Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sprinting - Track and Field's "Fringe" Area - Part One

IAAF Golden League Brussels

Sci Fi fans will be familiar the Fox show "Fringe". A show about a group of FBI agents that use "fringe" science to investigate unexplained phenomena occurring all over the world. Strange occurrences that boggle the mind that the Fringe Team finds a way to make sense of by the end of the show's hour.

I would love to have Agent Dunham and her crew come take a look at track and field and see if they can help me make sense of what has happened to sprinting in the past few years, as it too is suffering from a spate of unexplained phenomena lately! Consider what's happened in less than one Olympiad.

2006 was the last "off season" in the sport - a season without a major championship. Typically the off season is a time when athletes can "relax", rest, rehab injuries, experiment with new events - in short do the things that are hard to do when chasing after the elusive gold medal. In this case, 2006 serves as a very good marker for the sprint world.

At the beginning of the season the World Records in the 100 and 200 stood at 9.77 and 19.32 respectively. Asafa Powell had run 9.77 the season before and had taken down the "tainted" 9.78 of Tim Montgomery who had been busted for drug use in the BALCO investigation. As a matter of fact nearly everyone that had broken the 9.80 barrier to that point had been busted! Ben Johnson (9.79) was the poster boy for drug use as he had been busted in Seoul (1988) 3 days after winning gold. Justin Gatlin would run 9.77 in May of '06, and by July would be sidelined by a positive drug test. So of the 5 men that had broken the 9.80 barrier to through 2006, 3 (60%) were lost to the sport via drugs!

The 19.32 run by Michael Johnson on his way to gold in Atlanta would celebrate it's 10th anniversary in '06 and was being talked about as being "untouchable"! No wonder given that the fastest times we had seen in the New Millennium were an altitude assisted 19.71 and a 19.79 gold medal run in Athens! As a matter of fact sub20 clockings were rare indeed. Between 2000 and 2005 there were a total of 26 sub 20's - only 1 in 2001 and none in 2003. And 8 of them (31%) had been run in Sacramento of all locations - at Olympic Trials and NCAA champs meets!

In 2006 the man considered the gold standard of sprinting - Maurice Greene - was entering his first full season of retirement! Greene had completed his medal winning run with a bronze in Athens ('04) with yet another 9.8 performance (9.87). In fact, Greene had won gold in '97, '99, '00, and '01 with a string of times that in '06 was considered mind boggling - 9.86, 9.80, 9.87, 9.82! Throw in his bronze medal run and Greene averaged a staggering 9.84 in majors - equal to the WR at the start of his amazing string!

This was the sprint world at the start of 2006 - a scant 3 seasons ago. A world that began to show signs of change during this off season for the sport.

The 100 saw Asafa Powell equal the WR not once, but twice during the season. Where once there were two legal 9.7 clockings in all of history, Powell now had three of his own. He had another five 9.8's and added five more 9.9's for an even dozen races under 10.00 - unheard of! We also saw the emergence of Tyson Gay in this event with three 9.8's of his own and another three 9.9s.

But it was in the deuce where Gay lead the way, in what became a watershed season in the event. Because whereas running 19.8 had become a sign of greatness, in '06 we saw THREE men run under 19.70, as Xavier Carter (19.63), Wallace Spearmon (19.65), and Tyson Gay (19.68) all turned the trick in different venues. But it was Gay who dominated, with backup times of 19.70, 19.79 and 19.84 - a sequence of marks unheard of except in the record breaking season of Michael Johnson himself in 1996!

At the close of 2006 sprinting had reached a new level - at least at the top end. It was hard to imagine that it could get much better as we were already flirting right at the "ceiling" of performance - or so it seemed. And 2007 gave little indication that that assumption was wrong.

In the 100 we saw two more 9.8's from Gay, while Powell once again flirted with injuries yet post Worlds ran 9.74 AND 9.78 on the same day lowering the WR yet again - and threw in a 9.83 for good measure. In the 200 Tyson continued to rule with 19.62, 19.76 and 19.78 marks making him the most prolific 200 man in history to that point. He was joined at that "level" by Walter Dix (19.69) and Usain Bolt (19.75), as the sprints maintained the level of excellence it had achieved in '06.

But to paraphrase a line from "Independence Day", the best stuff started happening when the aliens landed! And that landing occurred in the Olympic season of 2008.

To Be Continued

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