the King of Championships, Gatlin is the Prince. Gatlin is the only other sprinter in history to medal in THREE Olympic 100 finals. More impressively, he’s the only sprinter to medal in Olympics TWELVE YEARS APART! That’s over a decade. While some field event athletes have done it – Carl Lewis in the long jump being the most recent – only Edwin Moses among sprinters /hurdlers has medaled 12 years apart. That’s a pretty exclusive club!
Wayde Van Niekerk
Perhaps the biggest travesty of the Games,was the minimal attention paid to the men’s 400 final. 43.03! Let that set in for a moment. Michael Johnson’s 15 year old record destroyed. MJ dropped Butch Reynolds record by.11sec, van Niekerk dropped his by.15! The #6 (Merritt) and #8 (James) fastest quartermilers in history beaten by.75sec! The greatest mass finish ever, not even in the same photo frame! I expected this to be the race of the meet – and that the record was a possibility (go back and read my previews). I did not however, expect such overwhelming individual domination. Not since Fred Newhouse in the 1972 US Trials has anyone attempted to go out in 20.5 – probably because Newhouse died a horrible death in the final stretch. And no one has ever gone thru 300 in 31.0 – 31.03 is van Niekerk’s personal best and #3 all time, and MJ’s all time best is 30.85! And as crazy as it sounds, he seemed to ease up a bit at the end, possibly costing him 42.9x. This run was epic. Right up there with 8’0.5″ in the high jump and 60′ in the Triple Jump. Yet this performance was all but ignored in the fervor over the 100.
Elaine Thompson / Tori Bowie
This will be sprinting’s next great rivalry. No offense to Dafne Schippers, because I’m a big fan, but her start hurts her greatly in the 100. Thompson and Bowie are capable of excellent marks in both sprints, and fit nicely into the US v Jamaica rivalry that has developed in the past decade. They’re beginning to remind me of Ottey v Torrence, Campbell Brown v Felix and Fraser Pryce v Jeter. These women are both sub 10.80/sub 22.00 and are still learning how to run – they could become the best of the lot ! To boot neither has researched her prime. With good health we could see another couple of Olympiads from these two. That would be a good thing.
US Men’s 4×1
It’s time to do what’s already been done on the track – blow it up. Let the veterans ride off into the sunset. Gay, Rodgers, Gatlin, anyone near, our over the age of 30. Let them either retire, or focus on individual achievements – which is what they and their handlers have been about anyway. Let’s pull together some young talent looking to do something internationally and start with the relay as their BASE of success – not something extra! The old crew has failed, repeatedly for over a decade now. It’s time to try something different. When teams like Japan with much less foot speed hand you your lunch, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and actually TEACH our squads how to run the relay.
Yes, we won. But we are no where near where we were quality wise just a couple of Games ago, let alone a couple of decades ago. For some reason while the rest of the world’s quartermilers are getting faster/better we are not. Yes, we have LaShawn, and Allyson, but the others are way behind – and we lose Merritt and Felix eventually. I look at the quartermilers as sprinters and they need the same advise given to the sprinters above – we need to get athletes together in camps to get back to where we once were. We should be running 3:18/2:56 in a bad year, 3:16/2:55 in a good year – challenging the WRs at our best. Right now we’re not close at all.
Real simple, CAS got it wrong. To the sport’s credit, it’s recognized that these individuals are NOT equal to the women and are genetically superior – and asked that in order to compete their testosterone levels must be reduced to equate female levels. That decision was overturned by CAS.
Take note that under the IAAF recommendation, Semenya had trouble competing at the elite level. Unleashed by CAS every race had been an exercise in trying to hold back while being dominant!
I think that what people lose sight of (including members of CAS) is that it’s not a “right” to run at the elite level of athletics. There are “standards” that must be met – among them are that individuals are NOT allowed to compete Above Normal Genetic Markers. THAT is at the heart of our doping policies. And while transgender individuals come by this naturally, it is no less an “enhancement” that should not be allowed. Essentially you have what amounts to a non elite male in ability competing against women. And it’s just not fair. No different than we do not allow men with elevated levels of testosterone, or other substances, to compete against non enhanced men – because it’s unfair.
The IOC must take a look at Rio and how these Games unfolded. At the end of the day the athletes and the competition outshined the deficiencies – but that doesn’t erase the fact that there were issues, problems, and deficiencies. The Zika virus. Polluted water. Dorms unready and in disrepair. Venues not complete until the very last minute. These were just a handful of problems regarding these Games. The IOC must do a better job of awarding the events. Especially as the costs become greater and greater.
I’ve heard the idea of a single permanent site – Athens – to host the Olympics. To ensure an always ready site. Personally I think the Olympics needs to be shared across the planet.We may want to look at creating permanent sites on various continents that could rotate the Games – and spread the cost among the various nations on the continent. Something like Rome and London in Europe. Los Angeles and Montreal in North America. Tokyo and Beijing in Asia. As examples. Just an idea.
However it’s done, we need to ensure that this competition continues at a high level, in the best situation available. It must remain the best of the best.
Now, it’s forward to the end if the season. With several Diamond League events on tap there’s still a lot of competition to enjoy.