The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

An Identity Crisis, Not a Paradigm Shift

Feb 2nd, 2010
7:01 pm PST
Sports - May 22, 2005

It happens every once in a while. The greatest sprint force on the planet loses its way and forgets who it is. We get complacent. Someone rises up and knocks us down. We get up dazed and shaken – and have to remember who we are. Then we get back to basics and come back better than before.

That’s the pattern of US sprinting in the modern era.

Jim Hines, Charlie Greene, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Lee Evans and crew were the dominant force in the late 60’s.

The early 70’s saw the rise of Eddie Hart, Rey Robinson, Marshall Dill, Larry Black, Willie Turner, John Smith, Vince Mathews and Wayne Collett among others. Then came our first memory loss with Valerie Borzov and his double sprint victory in Munich.

But after a couple of very strong seasons by Borzov we saw the rise of Steve Williams, Reggie Jones, Fred Newhouse, Maurice Peoples and others in the mid 70’s. And we reclaimed dominance. But in spite of the additions of James Sanford, Clancy Edwards, Millard Hampton, Dwayne Evans, Billy Mullins, Maxie Parks, Willie Smith, Harvey Glance, Steve Riddick and Houston McTear in the mid and later stages of the decade, Montreal wins by Hasely Crawford, Don Quarrie and Alberto Juantorena combined with a boycott of the Moscow Games created another memory loss regarding the power of US sprinting.

But, once again we rose up from the ashes, shook off the soot and watched Carl Lewis, Calvin Smith, Stanley Floyd, Mel Lattany, Kirk Baptiste, Mike Roberson, James Butler, Michael Franks, Sunder Nix, Alonzo Babers, Joe Deloach, Butch Reynolds, Danny Everett, and Steve Lewis bring sprint supremacy back to US soil in the 80’s.

Yes, we had another hiccup with Ben Johnson as for a two/three year period he grabbed the headlines, the records – and eventually a ban – but we were just fine. Even with the emergence of first Britain’s Linford Christie and his gold medal run in ’92/’93, then Canada’s Donovan Bailey and his gold medal run in ’95/’96, our forces were still strong. Yes we lost both the WR in the 100 (to Bailey) and the 4×1 (to France) not to mention the infamous 4×1 gold to Canada in Atlanta. But gold medal runs by Quincy Watts and Mike Marsh early in the decade were followed by the development of two of the sports all time greats during the decade as first Michael Johnson, then Maurice Greene brought sprinting and all the records right back to the US! And we closed the 90’s with a flourish and headed into the New Millennium right where we had always been – as the preeminent sprint power on the planet.

Just how have we done in the New Millennium? To read most press clippings lately you would think that US sprinting was absent this past decade. I suppose that when a man wins the Olympic sprint double in double WR fashion and then returns to do the trick yet again in the World Championships that the shock might cause some memory loss among those that follow the sport.

There is no denying that Usain Bolt has definitely had a two year run unlike any other we have seen in the modern era of the sport. And coming like it has during the age of the internet, YouTube, streaming video, and tweeting it’s easy to understand how some may have forgotten what transpired during the other eight years of the decade. Because the battle that everyone is calling Jamaica vs the US has been quite lopsided – and not in the direction of most advertisements.

For all of Bolt’s heroics during the past two seasons, Jamaica won a total of 5 medals in the 100 during the decade. Two gold, one silver, and two bronze. In the 200 the tally was 3 medals – two gold and one silver. In the 400 there were two bronze medals won by Jamaica during the past decade. That’s a total of 10 sprint medals during the oughts for Jamaica.

The US had a total of 10 medals during the decade – in the 100 meters. Five gold, two silvers and three bronze. That included a sweep of the medals at the World Championships in Edmonton. In the 200 meters there were 16 medals won. Four gold, five silver, and seven bronze. That includes two medal sweeps – in Athens and Helsinki (the Helsinki sweep being a rare gold, silver, bronze and fourth place sweep). The medal haul in the 400 was 17 total. Seven gold, seven silver, and three bronze. Including medal sweeps in Athens, Osaka and Beijing. The total medal haul in the sprints for the US during the oughts – 38.

So the death of US sprinting during the decade has been sorely exaggerated. Yes, we lost the WR in the 100, 200 and 4×1 during the decade. And Usain Bolt has been beating athletes like a drum. But we’ve been here before – Ben Johnson, Linford Christie, Donovan Bailey, France AND Canada in the 4×1 – and emerged stronger, better. As General George Patton said: “Success is how high you bounce after you hit bottom”. Borzov lead to Steve Williams, James Sanford and Carl Lewis. Ben Johnson lead to a resurgent Carl Lewis, and Michael Johnson. And Christie and Bailey lead up to Maurice Greene!

Competition is what makes this sport so great. It’s what gives it excitement. But the US and sprinting is like the Lakers and Celtics in basketball. There are down periods, occasionally the rare losing season. But the base is always there. A little tweaking here and there, and the occasional reload, and a return to the top of the heap.

Besides, one man does not a paradigm create. Ben Johnson. Linford Christie. Donovan Bailey. Usain Bolt. We’re never more than one man away from reclaiming the throne. Our sprinters just have to remember who they are – their history. And that success is how high you bounce after you hit bottom. We were the most dominant sprint force in the oughts – and will be in the teens. It’s simply time for the next star to step up. Carl Lewis. Michael Johnson. Maurice Greene. Next?

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