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

What Role Will Injury Play in the London Sprints?

Feb 14th, 2012
6:08 pm PST

imageI ask that question because with approximately six months until London, we are already talking about injuries and/or potential injuries to top level athletes – most notably Usain Bolt’s visit to a German doctor. Coming on the heels of Bolt ending his 2011 season on an injury note, this could become a significant story line as we get closer to the Games. I say “could” become significant because there is still a lot of time on the calendar before we get into the June “qualifying” period of Olympic Trials across the globe. The injury story, however, almost always plays a role on the medal stand at the Olympics.

Beijing lost it’s hometown hero to injury in ‘08 when Liu Xiang withdrew from the first round of the 110 hurdles – eliminating a showdown between he and WR holder Dayron Robles. Likewise after suffering an injury at the U.S.Trials, a sub par Tyson Gay bowed out of the 100 meters in his semi – eliminating a showdown between he and then recent WR setter Usain Bolt.

Unfortunately this is more the rule than the exception – marquee athletes suffering injury prior to a major championship – with Mr. Injury sometimes playing as big a role on the podium as the athletes themselves! And in recent years injuries to the truly elite have reached new levels. So much so that careers that once seemed to be getting increasing longer because of professionalism, now seem to be in danger of shortening.

Liu Xiang just got back to “normal” late last year. Tyson Gay just had surgery this past year and has yet to compete in 2012. Sprinter Asafa Powell missed last year’s World Championships to injury. Distance star Kenenisa Bekele returned just in time for Daegu, while quarter miler Jeremy Wariner had to withdraw from Worlds just weeks before the opening ceremony. And already there is “rumor” of Usain Bolt possibly being injured.

Over the year’s I’ve seen injury play a major factor in the outcome of the Olympic Games – especially in the muscle volatile sprints where injury always seems to be a race away. In Munich in ‘72 Hasely Crawford (TRI) pulled up in the final – before coming back to take gold in Montreal four years later. Missing from Munich was a young Steve Williams (USA) taken down to injury earlier in the year. Then, as a multiple record setter in both the 100 & 200, he missed Montreal to injury before finally becoming the first World Cup Champion in 1977. The Montreal Games was also missing Silvio Leonard (CUB) co-world record holder in the 100 and second man ever under 10.00 – struck down to injury in his Olympic dorm room. In 1984 both 100 meter WR holder Calvin Smith (9.93) and #3 all time Mel Lattany (9.96) were struck down to injury a couple of weeks before the U.S. Trials – Smith holding it together enough to earn a relay spot in Los Angeles. And one of the few men to defeat Carl Lewis during the early 80’s – footballer Ron Brown, suffered an injury during the rounds of the 100 at Trials and was less than his best for the finals at Trials and the Games in Los Angeles – where he finished just off the podium in 4th place. Truth is, from 1968 (the beginning of synthetic tracks and auto timing in the Games)  through 2008, 1988 may have been the only year when all the “principles” actually lined up against each other to go head to head with everyone in good health – Charlie Greene actually had a hamstring injury in ‘68! Because most Olympic 100 meter finals have been unable to deliver THE matchup that the world wants to see due to loss of top level athletes to injury.

The long sprints have taken their lumps as well. Michael Johnson – he of the 200/400 double in Atlanta, and once holder of both WRs – was injured in ‘1988, then was sub par in Barcelona (‘92) before picking up that double gold. Barcelona saw British star, Derek Redmond (44.50), pull up in his 400 meter semi final and miss his shot at making the Olympic podium. The injury was eerily similar to that of Jamaican star Bert Cameron, who after winning gold in the first World Championships in 1983, pulled up on the backstretch a year later in Los Angeles in his semi. Somehow, some way, Cameron ran 45.05 to get the last qualifying spot in spite of pulling up 150 meters into his semi, but was unable to start in the final.

I could go on and on, from Donovan Bailey in 2000 after winning and setting a WR in ‘96, to Maurice Greene coming back from injury in ‘03 to attempt to defend his title in ‘04 – gaining an oh so close bronze. A young Steve Lewis winning the 400 in ‘88 only to struggle with injury in the ensuing years, then pull it together to get silver in Barcelona. Hurdler Kevin Young setting a mind boggling WR 46.78 in winning gold in ‘92 only to suffer through injury and surgery before bowing out of the 1996 Trials in his semi. The consistent story here is that injury in a prevalent story when it comes to the speed events at the Games, and the question of the day, and really the season, is what role will it play in London?

Injury has already had an effect on the Games as several athletes lost time in 2011 to injury, recovery, and/or rehab. Usain Bolt (JAM), Tyson Gay (USA), Asafa Powell (JAM), Wallace Spearmon (USA), Xavier Carter (USA), Alonso Edward (PAN), Ryan Bailey (USA), Tony McQuay (USA), Nickel Ashmeade (JAM), and Jeremy Wariner (USA) are just a few of the athletes with the ability to take the podium, that were out to injury at some point in 2011!

I’m sure that this latest on Bolt is only the beginning of the injury rumors, and stories that we will hear this year. I’ve actually already heard one or two  before this one – but will say no more until substantiated. Needless to say, if I were laying odds in Vegas, I would put money on a trifecta of at least one major athlete missing from each sprint final – and I would double down with the same bet on the women’s side. Because history says that after playing all that “hide and seek” on the Circuit, that it’s still a rarity to get all the best sprinters on the track and healthy for the Games!

The marquee name in ‘08 was Tyson Gay. Maurice Greene carried a big “?” all season in ‘04. Donovan Bailey, Bruny Surin and Michael Johnson (injured in the 200 at Trials and missing in Sydney) were casualties in ‘00. So much for the New Millennium. Bolt starts the season with a question mark – so do many of those injured in ‘11 and yet to open their seasons. Perhaps in addition to watching those that are “rising” during the season, I should start a “Triage” list of those injured or rumored to be injured. One thing is certain, with the level of competition out there in the sprints, injury to anyone lessens medal hopes. So good health will be paramount over the next few months. There are athletes that can slip into a final at less than their best, but none that will take the prize – the others are too good. That said, any injury news will be BIG news this year so keep your ears to the ground!

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2 Responses to “What Role Will Injury Play in the London Sprints?”

  1. Fortyacres and a mule says:

    you are so right. In this sport injury is the rule.That is why one has to keep their fingers cross in a major championship year, because you never know. Some athletes seemed to be more fragile than others. Eg. Allyson Felix, for most part, has close her seasons injury-free more than others.

    • CHill says:

      Even Felix looked like she had a hobble to her step in ’09 .. It just seems that the more these athletes push the envelope , the more susceptible they are to injury ..

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