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

Tokyo Recap

Aug 14th, 2021
11:53 am PDT

I have to admit, I didn’t realize just how tough it would be to watch the Olympics live! Here on the West Coast, that meant getting up at 3:00am. Watching the Games. Then a full day of work. Then more track and field. Then bed long enough to get some rest before repeating – for a week and a half. Literally track and field Nirvana. However, my goal of writing something every day, went out the window on Day 3. So, here is my recap of one of the most interesting Games I’ve watched in my lifetime.

For the first time ever, I spent almost the entirety of the Olympics watching track and field. The above schedule left no time for any other sports. I did watch some swimming and archery before track and field started. Once they headed to Olympic Stadium however, it was wall to wall track and field. I didn’t watch NBC’s “Prime Time” coverage. I watched mostly Eurosport coverage and literally saw more field event coverage than I’ve seen all the rest of the year combined. It reminded me of just how exciting field events are. Final jumps producing gold medals. The back and forth of the medal contenders. I was AWESOME. Along with that, I got to see every heat, semi, and final, and every flight, and field event final. It was the most awesome experience ever.

By now, if you’re into the sport, you are fully aware of the results. So I will give you my thoughts on the meet and the events that I found most exciting. Starting with the “revelation” that the rest of the world has gotten really really good at track and field! And we Americans can no longer take anything for granted in any event in the sport.

Another observation that I will make, is that for many countries and many athletes, their training and competition schedules are aimed at one thing – doing their best in Major competitions like the Olympics and World Championships. That may sound like, “duh”. But our athletes do two things a bit differently. One, they do their best to peak at our Trials/Nationals. I understand why. Our Trials are perhaps the toughest meet on the planet. We’re DEEP in so many events. So just getting to a Major is hard work if you’re an American athlete. Work that can leave one tired once they actually get to the Major. Leaving us a bit vulnerable. We’re going to have to look at the timing of our Trials to try and help the athletes have an optimal rest/training period prior to Major championships. The other thing is our athletes compete in a lot more meets than other top level athletes do. We always have. In large part, because they have to run to eat! As in, they run to make a living, because we don’t get the same level of support from our federation, or country,  that other athletes do. Sure, there are a select few with very lucrative shoe company contracts. But if you don’t have a contract, you need the appearance fees that many meets provide – especially the European meets. Even when they do, but the contract is a smaller one, athletes don’t always get the support that they need to survive. And many of those lucrative contracts have competition clauses that require you to run in various meets. So, running for dollars it is.

I say all these things because, as the rest of the world gets better, we have to be at our optimum best when it comes time to compete – and those things make it increasingly difficult to be so. That was no more evident than Tokyo, as in many cases athletes didn’t seem to be at their optimal best – and it wasn’t always their fault. As a result we won fewer medals than projections on paper said we should. To that end USATF, our governing body, needs to take a look at how THEY can help take some of that burden off of our athletes. Like perhaps adjusting the time between our Trials and Majors. I have some ideas on that as I’ve looked at the various time periods historically, and will write about that in a different post. USATF needs to also look at providing better compensation programs for Elite athletes. Especially those with “minor” or no shoe contracts at all. They can do better and should. The athletes get the blame when they don’t perform as people think they should. But USATF is quick to take a bow when things are going well. They need to “pay” for that privilege.

On that note, they can also do a better job of providing pre meet assistance. As in they need to run a two to three week camp prior to the Major for the athletes. That should be a STANDARD every year – put it in the budget. I understand that “Covid” was considered to be an issue this time around. And that that affected some decisions. But most of the rest of the world found a way to run camps, which enabled athletes to work together on relays and gave them time to acclimate to the time change. In large part because of what OUR professional organizations did during Covid. Meanwhile we were showing up from the United States to Tokyo days before competition. Not. Good. The country that showed the world how to deal with Covid, didn’t even take our own advise so to speak. Sorry, but just stupid.

So, for the fans out there that were remarking at how “tired” or “lethargic” some of our athletes appeared to be, they probably were – and it wasn’t their fault! At the end of the day, in spite of all of the “challenges” that our athletes faced we still ended up getting mostly stellar performances from them. Sure, there were some disappointments, but that is par for the course. No matter the competition, the odds are always that not everyone will be “on”. It’s just a lot more noticeable when you are a part of the US Team, because the expectations are so high. Truthfully, that began at the Trials, as not everyone that was preordained to make the team, made the team. So, having some disappointments in Tokyo was to be expected. And for my money the largest of these was the men’s 4×1 failing to make the final even though we actually got the baton around the track. But, I’m not here to dwell on that, I’m here to praise the performances that lit up the Olympic Stadium.

To that end, I’m going to start with Mr. Ryan Crouser. Why? Because he seems to be taken for granted by most people. Possibly because he’s a field event athlete. But mostly, I believe because people really don’t understand just how good he is! Let’s start by saying that throwing the shot 70 feet still makes one world class. To the point where only 21 men have done that this year – and only 5 did in Tokyo! The bronze medalist threw over 73 feet, and the silver medalist over 74 feet. Mr Crouser threw 76 feet 5 inches – just 2 inches short of his own WR. He’s that much better than the rest of the world. Most of the world’s current record holders have individuals that are marginally close to them. Warholm, McLaughlin, Harrison, among others. Crouser however, is in a class alone right now. Yet is hardly talked about. So I’m giving him his props right now, as he may be the most dominant athlete out there at the moment.

Speaking of Warholm and McLaughlin, I don’t think the sport has ever seen the 400 hurdles in as exciting position as it is right now. Consider that both the men and women’s event have the three fastest individuals in history competing right now. And that in Tokyo, both finals featured all six running faster than the WR’s that existed at the start of the year! The men’s version saw Warholm break the 46sec barrier with a stunning 45.94. Yet just edge out Rai Benjamin at 46.17. With Alison dos Santos running faster than Kevin Young at 46.72! Not to be outdone, the women put on their own show. Syd (51.46), Delilah Muhammad (51.58) and Femke Bol (52.03) going where no other women have ever gone. No one else is within nearly half a second – at the moment. And if I had a guess, I would expect them to be closer to 50-point than not by the World Championships next year. The 400 hurdles have become a marquee event – whether the Diamond League cares to admit it or not.

Ah, marquee events. When it comes to star quality, that would be the 100 meters. You know, the world’s fastest man and woman. Everyone watches the 100, everyone. Winning the 100 is what made Bolt famous. Justin Gatlin’s battles with Bolt made him famous. And Tokyo was going to make someone else famous. On the men’s side, that would be Marcel Jacobs of Italy. One, because no Italian had ever won the event before. Two, because he ran 9.80, a European record that made him =#10 in history. In second place was American Fred Kerley. His 9.84 made him =#15 in history. Andre deGrasse’ 9.89 in third made this a very fast final and legitimized Jacobs’ win. Two other finalists, Ronnie Baker and Su Bingtian, ran 9.83 in the semifinals but couldn’t repeat in the final. Kerley’s medal validated his move down from the 400. As many people, including myself, felt that that had been a mistake. So much for that!

The women’s event, saw the coronation of Jamaican Elaine Thompson Herah as one of the great female sprinters in history. Her 10.61 win was the #2 legal time in history. Her followup win in the 200 (21.53) gave her another #2 time, and a repeat Olympic double – something no other woman has ever done. In both instances she did so against some of the fastest fields ever put on the track. The 100 having 4 women that had run under 10.80. The 200 five women that have run under 22.00. Two high level fields. Two wins with daylight to the next sprinter. Elaine was the most dominant sprinter in Tokyo this year.

Well, I did say sprinter. The most dominant athlete in Tokyo was quite possibly Siffan Hassan of the Netherlands. Hassan attempted a near impossible 1500/5000/10000 triple. The result? She won both the 5&10 and took 3rd in the 1500! No woman had ever attempted anything nearly that grueling, let alone come close to pulling it off. My hat’s off to Ms Hassan. Watching her exploits was one of the most exciting parts of the Olympics.

Nearly as exciting as watching Athing Mu. I mean, after all, the distance races take a while. Athing however, went around the track 2 times in one event and 1 time in another. In the 800, she simply had no peer. A lot of people wondered whether or not she would be able to “handle” that level of competition. The resounding answer was, what competition! She did what Donovan Brazier should have been doing – dominating from start to finish. That’s exactly what she did round by round. Get out front. Control the pace. Take off and win when she was good and ready. All the way to gold and an American record 1:55.21! The end. It was a thing of beauty to watch. As the 19 year old was completely and totally dominant.

She then joined forces with what was basically an all star squad of herself, Sydney McLaughlin, Delilah Muhammad and Allyson Felix to totally dominate the 4×4. Her contribution? A stunning 48.32 split to anchor a 3:16.85 relay. The #5 time in history. Many were predicting a WR, but I never saw that in the cards. There is not another group capable of giving the US the push it needs to run a WR right now, because that means running close to 3:15.00. How fast is that? If you had a 49.5 to lead off, everyone else would have to average 48.5. That’s pretty fast – especially running alone. We’ll see what the next few years bring. Allyson is nearing retirement, and Delilah is right at 30. Time will tell.

Same story for the men. The one gold medal that the US men got on the track was the 4×4, where they ran 2:55.70 – the #4 time in history. Unlike the women however, the men are all young. Michael Cherry (44.2), Michael Norman (44.0), Bryce Deadmon (44.01) and Rai Benjamin (43.40) are all 25 or younger. They could have many more years together. The question being, can they attack 2:54.29? The 4×4 records are among the toughest out there. It will be fun watching teams attempt to reach them.

Another of my favorite moments/events was the women’s steeplechase. Why? Because of the gusty run of Courtney Frericks! Courtney did what distance runners seem to be afraid to do – take the race and run the only way that could give them a win. Typically distance runners form a line; run until the final lap; then try to out kick each other. Good if you have a kick. Kinda dumb if you are just waiting for others to run away from you. Courtney hit the half way point and took off – knowing that her hope of a medal lay in her ability to string the race out and run the kick out of the kickers! No one was close until nearly 200 left to go, and then it was too late for all but the eventual gold medalist. Giving Courtney the silver. It was a brilliant display of running! If they gave medals for guts, she would’ve gotten one for that too. Best distance race I’ve seen in the Games since the 1988 women’s 1500! Simply awesome.

My penultimate event, is the men’s version of my favorite event to watch – the 200. It’s that sprint where everyone that sprints can meet and compete. So typically we see some of the sports’ best athletes. Tokyo lived up to the expectations. Young Erriyon Knighton (17) was the star of the early rounds. Running loose and easy and fast. World champion Noah Lyles had the faux paux of the semis – shutting down and missing out on the auto qualifying spot. At 19.99 he made the final on time, but it cost his a good lane draw. Meanwhile Kenny Bednarek and Andre deGrasse (always there) and Joseph Faunbuleh were getting the job done. And one of the meet’s best finals was ready to go. Bednarek ran a sterling turn. Lyles ran well out of the tight confines of lane 3. But as they headed down the stretch, it was deGrasse who edged by them all for his first victory in a Major. Bednarek for the silver and Noah for the bronze gave us our best finish in a sprint at the Games – with Knighton in fourth. Once again, everyone is young, so there is much to look forward to in the future.

My final event is the women’s discus throw. Yes, another field event and another women. That’s because both were off the chain in Tokyo – the women and field events! That said, Valerie Allman is one of America’s best. She destroyed the field early. Then watched as everyone tried to play catch u. Something she had no intent of letting happen as she was a good six feet further than anyone else. Pretty dominant for an Olympic final. Valerie is another of the young talent that was on display in Tokyo. With good health, she could win one or two more medals before calling it a day.

Actually, one more. The women’s pole vault. Katie Nageotte, nearly went out on the initial height. Having to clear on her final attempt. After that however, she was flawless. Clearing every height up to the winning leap of 4.90m/16’ 0.75” on her first attempt. And she was the Olympic champion! After celebrating like crazy at her good fortune, she was too emotional to jump any further. It was one of the most exciting moments of the Games.

Many people thought the Games shouldn’t be held. But like every other sporting event that’s been held over the past year and a half, there were no deaths, no hospitalizations, no problems. Just tons of exciting competition in a plethora of sports. And once again the Olympics were exactly what they are supposed to be – a gathering of the world, providing a beacon of hope to all. As the athletes were once again awesome. In spite of having to compete in empty venues. Well empty of fans. But those in attendance cheered each other on in fine fashion. Proving the power of sport.

Next up, the remainder of the season with a focus on the Diamond League. Where athletes that were short of the Games, will take aim at those that went. This should be quite exciting.


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