Wednesday, December 30, 2009
I remember looking forward to the first World Championships back in 1983. We had boycotted the 1980 Olympics, so the last time the US had participated in a global championships had been the Games of 1976! So it had been an eternity for track fans salivating for a global event.
Of course, to that point, the only guide that we had for such an event was the Olympics themselves. So that's what we got in 1983, the Olympics minus all of the other events, as the World championships emulated the Olympics in every way. The same number of participants per nation; "A" standards and "B" standards; four year cycle between events - in short another Olympic Games for track and field fans. But for a fan base that had traditionally gone four years between events, and was now looking at nine and desperate for our track and field "fix" it was perfect!
So it was that from 1983 to 1991 we had our track "Games" preceding the Olympic Games themselves - sort of a preview of the Games if you will. Then in 1993, we tweaked the World Championships and added another rendition following the Games. This gave us a three year cycle of Worlds/Olympics/ Worlds - the cycle that is still in place today.
Finally in 1997 we added the "bye" which enabled defending champions the right to entry into Worlds without having to earn a spot via their country's national championships - done in large part to facilitate getting double WR holder Michael Johnson into the meet following injury. This was the first real deviation that was taken away from duplicating the Games themselves - and remains the one thing that makes the World Championships "different" than the Olympics.
With the next World Championships not occurring until Daegu in 2011 (2010 is the off year in the cycle) I think its time for the sport to take a good look at making our Championships a "true" championships meet. With the revival of the ancient Games by Pierre de Coubertin, the format of the Olympics was created to facilitate bringing together the nations of the world to participate in an event based on brotherhood and good will - a global gathering as opposed to a championship event. Of course, sport was a great vehicle to do this and over time with the distribution of medals, the Olympics have become the worlds largest global "championships".
With only three athletes per nation being invited to the Games, however, the actual competition pool is greatly diluted, as not every country has high level competitors in each event. Jamaica for example, while strong in the sprints, has little to contribute in the distances. In contrast, Kenya and Ethiopia are dominant in the distances, but have nothing to contribute in the sprints. The result is that many athletes that are among the best in the world in their events are left at home because only three from each country are allowed to compete.
For example, of the top ten male steeplechasers on the clock this season, six were Kenyan - only three got the invite to Worlds. Of the top twenty one performers on the clock in the men's 100 meters nine were American, seven Jamaican, and five were from other countries - ten were left at home and did not get to compete in the World Championships.
Similar scenarios / numbers are played out event by event on both the men's and women's sides of the ledger. The bottom line is this: as a vehicle to get the World involved in athletics we do just as good a job as the Olympic Games; as a vehicle to present to the world the best of the best in a true championship setting we fall severely short! Because we leave far too many of our best athletes at home, and it is not uncommon to see athletes that did not get the invite to Worlds dominate others that did in competitions outside of the World Championships.
The Olympics do a fantastic job of providing the world with an arena where everyone can come and "play" in the name of brotherhood and good will. It is time for our sport to take the next step in our development and provide our fans with a "real" World Championships - and with over a year and a half ahead of us until the next World Championships, there is plenty of time to tweak the system and get all necessary changes in place.
The nice thing is that moving to a true championship should be relatively easy and pain free. The biggest change would be who gets invited. To make the transition the sport would simply have to invite the 64 top performers in the world at the close of all national championships. This would facilitate running four rounds per event - two if doubling up the number of athletes per round in the distances or field events. Since most national championships typically end somewhere between the end of June and middle of July, a cut off of July 15th should work fine. With the field being guaranteed each season the need for "A" and "B" standards will be eliminated with the focus being placed directly on the competition itself each season. In the event that we have ties at the 64th spot, we can go with the next best mark scenario. Bottom line is we ensure that the very best in the world end each season end up in Daegu, Moscow, or any other future World Championships.
The other change that I personally would like to see, is more of an attempt on the part of scheduling to allow for as many "doubles" as possible. For example, outside of the Olympics making the 200/400 double possible to facilitate an attempt on both by Michael Johnson, we NEVER see this double on the schedule of the Games or World Championships. All "natural" doubles should be facilitated. This would include 100/200, 200/400, 800/1500, 5000/10000, LJ/TJ, and SP/Disc. This would benefit those athletes that have the ability to compete in more than one event. But it would also add to the excitement for the fans, and make the event more saleable to the public.
It would make for the most exciting competition on the planet. No longer would we have first rounds that are relatively meaningless. Every heat, every round, every flight would be ultra competitive and take on added meaning - and showcase the depth of talent the sport has to offer. After a quarter century of competition, its time to make the World Championships just that, a World Championships. The Olympics can be about pageantry, we will be about competition.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Usain Bolt - 100/200
Tyson Gay - 100/200
Maurice Greene - 100
Asafa Powell - 100
Shawn Crawford - 200
Jeremy Wariner - 400
Lashawn Merritt - 400
Chris Brown - 400
Usain Bolt won double gold in Beijing, then again in Berlin. He was a presence in the deuce throughout the second half of the decade with a 9th in Helsinki and silver in Osaka before his dominance in Beijing and Berlin with two gold medal and WR performances (19.32, 19.19). He just recently joined the fray in the 100 the final two years but what he accomplished is hard to deny with 3 lowerings of the 100 record (9.72, 9.69, 9.58) and 2 gold medal runs.
Tyson Gay was also a double sprint gold medalist accomplishing the feat in Osaka, after placing 4th in the deuce in Helsinki. In 2006 he began the charge of super fast 200's as he began to go under 19.70 as no one else had in history - getting down to 19.58 in '09. 2006 was also the season he began to show form in the 100, becoming a consistent 9.8 performer before dropping to 9.7 and becoming one of history's best over the final 3 seasons of the decade, breaking the American record (9.77, 9.71, 9.69) while dominating multiple record setter Asafa Powell in Majors.
The final spot in the 100 goes in a tie to Asafa Powell and Maurice Greene. Greene finished out his career with Olympic (Sydney) and World (Edmonton) titles, then added Olympic bronze (Athens) and was the most feared sprinter the first half of the decade. Powell won no titles, but ran over 50 sub 10's and set 4 WR's in the event (9.77, 9.77, 9.77, 9.74), and won the most races during the '04, '05, and '06 seasons - just not on the big stage.
Shawn Crawford easily gets the final spot in the 200 as he won an Olympic title in Athens to go with bronze in Edmonton, silver in Beijing, and a 4th in Berlin. Crawford's excellence spanned the entire decade.
The first two spots in the 400 are pretty clear cut as Wariner (Athens, Helsinki and Osaka) and Merritt (Beijing and Berlin) won all the titles during the second half of the decade and had nearly all but 3 of the of the sub44 clockings. Wariner took silver to Merritt's golds in Beijing and Berlin. Merritt was silver to Wariner in Osaka. With bests of 43.45 (Wariner) and 43.75 (Merritt) they easily dominated the decade.
The other spot was a bit more difficult but Chris Brown with 4ths in Helsinki, Osaka and Beijing, and 5th in Berlin was the most consistent of the rest in both Majors and on the Circuit.
Liu Xiang - 110H
Allen Johnson - 110H
Terrence Trammell - 110H
Angelo Taylor - 400H
Felix Sanchez - 400H
Kerrron Clement - 400H
Liu Xiang was the man that dominated the decade - bronze in Paris, gold in Athens, silver in Helsinki and gold in Osaka, Throw in a tie and then lowering of the WR (126.96.36.199) and he was the best hurdler of the decade. His dominance makes many forget that Allen Johnson was still around during these past 10 years - but he was. A 4th in Sydney (losing bronze by .01), and gold medals in Edmonton and Paris, before finally bowing out with a bronze in Helsinki solidify Johnson's place as one of history's greatest hurdlers. The third spot was tricky as Dayron Robles finished out the decade with a new WR and Olympic gold in Beijing. But Terrence Trammell was there from start to finish during the decade, ran under 13 sec (12.95) and took silver in Sydney, Paris, Athens, Osaka, and Berlin (and a 5th in Helsinki). Making him the most consistently high finisher of the decade and one of the most consistent ever.
The long hurdles were quite competitive and there were some very strong performers that just couldn't make this team. Angelo Taylor won two Olympic gold medals (Sydney & Berlin) in spite of a hiatus in mid decade - joining only Edwin Moses as a two time Olympic gold medalist in this event. Felix Sanchez had a streak of two World gold medals (Edmonton & Paris) and Olympic gold (Athens) before falling to injury in Helsinki then returning for silver in Osaka and another finals appearance in Berlin (8th) - making him the most decorated hurdler of the decade. The final spot goes to Kerron Clement with two gold medlas (Osaka & Berlin) a silver (Beijing) and a 4th place finish (Helsinki). He was also the fastest on the clock during the decade (47.24).
Men's Middle Distances
Yuriy Borzakovski - 800
Wilson Kipketer - 800
Wilfred Bungei - 800
Mbulaeni Muladzi - 800
Hicham El Guerrouj - 1500
Bernard Lagat - 1500
Rui Silva - 1500
Borzakovski played a role in just about every champioship race during the decade - from a 5th in Sydney to a 4th in Berlin, and winning gold in Athens. Kipketer maintained a presence during the first half of the decade in spite of being weakened by malaria - gaining silver in Sydney, 4th in Paris and bronze in Athens. And was the decade leader on the clock (1:42.32) until Rudisha ran 1:42.01 in Sept of this year. Bungei & Muladzi share the 3rd spot on the 800 team as both were in most of the Major championships this decade with each winning a global title.
El Guerrouj and Lagat ran 1-2 in and Athens and were the top two performers on the clock during the decade - Athens finally gaining gold in the event after silver in Sydney, Edmonton and Paris, though he dominated on the clock and on the Circuit. Lagat finally won his own gold in Osaka after silver in Edmonton and Athens - then time out while awaiting American citizenship . In an event with ever changing faces this decade Silva was the most consistent of the rest during the decade with a 7th in Edmonton, 5th in Paris, and bronze medals in Athens and Helsinki.
Kenenisa Bekele - 5000/10000
Eliude Kipchoge - 5000
Hicham ElGuerrouj - 5000
Zerseay Tadesse - 10000
Haile Gebrsellassie - 10000
Athlete of the decade Bekele's feats have already been chronicled. 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 decade's most dominant distance runner.
Kipchoge was the next most prolific during the decade, even upending Bekele for the gold in Paris to go with bronze (Athens), 4th (Helsinki), silver (Osaka & Beijing) and 5th (Berlin) place finishes. Hicham ElGuerrouj was the best of a group that was ever changing during the decade. Though he competed infrequently he held his own against both Bekele and Kipchoge beating both to take gold in Athens, and winning silver in Paris finishing between winner Kipchoge and bronze medalist Bekele.
Over 10000 Tadesse gave frequent chase behind Bekele taking bronze in Athens, 6th in Helsinki, 4th in Osaka, 5th in Beijing and finally silver in Berlin. Gebrsellassie was the gold medalist in Sydney, bronze medalist in Edmonton, silver medalist in Paris, and 5th place finisher in Athens before focusing his attention on the marathon - making him perhaps the best 10000 runner over a two decade span after his heroics in the 90's.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
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.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
With Christmas less than a week away I hope its not too late to send my Christmas Wish List to Santa. Of course my presents are already under the tree, so this list is dedicated to the sport of track and field. I'm looking forward to an exciting 2010, and with a little help from Santa it could be superlative. So without further delay here is my Wish List for Track and Field:
• Good health for Tyson Gay. In spite of his steady improvement, we haven't seen a full healthy season from Tyson since 2007 - the year he was double World Champion. Yet he enters 2010 with bests of 9.69 & 19.58 - making him one of the best sprinters the planet has ever seen. Even though there is no major this coming season it would be nice to see the Diamond League kick off with Tyson against Bolt with both at full strength.
• More 1500's from Jenny Barringer. Personally I think this could be her best event. So much so that I think she can break the American Record (3:57.12) and seriously challenge the world's best. Not that she doesn't have a future elsewhere in the sport, but typically in the distances one starts shorter and moves up with age, and I would love to see her be like a Gebrsellassie and rewrite the American Record book one event at a time - starting with the signature 1500 meters and working her way up the ladder.
• A better turn for Wallace Spearmon. Spearmon consistently finishes like a house a fire in the deuce, running 19.8's routinely while coming from several meters off the pace against the competition. A few years ago that won him many races - now it results in 3rd and 4th place finishes when the field is loaded. The one race that Spearmon seriously attacked the turn we saw him blaze a 19.65 in Daegu (site of the next World Championships) in 2006. I know he has had some difficulties with injuries in the interim, but I have to believe that the man that once regularly beat both Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt is still capable of running with them - if he would only attack the first half of the race!
• Continued improvement for Dathan Ritzenhein, Matt Tegenkamp, and Galen Rupp. It seems like an eternity since we saw American distance runners going toe to toe in major competitions against the best in the world with a shot at finishing among the leaders. But this past season we saw these young men begin to make inroads into that territory. No matter how well we do in the sprints and hurdles, America doesn't take notice until we bring home some hardware in the distances. So it seems crucial for the advancement of the sport in the US that we see this trio (and others) push themselves to their limits in the pursuit of their African counterparts.
• On that same note I'd like to see a return to health and form for Alan Webb. The 1500 meters is the 100 meter dash of the distances and the US needs a major presence here. We have some youngsters that are progressing nicely (Lopez Lamong, Leonel Manzano, German Fernandez) but we need a presence now, and Webb has shown the ability to be right there with the best in the world when he is at his best. And frankly I think we've only been teased by his talents to date - meaning that nearing what should be his prime he could be even better than in the past.
• Another trip to the fountain of youth for Dwight Phillips. It was nice to see Phillips reach out to 28'9" this year. The long jump is one of those field events that somehow elicits excitement in a crowd - especially when we have athletes soaring out over 28 feet. With sprint times dropping and the West Africans blazing in the distances, the field could use the excitement that a 29 foot jump would generate - and I believe that Phillips is the one to do it.
• A quarter miler, any quarter miler, to give the 800 a serious shot. We have fallen behind he rest of the world in the half mile - seriously behind. No disrespect to Nick Symmonds who has run well and given the event his all, but if we are to compete with the Rudisha's, Mulaudzi's, and Kaki's of the world, we need to bring more speed to the event! Surely there is a quarter miler stuck at 45-low that's tired of watching the back sides of Meritt and Wariner, and the group of 44 sec sprinters chasing them, that would love a shot at some personal glory of his own.
• More 400's for Allyson Felix. She finds herself in the position that many great 200 meter runners before have been in - to double in the 100/200 or double in the 200/400? She has moved down to the 100 and run 10.93, and moved up to the 400 and run 49.70 - making her a threat at both distances. But while she's a threat at 100, the event is getting increasingly faster as Jeter (10.64), Fraser (10.73) and Stewart (10.75) are beginning to separate themselves from the 10.9 sprinters of the world. And while Felix may be close to them on top end speed, her horrendous start leaves her with far too much ground to make up in most races. In the 400 though, she is showing the kind of promise once showed by one Michael Johnson as she not only runs the open event in the 49's but routinely splits 48's for the US 4x4. And watching the ease with which she does so it's clear that she is the one that could take the event down into the low 48 range once again given she gave it some serious attention.
• More 400's for Kerron Clement as well. Yes, Clement is one of the world's best over the hurdles. He's run 47.24, won two World titles and an Olympic silver. But anyone that has watched him hurdle and cringed watching him trying to negotiate the barriers in the final straight has to have wondered what he could accomplish if he would get the hurdles out of his way! Even though he runs sans barriers infrequently he still owns the WR indoors (44.57) and has cruised 44.48 outdoors. Having watched both his powerful finish at the end of hurdle races, and watched him run his share of relay legs, I have to believe that this man has 43-mid waiting inside him.
• More guts and consistency for Maggie Vessey. She is one of the world's best - on the clock. When you run 1:57.84 you've entered elite territory as a woman. Now "she" needs to believe it, stop running in the back of the pack like she doesn't belong, and attack the race. Watching her stay back there and then come charging up over the final 200 reminds me of so many high school runners that are afraid they will die if the go out too fast. Vessey has run enough now to know how good she really is. But I keep getting the feeling that she's not yet believing it. But like the lion in the Wizard of Oz, her courage is already there, and she will see that she has used it several times already if she will just look back at her accomplishments. I think she's an AR (currently 1:56.40) waiting to happen if she will just believe.
• A full, healthy, focused season from Walter Dix. We know he's a competitor - multiple titles in high school and college and he made the '07 and '08 World and Olympic teams, scoring double bronze in Beijing. We know he's fast - 9.91 & 19.69. But since he's gone pro we saw him skip the Euro season and the World Championships in '07 - the season he ran 19.69. Then suffer through agent problems and injury this past season. Sandwiched in between was the season of double Olympic bronze - and his 9.91. One has to believe that if he can just get healthy AND focused for a season or two, that at the very least he could become a strong #2 to Tyson Gay in the US sprint stable! And we need a one - two punch to attack the sprint forces that the rest of the world is suddenly unleashing upon us!
That's my list for Santa. I'm dying to see just what he delivers out of that red sack of his. With a little luck several of my wishes will come true. If so we'll get a lot of fireworks in 2010!
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Tiger Woods has been the most identifiable athlete on the planet this New Millennium. He has become THE face of golf - nearly single handedly increasing its visibility. If you doubt that simply take a look at the increase in golf tournaments on TV since his rise to the top - and the difference in ratings when he does not compete.
As a matter of fact the year that Tiger took off to rehab after surgery television ratings dropped in half as viewership went from approximately 4 million viewers per tournament down to approximately 2 million per tournament. That's HUGE! With his squeaky clean image, leading the way like Rudolph's shiny nose, golf hooked its sleigh up to Tiger and has ridden him and his stardom to ratings, popularity, and riches.
Then there was the late night accident. The revelation of an affair. Then other women came forward. The news nightmare. The seclusion. The public backlash. Now we've gotten the withdrawal of Tiger from the PGA tour for an indefinite period of time - and golf is left pondering its immediate future!
What happened? Its simple - Tiger is human. And, you see, we often forget that our sports stars are just people. That regardless the level of physical prowess an athlete may attain, they still remain human - with the potential to be as flawed as any other human being.
We've seen it before - the flawed athlete. We've seen it all. The recreational drugs - Len Bias, Tony Fein. Performance enhancing drugs - Marion Jones, Manny Ramirez. Selfish behavior - Terrell Owens, Randy Moss. And yes infidelity - Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. Everything we find in the "Real World" we find in the world of sports, music, movies, and every other endeavor in life - because they're all populated by real people.
You see, as much as we would like to put our "heroes" on pedestals and pretend that their special abilities make them super human in all phases of life, at the end of the day they are all Clark Kent - because Superman is just an imaginary person. All have their failings and are subject to the same temptations and vices as the rest of us. In some cases it may even be worse because sometimes they too begin to believe the hype and behave as if they are truly above reproach!
So what's the lesson here for track and field? Well there was little problem for basketball when Kobe Bryant had to face his issues. Nor for baseball when Manny Ramirez had to come clean. Because these sports are marketed not on the strength of one or two singular individuals, but on the strength of the entire sport! No single athlete is the face of either sport, but like football has a marketing scheme that takes in several of their stars in an attempt to broaden appeal and the base of support. No single athlete is placed above the others in importance, and when one athlete is injured, or his failings betray him, there are others already with visibility in the public eye - and life continues forward unaltered.
But golf, like track and field, has taken a different approach. The marketing focus throughout this decade in golf has been on the mercurial talent of Tiger Woods. He has been THE face of golf. Yes he's won the majority of titles, and yes he has been a dominant force. But the tour is full of golfers that are great in their own rights - if just a hair below Tiger - yet the general public knows very little about these individuals. And that poses a HUGE problem for golf now that Tiger Woods' popularity is plummeting faster than a speeding bullet! So fast that sponsors are either hitting the brakes and going into neutral, or simply jumping ship before they too go down in his wake.
So now golf is left pondering its fate due to the flaws of a single human being. Sort of like those that once held portfolios containing nothing but Enron stock - wealthy one day, dirt poor the next. Such is the risk taken when individuals, corporations, or sports fail to diversify! Baseball, football, and basketball are sports that are well diversified in the marketing of their athletes. Golf, on the other hand, has been on the Enron only plan - and is now facing potentially disastrous results.
Therein lies the lesson for track and field - one that it already should be quite familiar with. You see we've been down this road ourselves before, because for whatever reason we can't seem to tout more than a couple of star athletes at a time. Yet after attaching our sleigh to the Rudolph that was Marion Jones - and losing face. Then again to the sleigh that was Justin Gatlin - and losing face. You would think that the sport would look to hype more than just Usain Bolt - because what if, yet again, we find ourselves losing face?
Nothing against Bolt, mind you. But Tiger seemed to be about as squeaky clean as you can get. Yet we've had mistress upon mistress emerge from the shadows and we now hear that a Canadian doctor that has treated Tiger Woods and other elite athletes may have provided him with performance enhancing drugs.
So having already gone through the negative press of athletes' transgressions in this sport, and watching what one would have thought to be THE quintessential choir boy go down in flames, diversification in marketing would seem to be as logical a move for this sport as making sure your portfolio contains some treasuries, and a couple of pharmaceuticals to go along with that Ford and General Motors you're holding!
Besides, we have some fantastic athletes that could use the additional exposure. Kenenisa Bekele, Allyson Felix, Veronica Campbell, Blanka Vlasic, Yelena Isinbayeva, and Dayron Robles are just a handful of athletes with career accomplishments solid enough to warrant marketing campaigns being built around them too! So why have one star when you can have a constellation? We have some of the best athletes on the planet patrolling our tracks and the fields - we should be telling the world about as many as we can.
After all, when Santa takes to the skies next week, Rudolph may be leading the way, but the sleigh won't get too far unless Donner, Dasher, Blitzen and the rest of the crew are hooked up and pulling too. Ask golf. I'm sure they wish we were a little more in familiar with Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker, and Zach Johnson right about now.
Monday, December 14, 2009
With only a couple of weeks left in 2009, it's time to take a final look back on a very interesting season. Despite being a World Championship season, many events seemed to spur only average performances. But, as happens with regularity in this sport, there were those athletes and events that found a way to rise above the "average" and create the kind of excitement found only in the sport of track and field. So to celebrate those accomplishments, I give you my first ever Finish Line Awards.
Athlete of the Year - Usain Bolt
The bulk of Bolt's season was pretty average. Yes he continued to win, but when you've run 9.69 and 19.30 expectations run high. And heading into July with 9.86/20.25 bests, gave little indication that WR performances were again in the offing. But rainy 9.79 and 19.59 performances in Europe showed that Bolt was ready for Berlin, in spite of the fact that he still didn't lead the world in either event - such was the state of sprinting in '09. Once in Berlin, however, Bolt again took hold of the mantle of the world's top sprinter with sizzling WR's of 9.58 & 19.19. With the 100 record coming with a .13 gap over the #'s 2 & 3 100 men of all time. Then with chief rival Tyson Gay once again out of the event due to injury, Bolt simply ran alone to his second WR of the meet and 4th individual in his last 4 championship finals. Nuff said.
Athlete of the Year - Yelena Isinbayeva
Possibly a controversial pick to some given that quarter miler Sanya Richards has gotten the nod on most lists - I'm sure in large part due to Isi's failure in Berlin. However, looking at overall seasons, Yelena dominated the competition, the yearly list, and came back from her Berlin lapse to take down the WR - easily defeating World Champion Rogowska yet again. Competing against generally tougher competition than Richards had, and at a relatively higher level in her event, Isinbayeva rates #1 in my book as she continues to compete in the stratosphere of her event - literally. Her dominance over both the competition and the all time list over this season is on par with that of Sergei Bubka. So I forgive her one hiccup.
Performance of the Year - 9.58, Usain Bolt
Did anyone ever dream that we would see a 9.5 100 METERS? Even in message board "fantasy" competitions among the greatest sprinters that have walked the face of the earth, most sane people have avoided talking about 9.5. So watching Bolt lead from start to finish in Berlin with the clock stopping at 9.58 was as surreal a performance as 29'2.5" was in 1968. When you consider that 9.71 - which would have necessitated a reading of the photo in Beijing - never had a chance, this has to be the performance of the year - and quite frankly the decade.
Performance of the Year - 10.64, Carmelita Jeter
Just as Bolt's best 100 was one dominating race, so was Jeter's 10.64! Nearly flawless in its execution, Jeter ran toe to toe with the legendary FloJo. A feat not yet seen since 1988. Yes, we saw one Marion Jones run 10.65 - but this was at altitude which we know gives considerable aid to sprint races. Eliminating altitude, and taking into account for all intents and purposes that the listed WR of 10.49 was most likely wind aided, Jeter was a hair from the best 100 meters ever run by a woman. Given the "questions" surrounding FloJo, and the disclosures we've had out of the former East Germany, it is not a stretch to say this may have been the best sprint race we've ever witnessed by a woman.
Newcomer of the Year - Alonso Edward
When Edwards ran 20.00 in late July I said, "Alonso who"! Then he ran 20.25 less than a week later into a negative wind (-1.0) and I found myself scrambling through results to see where this young man had come from ! StillnI never considered him a real threat for Berlin. Not with Bolt and Gay leading the way, and Crawford, Spearmon, and Martina headed to Berlin. Yet Edwards was first in his heat in Berlin, and first again in his quarterfinal. He was finally beaten in his semi by none other that Bolt himself before finishing second to Bolt in the final - ahead of super vets Spearmon and Crawford in a sterling 19.81! I know exactly who Edwards is now - and so does the competition.
Newcomer of the Year - Linet Masai
While its not unusual to see young sprinters step up and gain prominence, in distance running it usually takes more time. Distance running typically requires some seasoning. You take your lumps learning tactics, and getting stronger. Learning how to run with different paces, and in different kinds of competitions. Not so for Masai. On one hand its hard to consider her a newcomer given that she ran so well last year as an 18 year old running 30:26.50 for 4th in Beijing. But watching this 19 year old handle to pressure, and intense rivalry with the Ethiopians in Berlin to come through with the gold was something to watch in one so young - and besides, I didn't do a list last year. Regardless, this was as impressive a run I've seen by any young athlete this year not named Alonso Edwards.
Most Overlooked Athlete - Kenenisa Bekele
Double World Champion at 5000 & 10000, with a championship record in the latter. World leader at both distances. Bekele was clearly, IMHO, the second best athlete in the sport this year, but we spent little time talking about him with Bolt and Gay rewriting the sprint codes. Bekele didn't rewrite the distance record books this year for one simple reason - he already owns them! When you've already got the records and set the standards, you reach a point where your excellence is taken for granted. That is where Bekele finds himself - and where Bolt will be shortly should he be so lucky. Bekele goes about the business of being the best distance runner on the planet with such ease that we now take him for granted. But make no mistake, we are still watching something special whenever he takes to the track.
Most Overlooked Athlete II - Tyson Gay
I have to add one other athlete here, because in any other year, a sprinter running 9.69 & 19.58 would be headline news. Unfortunately his 19.58 came after we saw Usain Bolt run 19.30 in Beijing and his 9.69 came after his 9.71 loss to Bolt's 9.58. So Tyson has been running in one long 6' 5" shadow! Yet quiet as its been kept, Tyson had a better season on the clock than Bolt did in the 100, running 9.69, 9.71, and 9.77 while Bolt's #2 time on the year was 9.79. And Gay's 19.58 is the fastest opener ever in the event by anyone - including Bolt. But getting caught in the slipstream of a 9.58 has a way of rendering other performances moot - not to mention a second lowering of the 200 record. And for the second year in a row, injury prevented a head to head run with Bolt over 200 meters. So Gay finds himself an afterthought for most after running 9.69/19.58.
Most Overlooked Athlete - Valerie Vili
All Valerie Vili does is win! Since she won the World Cup in 2006, the only thing she hasn't won was the World Athletics Final in '07 where she was 2nd. Seeing as she won the World Championships that same season I think I can forgive her that! This year was no exception as she once again won the World Championships and dominated the yearly list. Unfortunately for Vili, while she has few contemporary peers, she faces the ghosts of Eastern Bloc Past - as so many women do in their pursuit of track and field excellence. Because like so many women its nearly impossible to match the athletic feats of the former Eastern Bloc - and a once doping China in the distances - rendering the pursuit of world records an impossible task. Add the fact that the "strength" events tend to be a bit less glamorous to most, and Vili's steady stream of excellence tends to get overlooked.
Most Overlooked Performance - 9.69, Tyson Gay
A year ago Usain Bolt ran 9.69 to take Olympic Gold. Bolt's visa was given a stamp as "Alien of the Universe" and videos of his race were viewed over and over and over. His picture was everywhere and he became THE face of track and field. Fast forward a year, Tyson Gay equals the 9.69 and only the true fans of the sport understand its significance. Unfortunately for Gay equaling the best performance of 2008 became moot on the heals of the best performance of 2009! Yet only Bolt - one time - has run faster in history. In a society obsessed with the "best", number two just isn't quite enough.
Most Overlooked Performance - 77.96m, Anita Wlodarczyk
The women's hammer throw is a relatively new event, with the IAAF beginning the ratification of marks in 1995. So unlike most of the women's weight events, the Ghosts of Eastern Bloc Past, don't rear their ugly heads here. Leaving an event where contemporary competitors can still chase world records. A feat Wlodarcyzk did quite well this year, moving first to #5 all time in Cottbus before taking a nice chunk off the previously three year old WR with her 77.96 bomb in Berlin. Unfortunately for Anita, the shadow cast by the 6' 5" Bolt obscured all in Berlin and Wlodarczyk's record became an afterthought in spite of being set in the most visible competition the sport offered all season.
Most Overlooked Event - Men's Long Jump
While the men's 100 garnered the majority of the headlines this year, the long jump began a rise from the doldrums. Dwight Phillips became =#5 all time soaring 8.74m (28' 8") and had several stirring duels above 28 feet with former World and Olympic Champion Irving Saladino. Godfrey Mokoena set an African Record at 8.50m (27' 10.5") leaving him just short of 28 ft and Sebastian Bayer just missed the German Record going 8.49m. Add Mitchell Wyatt (8.43m), Salim Sdiri (8.42m) and Yahya Berrabah (8.40m), and we have an event that is becoming very competitive again at a high level.
Most Overlooked Event - Women's 1500
Maybe it's because I'm very excited about the strides made by US women in this event this year, but the event just didn't seem to get the attention that I thought it deserved this year. Americans aside, Maryam Jamal and Geleta Burka had some outstanding runs this year. Add the fact that eight women ran under 4 minutes this year - three of them American. AND throw in that Shannon Rowbury picked up bronze in a hotly contested World Championhips - with sub 4 runners Jamal, Burka, Dobriskie, and Willard all in the race - and I expected more from the distance crazy US media.
Those are my biggest memories of 2009 - and my first Finish Line Awards. I'm now looking forward to what should be a very exciting 2010.
Friday, December 11, 2009
After thirteen months of rehab It looks like Liu Xiang could be fully recovered from his Achilles injury. If he is indeed 100% and back to normal, the 110 hurdles could give the sport another super rivalry to showcase.
Prior to his injury, Xiang was as dominant a force as the event has seen. Twice a WR setter in the event and the first man under 12.90 (12.91, 12.88), he has Olympic (Athens '04) and World (Osaka '07) golds to his credit prior to his injury.
Ironically the man that should be his chief rival, Dayron Robles, has somewhat mirrored his accomplishments of late. In '07 Robles broke through to the sub13 ranks with a sterling 12.92 - equaling Liu's '07 world leader. In the Olympic season with Liu on the shelf injured, Robles broke Liu's WR by .01 with his 12.87. He followed up by going to Beijing and won gold in 12.93 - Liu won his in 12.91! Finally, this year, while Liu was rehabbing, Robles suffered through injuries of his own - leading to a World Championships final without either athlete on the track.
So we head into 2010 with history's two fastest hurdlers looking to return to their best form. In an off year with nothing on the line but egos, and a new Diamond League offering plenty of potential showcase opportunities!
Not only that, but both athletes have a history of competing indoors. Liu won World Indoor gold in '04 & 08 and has an indoor best of 7.42 over the 60 meter barriers. To his credit, Robles won Indoor silver in '06 and is #2 all time indoors at 7.33. With both looking to regain form and potentially get a jump on the outdoor season, fans may not have long to wait to see these two super hurdlers in action.
Add Terrence Trammell (7.37 indoors) another frequent indoor competitor - having set his PR just earlier this year - and the hurdles have the potential to take center stage this indoor season. Especially given that the top headlining sprinters tend to avoid the indoor season like the plague.
But it will be outdoors where the fireworks should get hot. As both hurdlers, especially Liu, are very fast over the second half of the race. Getting them on the track together will create potentially exciting races and fast times.
Historically Zurich (5), Stuttgart (4) and Athens (3) have produced the most sub13 performances. While the three sub 12.90 performances to date have come in Ostrava (12.87), Lausanne (12.88) and Paris St Denis (12.88). However, Robles and Liu seem to be able to put down fast times anywhere. Of the 41 sub13's ever run they have a dozen between them (Robles -7, Liu -5). Only Allen Johnson, with an incredible 11, had more throughout his career - Colin Jackson also had 5. I would expect to see both close in on Johnson this year.
The bottom line: the men's high hurdles should be one of the year's best events with history's two best hurdlers going head to head - and both looking to prove something to themselves and each other! Keep an eye on these two. Both are fierce competitors. And being the top athletes in their country's there is also a degree of national pride on the line when they run. This should be another of those can't miss events.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The schedule of events for the Diamond League meets is out and the first thing that popped into my head was: what's happened to the double? Do you even remember the double? Odds are if you started watching professional track and field at the turn of the century (this century) you may not.
The double, that's when an athlete competed in two different individual events in the same meet. Like the 100/200, 800/1500, LJ/TJ, and SP/Disc. Happens all the time at the high school and collegiate level. Has become a rare commodity on the professional level.
At the high school and collegiate level we see athletes double all the time. In large part to score whatever points they can for their teams. While that may be the primary goal, it does make for great theater. Especially when there are multiple talented athletes involved. Then you get the opportunity to see talented athletes compete not once, but twice in the same meet - with revenge in mind for someone the second time around!
Athletes like Steve Williams and Don Quarrie used to go after each other regularly in both the 100 & 200. As soon as the 100 was over you would look forward, not to the next meet they would both attend, but to their next head to head in about an hour and a half as they lined up in the deuce with the 100 loser looking for revenge, and the winner looking to repeat. Ironically before standing room only crowds in locations such as Zurich and Eugene that are now Diamond League meets!
Or an athlete like Mike Conley, superb at both the LJ and TJ. Watching him contest both in the same meet against the world's best in two events on the same day and cheering for him to pull it off. Flying over 27 feet in the long jump and 57 feet in the triple jump.
Makes me often feel that today's fans are being robbed of great competitions - and the sport tremendous marketing opportunities. As much as we've waited for single "showdowns" in the sprints can you even fathom a meet with Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay going head to head TWICE! Or how about Tatyana Lebedeva v Yargeris Savigne in the long and triple jumps in the same meet?
Or the potential of having Gay and Bolt run the 100. Then watch Wariner and Merritt run the 400. Then perhaps watch the four of them go toe to toe over 200 before meets end? Yes I know that there are considerations here. Contracts that need to be worked out. Payments that need to be made. But in a sport dying for great theater, if we can negotiate for athletes to run on fabricated tracks down the middle of boulevards, surely we can negotiate REAL competitions at our sports best meets!
While I'm glad that the Diamond League is bringing athletes to the track to compete against each other, let's take the sport to the level it was at when Williams and Quarrie were going head to head with regularity and stop dumbing the sport down! Even as recently as the 90's we had athletes like Maurice Greene, Ato Boldon, Jon Drummond and Frankie Fredericks running single day doubles. So we know that it's still possible at the elite level.
Seems that everyone is SO worried about how long meets are that they forget how exciting a meet can be when the competition is there! I guarantee you that if you have Bolt and Gay in both the 100 and 200 that NO ONE leaves the stadium until BOTH races have been run!
You see, in my opinion the length of our meets is not the issue. Baseball games last for HOURS and people watch - often til well after midnight on the East Coast. Same for football and most fans will spend ALL DAY watching them. Ditto basketball where fans will watch the NCAA tournament around the clock for days on end. It's not about how short events are, or long, it's about how exciting they are!
So the issue is not about how quickly we can run our meets, it's how many of our top athletes can we get to compete in them! And if we can get our top athletes on the track (or field) multiple times then that much better. So having a plan for the best meets we have to offer that immediately eliminates half of the events each meet seems like planning to fail to me. Or at the very least not planning to provide the best complete viewing opportunity to our fans.
After all, the glory days of our sport involved meets with FULL schedules and featured some of the greatest doublers in history. And some of the best attended meets in this country are our high school state championships meets with full schedules, multiple matchups galore, and standing room only crowds! Perhaps the professional version of the sport might be better served b going back to it's youth roots. I think the world would love to see Bolt v Gay X2 in Paris, New York, or Zurich!
Monday, December 7, 2009
Looking back on this season and looking ahead to 2010 the men's 400 has to be the new frontier - at least in sprinting. After all the 100 is pretty much on lock down with Usain Bolt (9.58), Tyson Gay (9.69) and Asafa Powell (9.72) all scheduled to compete in the new Diamond League - with every meet scheduled to have one or more of this troika competing.
There may be a little more leeway in the 200, though I would anticipate that either Bolt (19.19) or Gay (19.58) should be in the majority of serious races out there. In the event there is a meet that doesn't have at least one of these men in a lane its almost given that Wallace Spearmon (19.65) or Shawn Crawford (19.79) will be around to pick up the loose ends! Not to mention the possibility that a healthy Walter Dix (19.69) or rapidly improving Alonso Edwards (19.81) should be competing here next summer.
Leaving, as crazy as it may seem, the 400 as the event where getting to the top could hold some promise! Yes, the two men responsible for the last 5 global championships in the event are still competing - Jeremy Wariner winning in '04.'05, '06, and Lashawn Merritt winning in '08 & '09. But neither is competing in the rarified air that we see Bolt, Gay, and Powell competing in in the shorter sprints!
Wariner was looking to close in on Michael Johnson's 43.18 as he had worked his way to 43.45 in 2007. but a coaching change in '08 found him at 43.82 and the best he could muster in '09 was 44.60. Similarly, though Merritt has taken the mantle from Wariner, and found himself running 43.75 in '08, '09 saw only 44.06 from Merritt. While still enough to keep him in the #1 spot globally, it’s a mark we've seen run as far back as 1968 and one that has been equaled or bettered 64 times in history . And a mark most certainly attainable by the right competitors.
Certainly we are due for an explosion in this event. We first saw the 44 second barrier broken back in 1968 as Lee Evans lowered the WR to 43.86 in Mexico City. Unfortunately we had to wait 20 years to see the 44 second barrier breached once again as Butch Reynolds lowered the WR to 43.29 and 19 year old Steve Lewis won Olympic gold with his WJR 43.87! These two were followed over the next few seasons by Danny Everett (43.81), Quincy Watts (43.50) and Michael Johnson himself, before another 13 year drought saw first Wariner and then Merritt joined the ranks of the 43 second quarter milers.
Considering that since the explosion in the sprints in Mexico City in 1968 (new WR's of 9.95, 19.83, and 43.86) the records in the 100 and 200 have dropped to 9.58 and 19.19, the 400 is well off the pace currently being set by the short sprinters!
Only Merritt was close to the 44 second barrier last season at 44.06. Next best was Reny Quow at 44.53 - half a second behind! So lots of room to challenge for the top. And the potential to become a dominant force for the right 'sprinter". After all, while we tend to think of the sprints as being the 100 and 200, when you start averaging 11.00 sec or better for 4 consecutive 100's you're sprinting!
And therein lies the key, in my opinion, to moving the 400 into the same range as the shorter sprints - bringing more speed to the event! We've seen sprinters move up to this event in the past. After all, before Quincy Watts ran 43.50 and won Olympic gold he was one of the nations best high school sprinters. Injuries forced him to move up - with great success. Similar story with Michael Johnson, as injuries early in his career found him moving from the 100/200 to the 200/400 - especially after several blazing 4x4 legs under 44 seconds indicated he had the ability. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Even now questions abound as to how fast Usain Bolt could potentially run this event. And in the past couple of seasons we have seen speedsters Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay turn in credible early season 400's as part of their "training" for the short sprints - Powell going 45.94 last year and Gay 45.57. And Bolt turned in a 45.27 in '07. With these three dominating the short sprints I don't expect to see either of them give the 400 serious consideration. But it may behoove some of those breathing their exhaust to consider a move up.
For example, we've seen Wallace Spearmon dabble in the 400 and run 45.22 with several very creditable relay legs in the 44 sec range over the past few seasons. High school super sprinter Xavier Carter(10.38, 20.69, 45.44), has continued to do well in all three sprints as a pro with 10.00, 19.63, 44.53 bests, and certainly could become even more competitive in the 400 given focus. For proof, look no further than current #1 Lashawn Merritt who was a triple threat sprinter in high school himself (10.47,20.77,45.25) who has focused on the longer sprints with 19.98, 43.75 results to date!
With the standards in the short sprints falling rapidly, and bronze medals going to what would have been gold medal times just a few years ago, perhaps it will be the search for gold that sends some sprinters to the 400 and not injuries as in the past. After all, you have to be able to run 9.8 low and 19.8 low under pressure now to get close to the podium!
Certainly there are other Michael Johnson's and Quincy Watts' waiting out there. Powerful 200 men like Spearmon and Carter might be better served doubling in the 400 than the 100. Of course the sport could help by making the 400 a more lucrative event. After all, it was a more lucrative move for Bolt to attempt to double in the short sprints than the long sprints - and we've seen the results - even though he had shown 400 acumen as a youth performer.
With the majority of sprint money being tied up in the 100, its easy to understand why so many sprinters continue to try to compete in the event even though they may be more suited to the longer sprints. So perhaps if the shoe companies could create some incentives in the 400 or meet promoters some enticements, we might see the sprint talent disperse itself a bit more "evenly". After all getting more quarter milers into the 43's and watching them breach the 43 second barrier and get into the 42's - which I believe is possible - would be every bit as exciting as what we're seeing in the short sprints!
Professional track is a business, and talented athletes are going to run where the money is best. So if the sport is truly interested in creating more excitement and finding the next Bolt / Gay rivalry, the 400 sits there waiting! Can you imagine a 9.9x/10.0x sprinter seriously making a move up to the 400? Perhaps something akin to what we've seen in the past when the right athlete finds the right event, such as 46.78 in the 400H, 1:41.11 in the 800, or 9.58 in the 100? Maybe something in the 42.50 range?
Financial incentives aside, that is where I think the real rewards would come - being that ground breaking athlete that takes an event to the next level! An Edwin Moses that took the 400 hurdles from obscurity to the spotlight. A Michael Johnson that not only broke the record in the 400 but established new standards of consistency. Because athletes that make that kind of mark reap both financial rewards and establish their place in history!
So perhaps we will soon see a sprinter or two tire of looking at the backs of Bolt and Gay and choose instead to have others looking at their backs! Becoming headline news in their own right, winning gold medals, and setting new standards of excellence in the 400 while blazing a trail to the next frontier in the sprints. The talent is there. All it will take is that leap of faith, and a change in training and some lucky sprinter could become the next Bolt - without having to beat Bolt!
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
With the end of the year upon us it's already time to start looking forward to the next track season. And as I look ahead to 2010 one of the most intriguing stories that could develop could be the return of Justin Gatlin to the sport.
I think the story is still fresh enough in everyone's mind that it doesn't need to be repeated in total. A positive test result from the Kansas Relays in 2006 for testosterone ( a result that he gave up his right to contest, yet contested the ban), coupled with a previously excused incident while he was at Tennessee (for a medication prescribed by his physician for A.D.D. while a youth) resulted in a 4 year ban that will end officially on 7.24.10.
Now, while there is still room for debate on several of the issues surrounding the ban, the ban has been served, and Gatlin - according to the rules of the sport - has the right to return to competition in late July. We have seen many athletes receive bans and return to competition, including the likes of Ben Johnson, Grit Breuer, Dieter Baumann, and Olga Yegorova to name but a few. All with varying degrees of success.
I'm not sure, however, that anyone has had such a daunting task put before them. Consider that when Gatlin was banned, he had just become co-holder of the WR in the 100 meters (9.77) and had unseated Maurice Greene as AR holder. He was coming off back to back seasons in which he won Olympic 100 meter gold in 2004 and became double World Champion in the 100 & 200 in 2005. He was the toast of the town, a dominant force, and becoming the face of the sport.
Then he had to leave. And the sport, at least his events, underwent a dramatic transformation during his absence. Gatlin will return to a world that is dramatically different than the one he left as the world records in both sprints have dropped from 9.77 and 19.32, down to 9.58 and 19.19. His chief rival when he left, Asafa Powell, is now a clear #3 in the 100 in spite of dropping his PR down to 9.72. The American that was a consistent runner up to Gatlin in his final season, Tyson Gay, has become a double World Champion in his own right ('07) and is down to 9.69 and 19.58 - in spite of injury. And the man that was well behind the US quadruple sweep in the 200 in Helsinki in 2005, Usain Bolt, now sits at the head of the class as double Olympic and World champion AND double WR holder!
So where does this leave the man that seemed primed to rule the sprint world upon his departure in 2006? Can he return to the top of the sprint heap? Can he contend for a medal? Can he even be competitive against these new "aliens" that have taken over during his absence?
Ironically it was felt in '06 that Gatlin, or just about any sprinter, would need assistance to perform at the level he was at at that time - which caused some to be suspicious of his performances prior to his ban. Now he must get back to that level in order to become the #4 sprinter in the world! So does he have any chance of cracking the Bolt/Gay/Powell troika and helping Tyson Gay bring the US back to sprint supremacy?
If there is a good season to come back it will be 2010. It is an off year without any major championships to contend. So there will be a bit less pressure than most seasons. Lack of a major will also help to lessen the impact of Gatlin returning AFTER the US National championships have been completed as nationals will be in June and he won't be cleared to return until July. So there won't be any missed opportunities for Worlds or the Games.
Having said that, Gat will miss all of the domestic season and will have to depend on competing in Europe to get a feel for where he is at with respect to the other sprinters out there. And that could be difficult as what was once the Golden League has become the Diamond League and the 14 meet promoters have an "agreement in principle" not to invite athletes that have been convicted of a prior doping offense.
Of course while they may have this "agreement" among them, with the league spanning three continents, and therefore several legal jurisdictions, I would expect to see any "blackballing" challenged in various courts - especially those here in the US.
Given that it appears that Gatlin is still a Nike athlete - I've been told he is training in Texas with Loren Seagrave, who is a Nike coach and with other Nike athletes - I would expect that should Gatlin show any signs of competitiveness that they will find a way to get him on the track. Especially given that the # 1 and #2 spots in the sprint world have been taken over by Puma (Bolt) and Adidas (Gay) athletes - leaving Nike in need of its own "star power" in one of the sports' marquee events, the men's 100 meters. So I dare say that we will see Gatlin on the track against high level competition should he show sufficient form.
Will he be able to compete, will be the next question. And while we should see some rust in 2010, I'm going to say that it is possible to see him in the thick of things by 2011. While one may argue whether or not he was guilty of the doping offence, one thing is certain - Gatlin was one of the most technically sound sprinters on the track prior to his departure! His start had improved, his drive phase was solid, and his top end was wicked. Ironically this is the exact same competitive profile of the top two sprinters out there since his departure in Bolt and Gay - solid starts, strong drive phases, and wicked top end speed!
Gatlin was also a solid 200 man a la Bolt and Gay, and though not as tall as Bolt was also known for his long stride. He was also very strong over 400 meters having split 44.2 while a collegian at Tennessee - giving him solid speed endurance. All of which gives him a sprinting profile that is right in line with speedsters Bolt and Gay. Now there is the question of the effect of his time off from the sport. But we do know that he spent quite a bit of time training and attempting to turn his speed into a professional football contract - a la Dwain Chambers. While he was unable to show the ability to catch the ball consistently, he was able to stay in shape. If Chambers is a guide in this regard, then Gatlin's return could be successful as Chambers came back to regain form as Britain's top sprinter - though philosophical issues have gotten in the way of his performing in various venues.
Time will tell just how fast Gatlin will run. But as one of the most competitive sprinters we've seen this millennium I have no doubt that given the opportunity he will definitely spice up the sprint scene in 2010. If nothing else it will an intriguing story to watch.