Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Defining the Decade

IAAF Golden league

I've seen many "end of the decade" articles out there, but they all seem to have forgotten how many years are in a decade - blinded by the bright lights of the lightning Bolt's past two seasons. As spectacular as he has been there was much that took place between 2000 and 2009. So I've taken my own look at the decade that is closing.

There were many outstanding athlete's and performances over the decade. Michael Johnson finished out his career this decade, as did Maurice Greene, Ivan Pedroso, Noah Ngeny, Frankie Fredericks, Irina Privalova, Gabriella Szabo, Maria Mutola, Colin Jackson, Allen Johnson, Jonathon Edwards, Heike Dreshsler, Wilson Kipketer, and Javier Sotomayor - all among the true stars of the sport that had their final competitions in the early days of this decade.

And while Haile Gebrsellassie bridges the decades, moving up this decade to the marathon and adding another 2 world records there to the considerable resume he forged in the 90's, there were many new stars that emerged as Liu Xiang blossomed as did Dayron Robles. Yelena Isinbayeva grew to dominance in the pole vault with four golds and an amazing thirteen world records. Likewise Tirunesh Dibaba with six global titles and a world records, and compatriot and chief rival Meseret Defar with two titles and two world records. There was Dwight Phillips and Irving Saladino trading off dominance in the long jump; and Blanka Vlasic getting oh so close to the high jump record while having her own period of dominance. Allyson Felix became the first to win three World titles over 200 meters - male or female.

Then there was Hicham ElGuerrouj who dominated the 1500 for the better part of the decade - 2000 through 2004. He won Olympic gold, Olympic silver, two World titles, and just barely missed his own out of this world WR (3:26.00) with a 3:26.12. And Angelo Taylor who won the grueling 400H twice in the Olympics - once out of lane one. Then threw in a bronze medal in the open 400 in a World Championships just to underline his diversity. Roman Sebrle took the decathlon over 9000 points this decade (9026), and Haile Gebrsellassie took the marathon under 2 hours 4 minutes (2:03.59).

The decade saw many who will someday be considered among the best the sport has ever seen including Tyson Gay, Jeremy Wariner, Lashawn Merritt, Veronica Campbell, Blanka Vlasic, Tatyana Lebedeva, and Usain Bolt.

It was a decade full of stars, outstanding performances, and unfortunately scandal. But for me, looking at the decade in total, there is an athlete and two races that encompass all that the decade gave us.

Athlete of the Decade - Kenenisa Bekele - Men's 5000 & 10000 meters

The decade had 10 years in it, and looking at all ten seasons no one dominated like Kenenisa. Bekele started his winning ways way back in 2003 where he won 10000 gold and 5000 bronze in Paris. Since then he's been on a tear - 10000 gold and 5000 silver in Sydney; 10000 gold in Helsinki; 10000 gold in Osaka; and double gold in both events in Beijing and again this year in Berlin! Throw in two world records in the 10000 and another in the 5000 and you have the athlete that was clearly the athlete of the decade - and probably the most underappreciated!

He's so good that we now take him for granted. We forget that he took that first title away from none other than the great Haile Gebrsellassie himself in a stirring dual in Paris blitzing 26:49.57 to Gebr's 26:50.77! Six years later and five 10000 golds under his belt he closed out the decade in Berlin blazing around the track to a new CR 26:46.31- turning back the challenge of a new youngster that would be king as Zersenay Tadessee ran 26:50.12 only to watch the master put him in his place. Bekele seems to run the 5000 for fun, not running it as frequently in championships but with similar results as he won the final two titles of the decade in Beijing and Berlin.

He exits the decade on top in two events. The world record holder in both. And the most decorated athlete of the decade. This man got it done all decade and leaves it as scintillating as he entered - if still unappreciated.

Race of the Decade - Men's 100 meters at the World Championships in Edmonton - 2001

Yes Usain Bolt has run faster - several times in the past couple of seasons. For that matter so have Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell. But we're not talking about the fastest times here, we're talking about the race of the decade - and this race was scintillating, competitive, and was won not only with speed, but with perhaps the greatest display of heart ever shown on the track.

Bolt has been the clear choice to win each of his championship titles as his main rival has been injured entering both championship events. Maurice Greene entered Edmonton, however, looking to defend a title already twice won with a healthy rival taking dead aim at him. A rival that hated him enough to take to doping (we found out later) to try to take him down.

Greene brought his "A" game to the track and set sail towards another victory only to have his body fail him during the second half of the race, as he pulled up heading towards the finish. But showing the heart of a lion, Greene demonstrated why he dominated the sprints from the mid 90's through the early 2000's as he carried his injured leg to victory in 9.82 - the #3 time ever at the time!

Here was a race that had it all, and was won in perhaps the grittiest performance ever seen. For my money only Bert Cameron's 1984 Olympic 400 semi compares (45.05 after pulling up 150 meters into the race) to the courage and talent demonstrated by Greene in this race. It's easy to celebrate Bolt's scintillating speed, but Greene showed speed "plus" in this race.

Race that Defines the Decade - Women's 200 meters at the World Championships in Paris - 2003

As much as I love the sprints, they were at the heart of the majority of our problems this past decade. Unless you've been living in a bomb shelter - and even then you may have had satellite - you know the word "BALCO"! The San Francisco Bay Area Lab featuring Victor Conte, that was at the heart of the biggest doping scandal ever in our sport. Introducing the world to undetectable performance enhancing drugs for the first time, we heard about the "Cream" and the "Clear", as well as the term "non analytical positives"!

BALCO headlines dominated track and field throughout the decade, as we saw more high profile athletes than ever before go down in flames to doping scandals. Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Katerina Thanou, Kostas Kederis, and Justin Gatlin are just a few banned from the sport in the wake of drug scandals. That doesn't count those rumored to be doping or those getting minor time off from the sport.

The women's 200 in Paris was a microcosm of doping in the New Millennium. Consider that gold medalist Kelli White was one of those using BALCO products to dope and subsequently was caught, banned, and has never returned to the sport. Silver medalist Anastasia Kapachinskaya served her own doping ban, but has since returned to the sport. Bronze medalist Torri Edwards was banned in a later season for a product (Nikethamide) that she ingested inadvertently through another product - as determined by the IAAF. Her ban was reduced and she has returned to the sport, though she missed the '04 Games during her ban. Fifth placer Zhanna Block had doping accusations aimed at her throughout the decade - though never proven. And 6th placer Beverly McDonald just recently was awarded a medal from the '00 Games via the redistribution of medals from the Marion Jones scandal! So if you would like a primer on doping in the New Millennium, a bit of everything can be found in this race.

And sadly, in spite of all the excellence that we saw during the decade, it is the shadow of performance enhancing drugs that follows us into the next decade. As the New Millennium made the phrase "I've never failed a drug test" almost comical.

Even as we exit the decade we leave on the heals of doping . Five failed drug tests from Jamaican sprinters caused a stir and dominated headlines heading into Berlin. And in the UK the prospect of Dwain Chambers - banned via BALCO and back in the sport - competing in the Olympics in 2012 has a thumbs down from the British federation. Even though he still is able to compete elsewhere, having successfully served his ban. Showing the duplicity of the system that is currently in place.

The sport is doing its best to ride the exuberance of Usain Bolt and others into 2010 and a new decade. But until it strongly addresses the issue of performance enhancing drugs, questions will silently be whispered and it will be difficult to develop the type of revenue sources necessary to take the sport to the next level. So let's hope that over the next 10 years leadership can put together a system that will bring confidence to a sport that has become the poster boy of doping in this decade. Because, unfortunately, that is how we are seen by far too many.

Having defined this decade, let's make 2010 to 2019 the decade in which track and field repairs its image and creates a new era of glory. One where our stars are considered to be among the very best athletes in the world; television exposure is a regular occurrence and not a rarity; and we're as identifiable as golf and NASCAR in American homes. We have the talent among our athletes, we just need to create the right business model.

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