Monday, April 6, 2009

No Need To Panic Over US Sprinting

Now that the season is truly under way, it seems like a good time to look ahead at what the season may hold in store. But to look ahead I am going to take a glance backward, because it seems that a lot of unnecessary panic was generated after Beijing.

Panic because we did not do as well as we thought we would. So much so that a task force was put together to evaluate what is wrong with the sport here in the US! While I think that an evaluation of the sport here is definitely warranted, Beijing shouldn't have been the catalyst. Why? Because Beijing was NOT unusual.

If we are being honest, the reason that Beijing was considered a "failure" rests on the shoulders of the sprints, hurdles, and relays - because those are the events that carry us internationally on the medal stand. I'm not discounting the field events where we tend to do well in areas like the shot put, and the jumps. But it’s the speed events where we routinely have an advantage in international competition. One need look no further than the previous World Championships in '07 where we won all three men's sprints; were second in the short hurdles and won the long hurdles; and won both relays. On the women's side, silver in the 100, gold in the 200, and victories in the short hurdles and both relays augmented the count.

Looking at Beijing, "failure" must be being defined as "not as many gold medals" because on the men's side we got a bronze in the 100; silver and bronze in the 200; swept the 400 AND the 400 hurdles; and won the 4x4 relay. And once again the women did a nice job of augmenting the medal count with a silver in the 100, bronze in the 400, and gold medals in the short hurdles and 4x4 relay. Not as good as '07 to be sure, but certainly not a reason to hit the panic button. Especially when you take into consideration that Double World Champion Tyson Gay spent the summer injured and didn't race until the opening round of the Olympic Games. Twice World Champion Allyson Felix was clearly hurting, and running with a discernable limp at the Games. And multiple Olympic and World medalist, Terrence Trammell, was felled by a hamstring injury in the first round of the 110 hurdles.

So, given that we went into Beijing rather beat up, our athletes performed admirably and did a respectable job - and do not deserve the "failure" label that so many have ascribed to them including our governing body. Rather than lay blame on them for their "failure" as the Task Force Report has done, our governing body should look to help them. And the best help that could be given is to provide more time between the Trials/National Championships and each year's Major Championship. Because the six weeks they had last year - and will have again this year - is just not enough time for our athletes to rest, recharge, and regroup between the two toughest, week long meets of the year! The fact that our troops had such a drop in performance with such short rest says as much about how clean our program has become as any drug test results could, and our leaders should reward them by giving them more rest in between the Trials and Major competitions.

The other issue when it comes to defining success or failure is that quite often the 100 meters is used as the barometer for determining success. Despite sweeping two events (men's 400 and 400IH) and gaining two medals in the 200, Beijing was still considered an abject failure! Why? Because we lost the 100 meter gold! Well, for those of us that have followed the sport since before the New Millennium, that's not unprecedented. Since automatic timing became the norm at the Games back in 1968, we lost the 100 meter gold at Olympics and World Championships in 1972, 1976, 1980 (boycott), 1987 and 88 (both later forfeited), 1992, 1993, 1995 and 1996 before losing it again in Beijing! So 100 meter gold has not been the "lock" that everyone seems to want to make it seem.

Of course, the reason why everyone seems to think that we "own" the event is that those losses have been followed by wins by champions that have gone on to dominate the event for several years - namely Carl Lewis ('83, '84, '87, '88) and Maurice (Mo) Greene ('97, '99, 00, 01)! Add championships by Justin Gatlin ('04, '05) and Tyson Gay ('07) and its easy to understand why it seems like the 100 meters is the property of the United States.

Having said this, what do I think our prospects are for the sprints this year? In a word - excellent! First off, after his performances in Beijing everyone has assumed that double gold was a foregone conclusion for Jamaica's Usain Bolt. Those with short memories forget, however that Tyson Gay had double doubles of 9.84/19.62 and 9.85/19.76 in 2007 winning the Trials and Worlds while Bolt himself was struggling to run 19.92 in Osaka. People also forget that six weeks before Bolt won in Beijing Gay was running 9.77 and 9.68w in his quarterfinal and final at the Trials before he was felled by injury in the 200. Taking nothing from Bolt, but Tyson Gay was clearly in the same class as Bolt prior to his injury.

Gay is back this year, and has a bye in both the 100 and 200 for Berlin as the defending champion in both sprints. This means that Gay will not have to peak for our National Championships and can focus his attention on Berlin - at least HE will be rested coming into Berlin. His supporting cast for Berlin should be sterling, starting with Walter Dix who took double bronze in Beijing after going through the rigors of the collegiate season and NCAA Championships, the Olympic Trials and the Games themselves. Dix is out of college now and should be more rested this year than last.

Joining them in the 100 could be any of a number of young men that entered new territory last year by running under 10.00 for the first time. Among them should be Darvis (Doc) Patton (9.89), Travis Padgett (9.89) Ivory Williams (9.94), Rodney Martin (9.95) and Mark Jelks (9.99). Making us as deep as we've ever been in the short sprint, and that is before adding long sprinters Wallace Spearmon (9.96) Xavier Carter (10.00) and HS and WJR setter Jeff Demps (10.01) now a freshman in college.

In the 200 we have four of the seven fastest men in history in Gay (19.62), Carter (19.63), Spearmon (19.65) and Dix (19.69). And when you consider that Gay, Carter, and Spearmon all suffered through serious and minor injuries last year, its amazing that we STILL put three men into the Olympic final! All should be healthy this year and joined by Shawn Crawford ('04 gold, '08 silver, 19.79 PR) for easily the best 200 meter line up on the planet.

The 400 is the property of Lashawn Merritt and Jeremy Wariner. Merritt the new king with his gold in Beijing and Wariner the man that won everything from 2004 until last year - and looking to return to the top of the podium! 2007 medalist and Beijing 400IH gold medalist Angelo Taylor (44.05) could round things out here, as could Xavier Carter (44.53), a former collegiate champion who may spend more time in the event this year. Add 400 IH Kerron Clement who has a 44.41 PR in the 400 and is the indoor WR holder (44.57). Whatever the combination, we're as strong as ever in the quarter mile.

On the women's side Beijing was just a bad meet (possibly because of that short rest period) because speed was not the issue! Coming into this season Torrie Edwards (10.78), Muna Lee (10.85), Lauryn Williams (10.88), Allyson Felix (10.93), Marshevet Hooker (10.93), Lisa Barber (10.95), Sanya Richards (10.97), Carmelita Jeter (10.97) and Mechelle Lewis (10.97) all return for the 2009 season - and Felix and Richards run the long sprints! We are deeper than ever in the 100 and just need to keep these women healthy AND rested heading into Berlin.

In the deuce the story is similar with Allyson Felix (21.81), Muna Lee (22.01), Sanya Richards (22.17), Lauryn Williams (22.27), Porsha Lucas (22.29), and Marshavet Hooker (22.34) all back and looking to improve on last year's performances.

The women's 400 could be the most interesting of all the sprints - men or women. That's because we have arguably the two best in the world in Sanya Richards (48.70) and Allyson Felix (49.70). Sanya has dominated the event the second half of this decade. That is except in the Championship meets. Dominant on the circuit, Sanya has had difficulty when the lights have shined brightest. The only person that has shown the ability to take her down outside of a major is Allyson Felix - who has spent the majority of her time in the 100/200. though she has spent her time in the shorter sprints, Felix has raced well in the 400 when she has run it and has lead our 4x4 team in the last couple of Majors. If we could get these two ladies together in a Major I have no doubt that they would do much damage to the rest of the world! Behind these two, Natasha Hasting (49.84) and Mary Wineberg (50.24) have been our best. And together with our 400 hurdlers have put together solid 4x4 squads.

Given all this young talent, I see no reason to believe that US sprinting has fallen off the map or is in any danger. We've seen blips/poor meets before. The good thing is that these "failures" have made us stronger. Sprinters like Carl Lewis, Maurice Greene, Evelyn Ashford, Gail Devers and others have always risen to step into the void and become dominant forces. And there is no reason to believe that we don't possess talented enough athletes to once again resume the top of the podium. After all, its only been a one year lay off!

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