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

Has the U.S. Lost Its Sprint Mojo?

Jan 31st, 2012
10:11 am PST

Talking with a neighbor who is a fan, but not an “uber” fan, of the sport after this weekend’s U.S. Open, I was asked “what’s wrong with the U.S. sprinters?” When I asked what he meant, he basically said that we didn’t win either sprint (won by Asafa Powell & Veronica Campbell). I responded that many of our best weren’t at the meet, and his follow up was that we didn’t win the World Championships, or the one before that, or the Olympic Games either.

We had a nice chat after that, and while I won’t bore you with the blow by blow conversation, it did make me realize a few things. One is that the only thing that most Americans care about is “who won” – medals that follow gold don’t seem to count. Second is that when people talk about “the sprints” they mean the 100 & 4×1 relay. For some reason while they don’t consider the 400 a distance event, they don’t think of it as a sprint either; and the 200 is viewed as something of a hybrid animal – it’s a sprint but not one that the average person follows. Third, when the average person talks about the state of the U.S. and sprinting the conversation is limited to “the men” – regardless of how well the women do, or don’t do, they seem to use the status of the men as the barometer for sprinting in general. So in the grand scheme of things for the average person, the sprints are judged by how well the men do in the 100 and the 4×1!

Now I bring these things up because obviously those perceptions need to be fixed. Not only do we have a marketing problem with the sport at large, but clearly we have a marketing problem when it comes to the sprints as a subset. There are many outstanding men that run the 200 & the 400 – and often the 4×4 is the most exciting event on the track. And frankly, the women have been much more competitive/and entertaining over the last Olympic cycle. Globally THEY actually run against each other on a regular basis. And if the 100 is your thing we’ve had half a dozen under 10.90, four under 10.80, and one under 10.70 – it doesn’t get any better even when you look back at the age of the Eastern Bloc!

Secondly, those perceptions are a large reason why most of the world feels like we (the U.S.) have lost our sprint mojo. I say most of the world, because while I’ve been disappointed in several outcomes over the past few years, I’m not ready to say we’ve lost our mojo – because we’re still in the game in a big way.

First off, the women sprinters were superb in Daegu. Jeter took 100 meter gold and we placed two women in the final. In the 200 meters we took silver, bronze and 4th place. And in the 400 we were silver 4th and 7th – status quo for this event. The women then won both the 4×1 and 4×4 relays. No mojo lost among the women.

Now for the men; in the 400 we took silver losing gold only in the final strides. And with possibly the weakest team we’ve fielded in the last two decades, our 4×4 crew still came home with gold. In the two shorter sprints we took double silver! But in what has become an annual bug-a-boo we once again failed to finish the 4×1 dropping the stick on the final exchange. No we didn’t win a sprint gold medal, but I think most of the world would be very happy with triple silver in the sprints.

But therein lies the rub, we are not the rest of the world. And the standards we’ve set in these events are what we are measured against, not what the rest of the world achieves. Standards that not even sprint happy Jamaica has yet to completely live up to. Because while Jamaica has been enjoying quite the ride since the rise of Usain Bolt, most people seem to forget that prior to 2008 Jamaica had NEVER won 100 meter gold in a Major – Worlds or Olympics. Nor had they ever won a Major 4×1 – as a matter of fact they didn’t break 38.00 (actually 38.20) until 2007. It had been since Don Quarrie in 1976 that they had won gold in the 200 meters, and they still haven’t seen 400 meter gold since Bert Cameron in 1983.

The point here is threefold. First is that the rise of Jamaica on the sprint scene as a “force” has only been during this last Olympic Cycle – the year before in Osaka, the U.S. won gold in all three sprints and both relays, and no one was talking about lost mojo. Second is that the “dominance” of the Jamaican sprint force has been carried on the back of one sprinter – Usain Bolt. At least up through last season when Yohan Blake emerged as a major sprint force. It was Bolt winning triple gold in Beijing, then again in Berlin. Quiet as it’s been kept, the U.S. won six out of nine available individual medals in the men’s sprints in Beijing and the 4×4 – a rather awesome medal haul. We medaled in every individual sprint in Berlin and again won the 4×4. Really the only missing component in either major has been gold – and finishing that pesky 4×1. Finally when you look at everything the bottom line is that it only takes ONE meet for everything to change! Jamaica was declared a sprint power after Beijing after bringing home two individual medals to the U.S.’s six and splitting wins in the relays – ah the difference that gold makes.

The question is: do we have the pieces/potential to make that change in London? And my answer is: yes we do. Because it’s not like we’re suddenly lacking in sprint potential. All you have to do is take a look at the yearly charts over the past two seasons (‘10/’11 best followed by PR):

  • Tyson Gay (9.78/9.69)
  • Mike Rodgers (9.85/9.85)
  • Darvis Patton (9.94/9.89)
  • Walter Dix (9.88/9.88)
  • Ryan Bailey (9.88/9.88)
  • Justin Gatlin (9.95/9.85)
  • Trell Kimmons (9.95/9.95)
  • Ivory Williams (9.95/9.93)
  • Rakieem Salaam (9.97/9.97)
  • Travis Padgett (9.99/9.89)
  • Walter Dix (19.53/19.53)
  • Tyson Gay (19.72/19.58)
  • Wallace Spearmon (19.79/19.65)
  • Curtis Mitchell (19.99/19.99)
  • Rakieem Salaam (20.05/20.05)
  • Ryan Bailey (20.10/20.10)
  • Xavier Carter (20.14/19.63)
  • Shawn Crawford (20.45/19.79)

Now, even sprint happy Jamaica would be pleased with those numbers over the last couple of seasons. Definitely the kind of performances capable of spawning gold medals, winning relays, and serving as launching points for PR’s and records. So what’s the problem? Well the problem lies in one of my favorite statements – it ain’t how fast you run, but when you run fast! And the problem we’ve had lately is in getting our best sprinters to the starting line in the Majors healthy and in one piece.

Tyson Gay has been hobbled in various parts of every season since 2008; ditto Wallace Spearmon. As a matter of fact both have submitted to surgery in that time span. Yet both sprinters have managed to put up numbers that have kept them near the top of the annual lists! Xavier Carter went down in ’08 and has had difficulty finding his way back to form. Youngsters Ryan Bailey and Curtis Mitchell have shown flashes of brilliance, but both were sidelined with injuries last year. Justin Gatlin spent time with injuries last year, and even double Olympic bronze and double World silver medalist Walter Dix has had his battles with injuries the past few seasons. Bottom line: it’s tough to perform at your best hurt and injured. Yet we continue to medal in all of the sprints with many of our top athletes rehabbing injuries or watching on television! Can even Jamaica say it could win both short sprints and the 4×1 (the 400 is still the domain of the U.S.) WITH Usain Bolt left at home? The answer is probably not. Swap Bolt for Gay – Bolt injured and Gay 100% – and I’m probably not writing this because there would be no perceived loss of mojo.

The Jamaicans have been close to that, because they’ve had their own battles with injuries during this past Olympic cycle as Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Nesta Carter, Yohan Blake, Michael Frater and Nickel Ashmeade have all had to take time out to heal various and sundry injuries. The real key is that they’ve been able to get most, though not all, of their sprinters to the starting line in one piece in the Majors. They’ve avoided injuries that require surgery. And the “Big Man” has shown up ready to rumble – and really it only takes one sprinter to change everything.

We MUST accomplish the same in 2012, because if we’ve lost any “mojo” it’s in getting our best to the starting line of Trials and Majors in one competitive piece! We still have the physical talent. We even have men with the competitive drive to win – when they are healthy.

We need good health for Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon. Both men are among the best ever and have shown the ability to medal – even gold – in the crucible of competition in the Majors. Not to mention that they have been part of the most successful 4×1’s we’ve had over much of the last decade. They could be critical to bringing that title back home. And it seems that the biggest secret on the planet is that Gay is the last man to defeat Bolt in both the 100 and the 200! As an old coaching friend of mine used to say: “he’s hell when he’s well he’s just sick so much”!

We need race refinement from Walter Dix. We know Walter is competitive – he’s been our most consistent medalist in the last three years. But he’s done so in spite of serious flaws in his race – primarily losing contact too early in the race. He must fix that in order to be a factor around the finish line.

We need growth and maturity from Ryan Bailey, Curtis Mitchell and/or Mookie Salaam. It’s time for them to make the kind of move Yohan Blake has made for Jamaica in the last year. All three are talented. Bailey could even be the next Bolt from a physical perspective. We need one of them to become that young Olympic year break out sprinter.

We also need breakout seasons from Ivory Williams, Padgett and/or Trell Kimmons. All are old enough and experienced enough. We need them to move from the edge of elite-ness to the realm of the truly elite.

We could use a return to form of Xavier Carter and or Justin Gatlin. Just a few seasons ago Carter was the future of sprinting. The next Michael Johnson. Carter reintroduced 19.6 to the world. Then on a wet track in Eugene he went down, and hasn’t been the same since. In ‘04/’05 Gatlin was sprinting. Then he lost four years of his career. Either one at his best is in the mix – we need them in the mix.

Finally we could one or two of the young men in that 10.0x and 20.2x range to break through to the big time. We have more of those young people than any other nation on the planet. It’s a range that a year later saw the elite emergence of Carl Lewis, Maurice Greene, Tyson Gay, Usain Bolt, and Yohan Blake. So it’s not a stretch to think that someone like Jeff Demps or Maurice Mitchell couldn’t be searching for a medal in London.

You see we are flush with talent and potential. and we’ve never stopped winning medals. We do need to return to the top of the podium though. Hard to claim the #1 spot without winning – no matter how deep and talented you are. Because you see it’s really about gold. Canada was a power simply because they had Donovan Bailey. Britain was a power because of Linford Christie. And Jamaica became a power because of Usain Bolt. One man, one gold. That’s all it takes for the question of mojo to go away. We haven’t lost our mojo, we just lost the gold – and in this sport gold is everything!

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4 Responses to “Has the U.S. Lost Its Sprint Mojo?”

  1. Brandon says:

    I feel like the US men have a good group of sprinters but Jamaica has too many sub 9.80s for them to compete with them. The US need to hope for a break out year from two or more people and a healthy season from Gay to compete with Jamaica in the short sprints and the 4×100.

    • CHill says:

      I think health is the key, on both sides, as far as the individual races go .. The relays are more about passing than foot speed .. Jamaica ran faster without Powell .. And the US took silver behind Britain in 04 when we had three of the first four in the 100 ..

      The competition right now is such that anyone at less than 100% is out of the medals..

  2. Fortyacres and a mule says:

    I hate when folks try to compare Jamaica with the USA in terms of sprinting ability.Just do the math.The USA has a sprinting TRADITION and it has a population of over 310 million people,that’s over 100 times the population of Jamaica(2.8 million) therefore at any given time the USA is going to have more depth and potential than Jamaica. India with over billion people have no sprinting TRADITION nor interest therefore nobody expects them be a major force.Jamaica, on a per capita level, seem to always punch above its weight because it has a tradition in the sport going way back .When it’s not their men winning medals at the majors it’s their women.

    The intriguing thing for me about Jamaica is- not their so- called sprinting domination because that is a cyclical business- but rather for a country so small to consistently produce world class sprinters. Whether they are representing another country or otherwise.They put Nigeria and Brasil to shame. That is what I find very interesting. We in the USA whine too much when we are not on top.As a fan of the sport I just sit back and enjoy the performances whether its the RED WHITE or BLUE or any other nations.

    • CHill says:

      I think comparison in sport is natural .. Especially when we get as few head to heads as we do with the men’a sprints .. When you wait for one meet a year to decide “bragging rights” you get a lot of comparison and speculation in between ..

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