Tuesday, September 29, 2009

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

12th IAAF World Athletics Championships - Day Two

As we closed out the seasons of 2006 and 2007, sprinters Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay had taken the standards of greats Carl Lewis, Donovan Bailey, Maurice Greene, Frankie Fredericks, and Michael Johnson and cranked it up a notch making 9.8 more common place, 19.7 a winning time in a Major once more, and sub 20 something to look for when the best stepped on the track.

But the ceiling still appeared to be solidly in place on the ultimate performances of the sport, as 9.7 was still an anomaly and 19.6 had been 10 years in the waiting. But, as I said in Part One, the best stuff started happening when the aliens landed! And that landing occurred in the Olympic season of 2008!

The Olympics have always brought out the best in this sport's star athletes. After all, for the better part of a hundred years it was THE showcase for the sport - the moment that everyone lived for. It's the Olympics that gave us 29' 2.5" in the long jump, 46.78 in the intermediate hurdles and 19.32 in the 200 meters. So seeing "alien" performances on the greatest athletic stage in history was something that we've become accustomed to - the ultimate result of the best competing against the best. What we hadn't seen before is that level of performance as your common every day occurrence.

But it seems that "aliens" - or their earthly counterparts - had something different in mind, because we didn't have to wait until the Games to see otherworldly performances in 2008. As a matter of fact, we didn't have to wait for the US Trials, where previously we've seen a few out of this world performances. In '08 the fireworks began early, and from a completely unexpected source!

Usain Bolt had given the 100 a try in 2007, and a 10.03 showed that he indeed had potential over the distance. Another 10.03 in early March of '08 confirmed that the previous year's mark was indeed no fluke. But nothing could have prepared the world for the 9.76 BOMB he laid down in Kingston at the beginning of May! The second fastest time in history, achieved by a novice at the distance; with only two men in history previously under 9.80 without drugs; faster than the greatest ever (Maurice Greene); and only .02 off the WR! Surely Bolt must have been abducted by aliens in the off season and had his DNA altered!

If the alteration was in doubt, it was confirmed in New York on May 31st when Bolt once again went sub 9.8 breaking the WR with a stunning 9.72! The DNA had taken, Bolt was now confirmed to be of alien decent! Tyson Gay began to show some signs himself as he ran 9.85 for second after stating prior to the meet that he had yet to start his speed work!

So after completing his speed work, Gay went to the US Trials where HE became a member of the sub 9.80 club with a round of sprints that were staggering - 9.77 AR, 9.85w, 9.68w - apparently the Mothership made a stop in the US after leaving Jamaica! Alas, Tyson was injured during the meet, so we didn't get to find out just how well the DNA took in '08.

But Usain Bolt showed that his DNA was doing just fine after the abduction - thank you very much - as he was just at the beginning of his run through '08. In the months preceding the Games Bolt sauntered to a few 9.8's while he began to tune up in the 200 running 19.83, 19.76, and 19.67 heading into Beijing.

Then he landed in Beijing (apparently via the Mothership) and 9.69 and 19.30 seconds later, the sprinting landscape had been altered forever! Two world records and two Beamonesque performances! Never in the modern era had we seen one sprinter have such an impact on the record books. The 9.70 barrier had fallen with a thud, as Bolt actually seemed to toy with the field along the way! Never before had we seen a WR fall with such apparent ease.

And though he was clearly working for all he was worth in the 200, to have 19.32 taken down would by itself have placed Bolt among the hallowed names of the sport! All this from a man that had never broken 10.00 before the start of the year in the 100 meters and who struggled mightily behind Tyson Gay over 200 just one season before! Alien DNA indeed!

Tyson meanwhile, had one of the best seats in the house as he watched from the stands as Bolt went on his medal winning, record setting rampage. Only six weeks earlier he had run what was possibly the best sprint series ever in any type of championship, yet was reduced to watching Bolt take double gold in double record performances.

Suddenly the standards as they existed just two years prior in 2006 were a memory, as the sprint world wondered in collective awe at how what they had just witnessed was possible!

But apparently Tyson Gay has studied Fringe Science, because he he came back in 2009 and showed that perhaps the Mothership had indeed abducted him a year earlier. Delaying the start of his season slightly because of an injury, he started out awesomely. First a pair of 400 meter races saw him drop from a previous best of 47.08 down to 45.57 - world class in its own right. But then he began to sprint, dropping a 19.58 opener in the 200 that a) made him #3 all time with the #3 performance ever as only Bolt and Johnson (once each) had ever run faster, and b) was the fastest opening 200 by anyone ever in history! Another new standard had been set.

Then he turned his attention to the 100 meters where he churned out a 9.76w opener in New York! Gay's race was barely windy at +2.2, showing that his 9.77 from the previous year's Trials was not a fluke but a signal that he, like Bolt, had entered another level in sprinting. And if there was any doubt that Gay could run 9.7 again, Tyson put that to rest with a sizzling 9.75w in the opening round of the National championships. A tantalizing tease as Gay merely ran the round to lay claim to his bye into the World Championships in Berlin - as the reigning World Champion in both sprints.

Of course his alien counterpart had been busy as well, with a WR over the rarely run 150 meter sprint in May letting everyone know that he was still in form and was serious about retaining his status as the top sprinter on the planet. But Bolt was being more judicious in his appearances in '09 and didn't get his 100 meter season under way until he won the Jamaican national championship with an easy 9.86 - which gave him the world lead.

Gay countered with a 9.77 in Rome, and the competition for World's Fastest Human was on! Bolt opened his 200 season with a 19.59 (in the rain) then added a 9.79 and our two resident aliens were jabbing each other with times that only one other human in each event had ever been able to achieve! Imagine - we had never seen an actual 19.5 run before yet these aliens each had one for the season - and they were making 9.7 look more common place than even former WR holder Asafa Powell had ever done.

The anticipation for Berlin was high - even after the revelation that American alien Gay had a bad groin that would need surgery after the end of the season. As with everything else these two did in 2009, the 100 meter final in Berlin did not disappoint, as they continued to reset the standards. Tyson Gay getting a better than average start that kept him with Asafa Powell early as he accelerated away to a blazing 9.71 - on his way to the SILVER medal! That's right, silver, because Usain Bolt had the best start in the field and motored away to what I can only call an unbelievaBolt 9.58 - a time not even calibrated into video games!

Consider than in 38 years, from 1968 (the beginning of the Automatic Timing Era) thru 2006, we saw the 100 meter record drop .18 seconds. But in two seasons Usain Bolt, with only 10.03 to his credit entering 2007, dropped his own PR .45 seconds on his way to lowering the WR a staggering .19 - greater than nearly 4 decades of 100 meter sprinting had been able to achieve - unbelievaBolt!

The strain of Gay's silver was too much for his groin and he had to pull out of the 100 leaving Bolt to run solo as no one else was even in the same zip code. The only question left with Gay out of the race was how fast would Bolt run without any opposition. A question Bolt answered with a 19.19 run and another WR! Even as I write it the time doesn't look real, like a mistake was made.

Yet once again - for the 6th time in 2 years - Bolt had broken a sprint record! SIX TIMES. Carl Lewis did it once. Mo Greene once. Michael Johnson thrice. All three running for over a decade each in pursuit of sprint excellence. In two seasons Bolt has broken more sprint records than Lewis, Greene, and Johnson COMBINED! Let Fringe Science explain THAT!

By the way, Tyson Gay was not through. Sore groin and all he took to the track a few more times before he called it a day. And in Shanghai all he did was run 9.69 - equal to Usain Bolt's former WR set in Beijing! The time is the #2 time in history and #2 on the season. Gay's series of marks on the season was astounding with his top five marks, 9.69/9.71/9.77/9.88/9.93 (avg - 9.796) nearly equal to Bolt's, 9.58/9.79/9.81/9.86/9.89 (avg - 9786). The average of their top 5 marks on the season is better than anyone else in history except former WR holder Asafa Powell! And in the 200 where just two years previous we had only one mark under 19.6 seconds (the legendary 19.32) 2009 saw no less than FOUR such marks!

In but two seasons, the sprint world has been turned on its ear and altered forever. When Shawn Crawford ran 19.79 to win gold in Athens in 2004 there were many whispers that it had to be drugs that made him run so fast, so long had it been that we had seen anything under 19.80. By 2006, 3 men had been busted for drug use in their attempts to run 9.77, 9.78, and 9.79 with only two men left standing at 9.77 and 9.79. in the past two seasons we have seen TWELVE such marks including 3 UNDER 9.70!

Evolution? Much too short a time frame. Bolt's a freak? Well he's been the same size for the past 4 seasons as an adult. Maybe everyone else that came before these guys just didn't work hard enough? Yeah, that's why Carl Lewis won 9 Olympic gold medals; Mo Greene won every 100 meter gold medal between 1997 and 2001 and threw in a bronze for good measure in 2004; and Michael Johnson set WR's at both 200 AND 400 meters and spent the better part of a decade #1 ranked in either or both events. I've seen these reasons and others bandied about on the internet in an attempt to explain the otherworldly times we've seen these past two seasons - all falling short of the mark.

Me, I think I'm going to contact the writers of "Fringe" and see if they can come up with a plausible explanation. After all they specialize in unexplained phenomena. And what we've been witnessing these past two seasons is nothing like anything ever seen before on this planet!

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

Sunday, September 20, 2009

100's Sizzle in Shanghai - Gay 9.69, Jeter 10.64

12th IAAF World Athletics Championships - Day Two

The season is supposed to be winding down, but a couple of sprinters that didn't have the success they had hoped for in Berlin seem to be trying to make a point lately.

The promoters of the Shanghai Grand Prix wanted desperately to have Usain Bolt compete in this meet. But with sterling runs by Tyson Gay and Carmelita Jeter that put both solidly in the #2 position all time in the men's and women's 100 Shanghai had no problem turning out awesome sprint performance without Bolt.

One year ago Usain Bolt shattered the WR with his sizzling 9.69 dash in Beijing. A run that it was said no one else could duplicate - as Bolt was labeled an alien and the greatest sprinter ever. In Berlin Bolt dropped that mark to 9.58 but hot on his heels was Tyson Gay - taking a groin that has long needed surgery to an American Record 9.71.

If Bolt's 9.69 classified him as an alien, then the 5' 11" Gay must also have alien DNA as only Bolt's 9.58 in Berlin is faster than today's dash down the track by Gay. With Bolt himself having shut his season down, today's 100 was another showdown between the #'s 2 & 3 fastest sprinters in history - Tyson Gay (9.71) and Asafa Powell (9.72) - and the race did not disappoint.

Powell got a classic start, burying the field at the gun, moving out to a commanding lead, and looking for all intents and purposes to be sailing on his way to a solid victory. But, to add to the "alien" theme, Gay unable to utilize the "alien" 6' 5" sprint frame of Usain Bolt and his 12 foot strides, instead morphed into a human form of "The Road Runner", as he appeared to go "beep beep" before jetting right past the flying Powell as if Powell were a human version of Wile E Coyote! In the blink of an eye, Tyson went from a meter and a half down to a meter and a half up as he drove past the finish line, stopping the clock at 9.69! Powell once again appeared to break stride at the end in defeat, yet still finished in 9.85 - a sign of just how fast the now "alien" Gay was moving in full flight!

Carmelita Jeter was also a vision of speed in Shanghai as somehow during the month of September she found a way to channel the 1988 spirit of FloJo herself. As only FloJo has ever had the kind of back to back runs we've seen from Jeter this month as she followed up her 10.67 in Greece with today's 10.64 bomb in Shanghai! Unlike Gay who gave up ground at the start of his run, however, Jeter hit the kind of start that could lead to greatness. Starting even with the field she simply began pulling away once she came up out of her drive phase. And with every step thereafter she opened up more ground on her competition which included former World 100 meter champion Veronica Campbell Brown. Campbell Brown ran what would be a sterling 10.89 under any other circumstances, yet today was well beaten behind Jeter's hot dash!

Jeter's 10.64 put her ahead of none other than one Marion Jones. And aside from Flo's 10.49, only times of 10.61 and 10.62 by FloJo herself in 1988 are better than Jeter's super dash! And given the long held belief by many that it was far too windy in Indy to produce a reading of +0.0 at any point during the first two days of the Trials that year, this run may have been a couple centimeters away from being the best 100 ever run!

Of course, the problem that both Gay and Jeter have right now is that the next opportunity to run for gold isn't until 2011 - as next year is an "off season" without a major championship. Gay has had the unfortunate luck to have been injured now, for two Majors in a row - though he was still able to garner silver with his 9.71 dash. Jeter, on the other hand, has not been able to master her start in a Major - which has been the big difference between her 10.83/10.90 runs in Berlin and her 10.67/10.64 runs in Greece and China!

So as fast as both are running, Usain Bolt and Shelly Ann Fraser possess the titles! And though I'm sure we may see a few "money" races in 2010, not until Daegu in 2011 will either have the opportunity to wrest a title away from the Jamaican champions. Given what I've seen during and after Berlin, 2010 could be full of fireworks! My guess is that we are just beginning to get a glimpse of what may yet be in store from both.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Post Berlin Review - US Middle Distance

IAAF Golden league

Post Berlin Review - US Middle Distance

For years, actually a couple of decades now, the US hopes in Majors has rested on the shoulders of the sprints, hurdles, and relays. In Berlin, we still garnered the majority of our medals from the speed events. But for the first time in a very long time our middle and long distance corps showed signs of life - of promise for the future.

Surprisingly, we still showed the greatest weakness in the lesser of the distance events - the 800 meters. On the women's side, Maggie Vessey showed that experience counts as much as talent when it comes to running at this level, as she failed to make the final running only 2:03.55 in her semi after running an outstanding 1:57.84 during the summer (still the #3 time on the season). Despite her failure in Berlin, we know that we have a world class half miler in our women's ranks capable of competing with the best given some more seasoning and confidence in her ability. And dare I say that the confidence will be MOST important for Maggie.

On the men's side, however, while Nick Symmonds has the heart of a lion, he just doesn't have the speed necessary to make his way onto the medal stand. And in spite of his ability, Khadevis Robinson is just not the guy to lead the way. After watching Berlin, and some post Berlin races, I'm convinced that the only way that we are going to get back to being competitive in this event will be to convince a few quarter milers to move up a notch - a la Alberto Juantorena!

Our best 800 men have almost always had solid base quarter miler speed. Past US greats like James Robinson, Mark Everett, and David Mack were all athletes that were capable of running 44 seconds on the 4x4 and Everett had a best of 44.59 in the open 400. We desperately need to get back to that type of 800 runner if we are to have any chance of competing on the world stage. I would love to see someone like Darold Williamson, whose better days in the 400 are clearly behind him, give the event a shot - as he has the speed, the build, and I believe the temperament to make the transition work. Would be better to be a star in a new event, than a fading memory in an old one.

Conversely, the 1500 showed a lot of promise this year. In Berlin, both the men's and women's squads had THREE finalists - THREE! We've never had three women in a global final of any kind and you have to go back to 1932 to find three American men in a global final. That's three quarters of a century - ancient history in track and field!

And this time around we scored medals for both the men and women - a bronze in each. Stunning achievements in an event where outside of Bernard Lagat, we have been beaten like a drum by the rest of the world since the early 90's on the men's side and throughout this decade on the women's side.

The most outstanding leap into international competitiveness occurred on the women's side where we had an amazing three women break the 4 minute barrier as Anna Willard (3:59.38),Jennifer Barringer (3:59.90) and Christin Wurth Thomas (3:59.98) all turned the trick. Add in Shannon Rowbury (4:00.81) and we had four women among the top 10 fastest in the world this season! That equals the number of American women in the top 10 this year in the 100 meters, and one better than the three American women among the top 10 in the 400! Quite an achievement!

So 2009 may be the year that we began to turn the corner on the middle distances for the women. Especially if we can get Jenny Barringer and Anna Willard to focus here instead of the steeplechase. No offense to the steeplechase, where both could have bright futures as they are extremely talented young ladies. But the future is now for both if they focus in this area. As a matter of fact, Willard has the ability to be one great 800/1500 doubler. And while Vessey was the fastest American time wise, Willard is our most competitive. And I have no doubt that if she were to focus here we would see her running times in the 1:57 range as well - and doing so with regularity.

The men still have some development to do. We are showing much promise in the 1500 - and that's without discussing young German Fernandez who spent some time with the longer distances, but (as with Willard and Barringer) who could be our brightest hope over 1500 meters. The Oklahoma Sttate frosh ran 3:39.00/3:55 early this year before giving his attention to the 5000. He has the "guts" to be extremely competitive here with some focus.

The 800 for men is where we have some serious work ahead of us. Rudisha and Kaki are already at 1:42 and look to be ready to possibly go even faster. They are young, gifted and extremely talented. We have to start looking for talent to compete with THAT level of half miler. Which, to me, means that ultimately we need to convince some quarter milers to move up and take the challenge!

But the good news is overall that we are in a position to make finals at this point. Now we need to work to challenge for the top spot on the podium.

Monday, September 14, 2009

World Athletics Final - Day Two

IAAF World Athletics Final - Day Two

Every once in a while you get something unexpected at a meet like this, and in Greece it came in the form of Carmelita Jeter's 10.67 dash down the track. How good was Jeter's run? Well, for starters, it was the 5th fastest time in history. Only Marion Jones (once) and FloJo (three times) ever ran faster. And when taken into account that Jeter's time came with a slight negative wind, and all but FloJo's incredible 10.49 came with winds of 1.0 mps or greater, it may well have been the second best performance ever only behind the WR itself! And take note that Marion's single better performance also came at the altitude of Johannesburg South Africa.

In Greece second place went to Olympic and World Champion Shelly Ann Fraser in an outstanding 10.89, yet she was barely in the picture! Such was Jeter's dominance in this race. Out well, but still behind Fraser who typically owns the start, Jeter began a drive at 30 meters that never ended as she blew past the field and simply kept going to the tape. With nary a waver in her stride she eclipsed and outstanding field - leaving the 5th (Fraser) and 7th (Kerron Stewart) fastest women in history looking very mortal in her wake. In short, Jeter's performance was nothing short of Boltian in nature!

Mr. Bolt was in attendance too - once again destroying another 200 field. This time tying Tyson Gay's meet record of 19.68. Which I found both ironic and interesting. Because in all of Bolt's record breaking in the event the past two seasons, the two have not met in the event since the Osaka final in 2007 (won by Gay) as Gay did not compete in the event in either Beijing or Berlin due to injury. Leaving Bolt to terrorize the rest of the world at will - something he has done quite well as his victory here was once again a half second (.53)!

After the performances of Jeter and Bolt, everything else paled in comparison. Solid competition as we had on day one, and close in many cases. But day two belonged to Jeter and Bolt.

For full results click here. A great end to the season. While there are other meets left, things are clearly winding down, and this was the last large gathering of elite athletes for the season!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

World Athletic Final - Day One

IAAF World Athletics Final - Day 1

It's been a long season and it's starting to show, as times and marks on the first day of the World Athletic Final were generally a notch below what we saw at the World Championships in Berlin. While the marks were a bit off however, the competition itself was as good as it gets, as the world's best went toe to toe and continued to push each other to the line in Thesseloniki Greece.

None were any closer than the women's 200 where World 200 champion Allyson Felix squared off against World 400 champion Sanya Richards. 100 meter speedster Kerron Stewart (JAM) lead off the turn but that's where the strength of the long sprinters kicked in as first Felix, then Richards surged down the straight with both hitting the finish nearly simultaneously! A review of the tape found only 7 thousandths of a second between the two with Felix prevailing as both clocked 22.29.

Such was the competition in Greece. Similar situation in the men's 3000 as a slow pace saw the kickers prevail in the end as first Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) and Deresse Mekonen (ETH) then Bernard Lagat (US) screamed around the final lap with Bekele flashing down the finish straight with Lagat in hot pursuit coming up on the inside of he track - Bekele holding him off 8:03.79 to 8:04.00 completing the final lap in 52 seconds!

And perhaps the most exciting race of the day was the final event on the track - the men's 100 meters. Asafa Powell (JAM) got a classic start burying the field at the gun. Tyson Gay (US) meanwhile looked to be stuck in his blocks a good meter and a half down - where he stayed through 60 meters. But then Gay found another gear and with every step closed on Powell until just before the line as he surged through to edge the Jamaican 9.88 to 9.90!

Of course there were some events where individuals showed their dominance over their peers. In the men's shot put Christian Cantwell (US) seems to have gotten the monkey off his back with his Berlin win as here all of his legal throws eclipsed those of second placer Tomasz Majewski. His winning mark of 22.07m (72' 5") the second best mark of the season.

Then there was David Rudisha (KEN) fresh off his 1:42.01. He won here in 1:44.85, well off his seasons best, but it was the dominant fashion in which he won that was impressive. Not since Wilson Kipketer was setting records and winning with ease in the mid to late 90's have I seen a half miler control races so easily. Whether a 49 second opener as in his 1:42 effort or a 53 second opener today, Rudisha's long fluid stride seems to be custom made for the 800 meters. Only 20 years old, Rudisha could be the one to challenge the exciting marks left behind by Kipketer.

It was a great day of competition overall including solid performances by Lashawn Merritt (US), Britttany Reese (US), and Yelena Isinbayeva (RUS) among others. Full results can be found here. Tomorrow's competition will highlight Usain Bolt in the 200, Kenenisa Bekele in the 5000, and Dwight Phillips in the long jump. Should be another very exciting day of competition.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Athletics Final will see last gathering of top athletes

12th IAAF World Athletics Championships - Day Six

There will be other meets to close out the season, but none will attract the number of top athletes that this weekend's World Athletics Final will host.

With only the top athletes in each event invited to participate in a single final, the Athletics Final is much closer to what a real World Championships should be like - just the best against the best. As such it will make for a very exciting weekend of track and field - the last of the year.

Most fans will be looking to get their last look at double world champion Usain Bolt, who this weekend will contest only the 200 meters. But there will be stars aplenty including:

David Rudisha (KEN). World Champion at 800 meters, Rudisha just became the #4 performer of all time with his 1:42.01 in Rieti.

Yelena Isinbayeva (RUS). Went from clearing no heights in Berlin to setting a new WR in the pole vault with her 5.06 clearance in Zurich.

Kenenisa Bekele (ETH). World Champion in the 5000 and WR holder in both the 5000 and 10000 meter events. Bekele will be competing over 3000 meters and 5000 meters in Greece.

Blanka Vlasic (CRO). World Champion in the high jump Vlasic became the #2 all time jumper with her 2.08 clearance in Zagreb - a mere .01 cm off of Stefka Kostadinova's 22 year old WR!

Sanya Richards (US). World Champion in the 400 and twice now under 49 seconds this season. Already #7 all time, Richards looks ready to perhaps move up a notch or two on the list.

Dwight Phillips (US). World Champion in the long jump and =#5 all time in the event. Final opportunity for Phillips to shoot for the magical 29 foot barrier. Having won gold in Berlin perhaps we'll see more attempts and a bit of abandon from Phillips in Greece.

And in a few events we get some interesting match ups, among them:

Tyson Gay (US) and Asafa Powell (JAM). The #2 & #3 fastest 100 meter men of all time (and silver and bronze medalists at Worlds) square off for the final time. Gay has dominated the matchup this season, but a horrible start lead to a Powell victory in Brussels. Last chance for both to get closer to Bolt's record time.

Allyson Felix (US), Sanya Richards (US) and Kerron Stewart (JAM). World 200 champion Felix, meets World 400 champion Richards, with 10.75 100 woman Stewart thrown in for good measure! Sub22 should be in the mix with Stewart setting the early pace. A time of 21.74 or better moves into the top 10!

Melaine Walker (JAM) and Lashinda Demus (US). The World Champion and runner up are also #2 and #4 on the all time list. And with one last shot at each other its quite possible we could see a change or two to that list before the end of the weekend.

While Bolt will most certainly be the headliner, it's been easy to forget this season that in his shadow have been some of history's best performers in their events. I hope that in their presentation of the event, that announcers and TV folk make sure to pay homage to ALL the great athletes that will be in attendance! We need to shine a light on all the excellence this sport has to offer in order for the sport to move forward and take its rightful place as one of the greatest showcases of talent on the planet!

Should be an exciting two days of competition this weekend. Entry lists can be found here. World Athletics Final website here.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Golden League comes to an end with Triple winners

IAAF Golden league

Friday's Golden League meet in Brussels marked the end of the Golden League which next year will morph into the new bigger Diamond League. This year's version had three winners: Sanya Richards, Yelena Isinbayeva, and Kenenisa Bekele.

Each punctuated their winning a share of the million dollar jackpot with sterling wins. Richards continued her domination of the women's 400 by setting another yearly best. This time in 48.83 - a world leader and her second fastest time ever. Richards had no trouble with the field as she stuck to her now familiar race plan, blasting away around the second turn and running clear and free down the finish straight to win in 1.6 seconds over Christine Ohuruogu.

The official results say that the pole vault competition was closer for Yelena Isinbayeva. But for Isinbayeva she simply came in at the winning height and cleared before attempting a new world record! She failed in the attempt, but can be forgiven since she already set a record the week before in Zurich! The single attempt clearance, however, showed that Berlin (where she failed to clear a height) was merely a blip on her career, as she's come back strong as ever in her competitions since.

Kenenisa Bekele, on the other hand, has not suffered from any blips of any kind as he simply races and wins whether it's in a major competition or a meet on the Circuit. In Brussels Bekele was pressed by a field that saw 7 men run under 13 minutes (including American Matt Tegenkamp) but his win was really never in doubt as he cranked out a 12:55.31 victory. And while Usain Bolt has garnered most of the headlines this summer, Bekele has quietly gone about showing that he just may be the greatest distance runner in history. No mean feat given that he took over from one Haile Gebrsellassie!

We did get a Usain Bolt sighting by the way, as he won the 200 meters going away in 19.57 - a mark only he and Michael Johnson have better and only Tyson Gay (19.58) has approached among his contemporaries.

Jeremy Wariner found his way to the winners circle without Lashawn Merritt in the race. But his 44.94 win suggests that there is much work ahead for he and coach Clyde Hart if he is to get back to the form that found him the master of the event in the middle of the decade.

Another who found his way to victory was Asafa Powell in the 100 meters. Minus Usain Bolt and with a clearly ailing Tyson Gay not in form, Powell ran 9.90 for the win, with Tyson Gay out of it from the beginning of the race, still finding his way to second in 10.00.

As usual in Brussels the competition was solid from beginning to end, and served as a fitting end to the Golden League. With new venues on continents other than Europe, the Diamond League promises much, but the memories of the Golden League, like those here in Brussels, will be rich and lasting.

For full results click here.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

World Champs Review - US Sprint Relays

12th IAAF World Athletics Championships - Day Seven

Two dropped batons in Beijing lead to the categorization of the US efforts in China as a disaster and panic ensued! Not enough medals were won. The Relay Program was a waste of money and scrapped. Meetings were held. "Project 30" was written. New positions created and hires made.

Then we went to Berlin and neither sprint team made the final - and adding insult to injury we won one fewer medal than in Beijing!

But THIS time we're told we're on the right track! No worries, just misfortune on the relay front. Missed it by "that much" as Maxwell Smart would have said! I'm sorry, but the responses I've seen post Berlin are as comical as Maxwell Smart himself. We missed by a mile amid problems galore. For the first time in the history of the world the US 4x1's for both men AND women were not in a final in a major for TWO consecutive championships in a row - and when you look at it it's really no accident!

Our sprint relays have been abject failures since Osaka, and that failure when you look at it is by design. We are not set up for success and the best thing that we had - a Relay Program - was scrapped and replaced with absolutely NOTHING. A complete disaster. No relay camps, no gathering of the athletes together at any one time prior to Worlds. No team building.

In short a basic lack of fundamentals. Which seems to be a recurring thread when it comes to our relay teams. For example, while the spin with regards to our troubles in Berlin has been "bad luck", if you go back and take a look at replays of both relays you'll see an important four letter word missing - tape. Tape, as in no markings on the track! Markings as in marks to let you know when to take off when your teammate is bringing you the baton.

I'm surprised that Carl Lewis, who was brought in to help formulate Project 30, never mentioned marking the track, or that Jon Drummond, coach of Tyson Gay the American Record holder in the 100, has never mentioned this to the coaching staff. Because if you go back and look at video of their relay record runs - or any of their relay runs - you will see white tape all over the track! Matter of fact I remember an incident where Leroy Burrell and an official argued over how much tape he could put on the track! And dare I say that relay coach Harvey Glance used to mark the track back in the day!

Because in Relay 101 - around middle school - you're taught to mark the track so that you know when to take off as the incoming runners barrel in! It takes a while to get the timing down, but with "practice" you develop the right distance and THAT becomes your mark. At the elite level this should be somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 feet. The idea being to keep the baton moving at maximum velocity around the track while executing the exchanges!

Instead what we see from our "elite" relay squads are athletes taking 6 steps and throwing their hands back to wait for the baton. Which is why we saw athletes constantly running up on each other; Darvis Patton touching the baton BEFORE the zone of all things; and Muna Lee gyrating her body around trying to find the baton - contorting enough to injure herself in the process! No accidents here - failure by design!

Instead of calling for the elimination of the Relay Program, the committee should've recommended continuation - but with some modifications. The first modification being a return to an emphasis on the teaching of fundamentals. And the best way to fix that is to hire someone who works on relays for a living - a collegiate coach. Pick a successful relay program - Florida, Florida State, LSU, Texas, Texas AM - and contract with the coach to conduct a clinic. This clinic could serve as the primary relay camp. The coach would work with the athletes on the fundamentals, and could work very closely with the head coach on final team selection and athlete placement.

Which brings me to the second change in the old Relay Program - one coach, one voice. Whomever is chosen to be the coach of the relays should be the final word in how things are done. Not relay by committee. Not input from athlete's personal coaches, managers, trainers, or even the athletes themselves. If you agree to relay duty you agree to run when and where needed - end of discussion! Nothing about I (the athlete) or my athlete will only run "x" leg - then maybe the relay isn't for you. Nothing about athlete "x" will only run certain rounds or with certain other individuals! This is the relay. It is a team sport, check your egos at the door. And if your coach or business manager have a problem, then perhaps the relay isn't for them. But we need to get back to fundamentals, and that means one man, one voice. If he fails, he's the one held accountable and maybe he's not brought back again. But its difficult to build a structure with several architects, all of whom have a different vision. As good as the individual architects might be, you still end up with a mess - and that's what we continue to get from our relay squads!

Now I could talk about a pet peeve that I've heard from both athletes and coaches regarding the relays and that is the topic of politics! But I think that putting one person in charge, giving them autonomy, and restricting outside input, should take care of the politicking that most people seem to feel lies at the heart of our problems. I agree that this is a major problem, but I feel that One Coach, One Voice, should alleviate that situation.

Just as I feel we need a return to TEACHING the BASICS to the athletes. Because, quite frankly, while the assumption is that they are "elite" and should know, many more athletes are going pro after a season or two, or skipping the collegiate process altogether. And may not been part of a high school program with enough support to put together a proper relay. We are getting more youngsters without the experience we need, as well as vets who just haven't done it for a while.

Unfortunately we have the talent to put together almost any combination of individuals and produce a relay team that can run 37-high - giving us the mistaken illusion that its not that difficult to put a team together. But as I said in analyzing the sprints themselves, that mark is just not sufficient any more. That worked when the record was around mid 37. But it is now at 37.10, and to be honest should've been under 37 seconds years ago! Jamaica, who didn't break 38 seconds until two years ago is now the WR holder, and Trinidad just ran 37.62! We are still the deepest sprint squad on the planet and yet we were leading off with a hurdler as if we were France or some country with only 1 decent sprinter to our name! Everyone else is improving and WE are going backwards. I mean we ran 37.73 nearly TWENTY YEARS AGO - its nothing to get excited about.

So we HAVE to be smarter about constructing our relay teams. And that starts with a coach that understands the relays, and can teach a squad the basics. Like how to mark the track to get maximum baton movement. How to run outside your lane when the outgoing runner is going to be running a bend. Simple things that are the difference between successful passes and potential records, and the kind of frustration that we have suffered two majors in a row now.

To paraphrase an old saying Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. We still have the talent to win gold. We sorely lack the planning to do so.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Post Berlin - Zurich and Gateshead

IAAF Golden League

With the season winding down, we have just a handful of meets left to the season. The best of the past few days have been Zurich and Gateshead. And clearly the level of competition in Berlin has taken a toll on the athletes as the level of results has dropped dramatically.

All save for one Yelena Isinbayeva who clearly had something to prove after her performance in Berlin. An overwhelming favorite in Berlin who went home with nothing, Isinbayeva came to Zurich and merely set a new WR clearing 5.06m (16'9")!

And finally getting the monkey off her back has seemed to do wonders for Sanya Richards as she continued to dominate the competition in the 400 and set a world leader in Zurich with her 48.94 victory well ahead of World 200 champion Allyson Felix who ran a nice 49.83 of her own.

The distance runners continued to shine in Zurich as Kenenisa Bekele ran to an outstanding 12:52.32 world leader in the 5000, but the real headline was Dathan Ritzenhein fighting his way to third and a new American Record 12:56.21 finally taking down Bob Kennedy's 12:58.21 from 1996!

Elsewhere in Zurich we got another glimpse of Usain Bolt, but his 9.81 win in the 100 seemed to lack the "oomph" of Berlin - the Bolt Bar has been set high. But in the women's 100 Carmelita Jeter defeated her Berlin conquerors with another solid 10.85 to win going away with Kerron Stewart well back in 11.04 for second.

In Gateshead strong winds negated any really fast performances but we got strong wins from several American athletes starting with Tyson Gay with a 10.15 in the 100. Gay has one or two races left before he gets surgery on his injured groin and has vowed to come back strong next year. His female counterpart, Carmelita Jeter once again ran away from the women's 100 field - running 11.07 and winning by .19.

World champions Allyson Felix, Dwight Phillips and Lashawn Merritt continued their winning ways in Gateshead with modest performances. While Shawn Crawford, Nick Symmonds, David Payne, Andra Manson and Christin Wurth Thomas all found their way to the victory stand. Making this a pretty good meet for Americans.

For results go to Zurich and Gateshead