I’ve been amazed at the talk that has surrounded the twenty five medals that we (the U.S.) won at the World Championships in Daegu. The tone has been as if we had achieved the unachievable. As if we had set some new standard of excellence in the sport. There were headlines proclaiming “U.S. Still the Gold Standard in Track and Field”; and “How Good Was Surprisingly Good U.S. Team”.
If you read my “Report Card” on the U.S. efforts in Daegu, I would contend that the team was good, but not great. With all the medals that we left on the table – women’s 400, men’s 400 hurdles, men’s shot put, men’s 4x1, women’s 800, men’s 400, and only single medals in the men’s 100 & 200 we just didn’t live up to our potential.
Yes, twenty five medals was better than anyone else took home, but if you consider that 3rd place Kenya (with 17 medals) basically only competes in the distance events, we took home 8 more medals than a small country that competes in two thirds fewer events than we do!
Let me put it another way. I’ve seen many writers compare our medal total to years gone by as a measure of how well this team performed. But if you take a look at the inaugural World Championships over a quarter century ago (’83), we brought home twenty two medals with one arm tied behind our backs! Yes, because that was during the height of the “Eastern Bloc” and their systematic doping and “super women” – leaving us only able to bring home FOUR medals with our women! Twenty two medals were won nearly solo by our men – I would call that one arm behind our back! If you go back to 1976, which was the last Olympics that wasn’t boycotted by one side or the other before the implementation of the World Championships – we also took home twenty two medals there in an Eastern Bloc dominated affair on the women’s side that saw our women bring home a total of THREE medals! My point is that with our women no longer encumbered by competing against “cheating” athletes, thirty medals or more should have been ancient history by now with our men’s teams having the ability to bring home nearly twenty medals by themselves!
Let me throw in one other wrinkle in this discussion of medals in Majors. Those teams, those that preceded them, and several up to the early 90’s, were dominated by AMATEUR athletes – athletes that had to split their training with holding down “regular” jobs while they tried to fulfill their athletic dreams – athletes that worked as bank tellers, security guards, teachers and other “day jobs” to pay the bills. Compared to today’s athletes for whom track and field IS their job – and instead of going to the office are able to go to the track/weight room and deal with coaches, physios and masseurs in their pursuit of World and Olympic medals. It seems to me that these “Professionals” have a distinct advantage over their predecessors in that they are able to focus completely on the sport. So I’m not sure why we are trying to compare the successes of the past with today’s athletes – unless it’s to say look what was accomplished with LESS.
That’s why I say that we are seriously under achieving. Of course there’s the contingent that will say “well the world has caught up to us”. But considering how far ahead we once were, that’s more an indictment that we’ve stopped growing/progressing, than that the rest of the world has “caught up”. They’ve caught up because we’ve slowed down! And to say that we had a great meet in Daegu, or that we’re doing just fine, seems to be reflective of a society that has become complacent and accepting of mediocrity. Or what I call “The Barney Complex” – “you’re special just the way you are”.
One would almost forget that this is the nation that not too long ago was producing some of history’s most revered athletes. We’re still playing catch up to Edwin Moses, Evelyn Ashford, Carl Lewis, Mike Powell, Michael Johnson, Charles Austin, Jackie Joyner Kersee, John Powell, Mac Wilkins, Kim Gallagher, Johnny Gray, and Valerie Brisco among a host of others. We had Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Jim Hines and Charlie Greene simultaneously – yet we’re happy to have one Tyson Gay. We had Butch Reynolds, Steve Lewis, Danny Everett and Michael Johnson ALL at the same time. Not too long ago having multiple stars was commonplace in the U.S. – Carl Lewis, Mike Powell and Mike Conley; Conley and Kenny Harrison; Charles Austin and Hollis Conway; JJK and Marion Jones; Ben Plucknett, Mac Wilkins, John Powell AND Art Burns. My point is that right now we’d be ecstatic to have just one of those per event, yet we used to produce them in bunches!
So it’s not that the world has caught up; we’ve fallen behind our own pace – and producing medalists in spite of ourselves! People are excited about twenty five medals when in reality we wake up on any given morning secure in the knowledge that without doing anything we will get on average at least one medal in each sprint and hurdle event and each of the relays at any given Major. That’s 14 medals nearly guaranteed without doing anything other than having an open tryout – our Trials! And even there we are behind our once world leading pace. Granted the winds in Daegu were a bit limiting, but consider that our men won medals with times of 10.08, 19.70 and 44.63. With the exception of the 200 mark, we’ve done better in nearly every Major since the 1960’s – and Tommie Smith approached that 200 mark (19.83) way back in 1968. We felt fortunate to take high jump and long jump gold, yet in ’91 both Powell AND Lewis were over 29 feet, and in ’96 Austin was making attempts near 8 feet. And while we are struggling to get a man into contention in the 800 and marvel at David Rudisha, Johnny Gray had four seasons under 1:43.00 in the 80’s/90’s; and he, Mark Everett, and Rich Kenah all medaled at various Majors in the 90’s!
My point here is that on the surface we have a handful of athletes right now that are at AR levels and among the best of all time in their events - Tyson Gay, Carmelita Jeter, Jeremy Wariner, David Oliver, Dwight Phillips, Christian Taylor, Kara Patterson, Jill Camarena, and Christian Cantwell – and some of them are even getting a bit long in the tooth. But in most cases, however, we have athletes that are competing at 1980’s & ‘90s levels – at best. Yet these are professionals with all the modern advantages that their predecessors didn’t have, including the ability to devote all their time and efforts into perfecting their craft. So no, the world hasn’t caught up – we’ve spent too long running in place.
Why? Personally I think it comes down to two things – training and organization. We certainly have athletes in this country of 350 Million people, with the physical attributes necessary to put up the same type of marks all the athletes I’ve listed once did. But somehow we’re not identifying, nurturing and developing those athletes – in large part because, in my opinion, we lack the organization to do so. The old Eastern Bloc programs of East Germany and the Soviet Union were the epitome of identification and development of athletes. Today, Jamaica has focused in on sprinting identifying athletes early and funneling them to their best programs. We in contrast have not changed from the days of the Eastern Bloc to now – we are still relying on individuals to rise to the top on their own. That’s why the Eastern Bloc made it so hard on us in the 70’s and 80’s; why the African nations have virtually run us off the podium in the middle and long distances; and why Jamaica has “caught up” to us in sprinting.
So, no I’m not excited about twenty five medals – because I don’t believe we are maximizing our potential. I believe our potential is closer to forty medals. And in subsequent posts I will tell you how I think we can close that gap.