Friday, May 7, 2010

Where Is Our 1, 2 Punch

Norwich Union GP

The Diamond League will be starting in just over a week and so far the most hyped events have been the sprints. Not unexpected with Usain Bolt serving as the current face of the sport. What is surprising, at least to me, is that as we approach the heart of the season we (the US) don’t seem to have that 1,2 punch in the short sprint that has served us so well throughout most of the history of the sport.

Going back to the 1960’s when sprinting truly became global, and automatic timing became the standard, we’ve had pairs such as Jim Hines & Charlie Greene, Eddie Hart & Rey Robinson, Steve Williams & Reggie Jones, Carl Lewis & Calvin Smith, Carl Lewis & Leroy Burrell, Maurice Greene & Jon Drummond, and Justin Gatlin & Shawn Crawford. Duos that were capable of setting records and winning races domestically, internationally and most importantly in the major championships. “Go to” sprinters that would most certainly during their tenures have made my “30 Watch List”.

My initial version of the “30 Watch List” did contain one such duo, with Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon both appearing as potential medalists in the 200 meters. But traditionally it’s the 100 meters – the glamour sprint – that has gotten the most notice, and where we’ve had great depth. We still have the depth when compared to the rest of the world. Of the 27 athletes that ran faster than 10.05 last year, 12 of them were American. For those keeping track with the sprint battle against Jamaica, 7 were Jamaican. So we are still winning the war of depth. But depth doesn’t win medals, as only 3 athletes gain entry into the World Championships and Olympics – 4 can go to Worlds if one is defending champion. In the battle that matters – the fight for championship medals – it’s about what you have on the top end. And it’s there that we’ve been lacking in the 1, 2 punch area!

The last “Batman & Robin” type Dynamic Duo we went to battle with was back in 2004 when Justin Gatlin and Shawn Crawford breezed through the rounds and went 1, 4 in the Athens final. Since then we’ve been lacking in the “#2” department. Yes, we’ve seen the rise of Tyson Gay since then – and Tyson has been awesome when healthy. But when Tyson has gone down and been at less than his best, there’s been no one there to help carry the load. Nor has there been that strong 1, 2 punch in the sprint relay – to just put things away!

Instead we’ve seen Jamaica in that mode with Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell playing the roles of Batman & Robin. An act that we perfected over the years and need desperately to reproduce again. So the question today is – where’s our Robin? Tyson seems to have the Batman spot on lock – though if someone can rise up and put him into the #2 spot, I’ll take that too! But until then, who is going to be the guy that is will give us a shot at 2 medals in the 100 AND help take back the gold in the 4x1?

Following are the nine men that I think are in contention to become that sprinter:


Walter Dix 9.91 / 19.69 – legal sub 10’s (6)

At first glance Dix should probably be the guy. He proved at Florida State with multiple titles, and then on the big stage in Beijing with double bronze, that he is capable of producing his best when it matters – a key if you’re one of the dynamic duo.  The fact that he is also very good at the deuce makes it that much better. But if Dix is going to be the man he’s going to have to get down in that 9.8x range, which could be difficult given that he is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5’9” and is a notoriously slow starter! Dix finishes like a house a fire. But the 100’s current top three (Bolt, Gay, Powell) are not just a fire – they’re blazing. Dix MUST develop a consistent start that puts him even with the field over the first 40 meters. If he can do that he can potentially run with “the big boys” and be a strong contender.  


Darvis Patton 9.89 / 20.03 – legal sub 10’s (6)

Darvis “Doc” Patton has been around for a while, originally making his name running the deuce as he was good enough to score World silver in 2003. But a change in focus in ‘08 to the 100 saw him run 9.89 in both ‘08 & ‘09, and earn spots on both the Olympic and World Championships teams. Unfortunately for Doc, it seems that our national championships is where he hits his peak. He’s run sporadically in Europe, and has run poorly in both majors finishing 8th in both. Not the record you want for a solid #2 guy. Doc has decent size (right at 6 feet tall), though in focusing on the 100 he seems to have lost the stride length he once had in the deuce. He will have to get that back AND improve his start if he wants to stay with the event’s best and have a shot at the podium. Unfortunately at 32, time is not on his side. 


Mike Rodgers 9.94 / 20.24 – legal sub 10’s (3)

Rodgers has teased with several races in the 10.0x range as well as several windy sub10 races- including a windy 9.91 that got him on last year’s World Championships squad. Legally, however, he only has three races under 10.00, and his debut on the big stage in Berlin last year turned up a 5th place finish in his semi – leaving him out of the final. Rodgers has a solid start and a fair finish, but as another sprinter in the 5’9” range, and without much power in his makeup, it may just be too  much to ask him to keep up with the taller, stronger sprinters. Rodgers will have to develop an even faster get away at the start to try and create space between he and the fast finishers; as well as develop a stronger finish of his own if he hopes to move to the next level.


Travis Padgett 9.89 / 20.32 – legal sub 10’s (2)

Padgett is on this list because he has run under 9.90 – indicating that the potential IS there – and made two major relay squads. But once again we have a smallish sprinter in what has become a tall man’s event. Padgett can be extremely fast out of the blocks. And when he holds form as he did in his PR run at the Olympic Trials in ‘08 he has the potential to be extremely fast. Too often, however, his form deteriorates late race, causing him to fade badly in the final 30 to 40 meters of the race. This is the stage of the race where most of the podium contenders are in cruise control! Padgett must find a way to relax late race so as not to break down and hold his speed – his final 40 must become as efficient as his first 40. If he can do this he can get close to the podium. If  not he’s just the rabbit in the race.


Ivory Williams 9.93 / 20.62 – legal sub 10’s (3)

Ivory seemed to be finding himself this indoor season before cannabis had him taking a time out. He’s come back outdoors, however, back in stride and currently leads the world at 9.95. Though he too is in the 5’9” range, Williams has a fairly consistent race pattern – solid start, solid finish – that could give him an advantage over other sprinters his size. An improved start has him running well early. If he can make similar improvements at the end of his race he could move close to the podium. Technically solid he could become a Maurice Greene type capable of cranking out consistently good times. The key for Williams, as with many, will be how well he can finish in the final 40.


Rae Edwards 10.02 / 20.17 – legal  sub 10’s (0)

Rae is one of the few tall (i.e. 6 feet tall) sprinters that we bring to the table at this level. But as with many young tall sprinters he’s learned to depend too much on his finish – which he does well. Running with the big boys, however, one can have no deficiencies in race pattern, so Rae must get better in the first 40. Because the days of making the stunning come from behind win – a la Carl Lewis in Tokyo ‘91 or Donovan Bailey in Atlanta ‘96 – are a dying breed. His start is what has kept him from being a sub10 sprinter to this point - his finish is what has gotten him so close. He has one of the worst first 40’s of this group, but that also gives him the potential to have one of the biggest up sides.


Ryan Bailey 10.05 / 20.40 – legal sub 10’s (0)

Bailey is the most physically gifted of the potential contenders – and the least experienced at this level. But at 6’4” tall he fits the prototype of what is emerging as today’s top sprinter. He has the finish of a big man, but like the man he’s most often compared to (Bolt) he must develop the early race of a smaller man. Seems to have the uber competitive nature of a winning sprinter, which is necessary as the times drop precipitously, but he’s got to get engaged in the race from step one. If he can run with the lead dogs in the first 50, he has the ability to finish with them over the final 50. If he can do that, he can make one heck of a duo with Tyson.


Justin Gatlin 9.77 / 19.86 – 9.85 / 20.00

Yes, Gatlin must be discussed here. Hard to dismiss a man that once won back to back championships (‘04/’05) and set a WR. Puts him in the same position as current world #1 Usain Bolt. And while the talk will immediately go to “yeah but he was banned, and without taking sides, I have to say that the ban occurred after he won the championships and did not include anything he did in those years (that’s why I gave him two sets of PR’s). I say that because the issue has never been Gatlin’s ability to compete. He’s done that well at every level – high school, college, professional. The question on the table is: can he return to either form (9.85 or 9.77) after FOUR years away from the sport? If he can get into some decent races (he faces being blackballed in the better events) we will see what he can do. If he can regain form we could have an awesome one, two punch. But right now the odds aren’t in his favor.


So, having said that where does it leave us? Well, if we take a look at the top three in the event Bolt was 10.02 the season before his breakout year (9.69 the following year); Gay was 10.06 the season before his breakout year (9.84 the following year); and Powell was 10.02 the season before his breakout year (9.87 the following year). So any of these guys could potentially be the one. If I were going to say who I thought had the best chance it would have to be Dix, Williams and Bailey. They have the best overall set of skills to make that move to the next level. Gatlin is the elephant in the room – the guy that could change everything.

Only time will tell if they, or any of the others, make that move. But if we are going to regain our swagger in the short sprint and the relay someone will have to step up and become a solid 9.8x performer that can be counted on to consistently deliver. This season is going to tell us a lot about who that may be.

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