In the world of elite track and field, there are three basic goals: World gold, Olympic gold, and World Records. These are the achievements that most athletes would like to have before the sun sets on their careers.
With the end of each season a window of opportunity closes in the pursuit of these objectives. Fortunately for most athletes, the window reopens with the start of the next season. I say fortunately for most athletes because there are a couple of situations that change one’s fortune. One situation is for the athlete that is aging – because in the end it is hard to outrun father time. The other is in the case of the Olympics, which like leap years, only come around once every four years – and there are only so many four year cycles in the life of an athlete.
So, looking at the performances of this year’s crop of athletes, and looking ahead towards next year which is an Olympic year, there is a group of high profile athletes that I feel will bear watching in 2012. Some are looking for records, some for that elusive gold. All had 2011 seasons that tell me that 2012 may be the “now or never” season where the achievement is made or perhaps forever lost, as they are facing challenges that could close the door on their pursuits.
For some the challenge is Father Time, as age diminishes one’s abilities. For others its injuries that are shutting down their windows. And for others it’s a changing competitive environment that has found their once dominant performances challenged by others who have risen to their level. In either case, the Olympic season will see them all trying to get through that window of opportunity before it closes.
So following are a half dozen athletes that I will be keeping an eye on with special interest to see if they are able to get through, or extend, their window of opportunity.
Carmelita Jeter (USA) – Olympic gold
Some athletes get to take three or four shots at an Olympic gold medal. Jeter, however, didn’t get that shot early in her career as frankly she just wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t until her move to John Smith in midcareer, that she made the move up to elite status. Since then she’s won bronze at Worlds in ’07 & ’09, and became the oldest ever World champion in the 100 this year in Daegu. During that stretch she also became the 2nd fastest woman of all time in 2009 dashing 10.64 in Shanghai – along with a 10.67 in Greece to prove it was no fluke. But she’s yet to get her shot at Olympic gold, missing the U.S. squad for Beijing with a 5th place finish in her semi at the Trials. So at the ripe old age of 32, London will undoubtedly be Jeter’s one and only shot at Olympic glory, because even if she is still around in 2016 it’s unlikely that she will be able to continue to compete at this level for another four years. Ironically it was Brit Linford Christie who faced a similar situation in Barcelona (’92) – though Christie had already had a shot at Olympic gold in ’88 – and at 32 years of age got ‘er done. I will be watching eagerly to see if Jeter can repeat the performance on British soil.
Jeremy Warier (USA) – the 400 Meter WR
Jeremy already has Olympic gold – won at the ’04 Games in Athens. He also has won World gold, twice – first in Helsinki in ’05, then in Osaka in ’07. Throw in Olympic silver (’08) and World silver (’09) and you have about as complete a career as one can have. Except if you share my memory, you will remember that this man was the heir apparent to none other than Michael Johnson. Matriculated at Baylor, just like Johnson, and coached by Clyde hart, just like Johnson. And for the first part of his career he was on the same career path as Johnson, looking like the man that would also lay claim to the 400 meter WR, just l like Johnson. I think that many forget that Wariner is the 3rd fastest quarter miler in history at 43.45 – behind only WR setters Johnson (43.18) and Butch Reynolds (43.29). From ’04 through ’07 he was on a direct trajectory to the record – 44.00 (’04), 43.83 (’05), 43.62 (’06) and 43.45 (’07). Then in ’08 Wariner began to stall. He left Coach Hart during the Olympic year and found himself with his first silver and an SB of 43.82. He struggled mightily in ’09 (44.60), before getting back together with Hart and running 44.12 in 2010. But 2011 saw another stall with injuries taking him out of the World Championships and ending his season with an SB of “only” 44.88. With Beijing conqueror LaShawn Merit two years his Junior and Kirani James just getting started, London likely could be Wariner’s final shot at Olympic gold. But with WAriner already in possession of gold, I’m more curious as to whether or not he and Hart can make a final run at the record – because realistically it could take something in the mid to high 43 range to get gold in London – and if he can get to that level, why not all the way? Wariner will only be twenty seven in 2012 but it’s clear that injuries are taking their toll, and 2012 will tell the tale for Wariner I believe. Will he once again be the best of the best and fulfill that destiny we were all talking about in ’07, or will the window close on that part of his career?
Steve Hooker (AUS) – Pole Vault WR
Several of the names on this list are of athletes that seemed “destined” – Hooker is another “destined” athlete whose window may be closing in 2012. Hooker’s rise was sudden and meteoric. Only 5.65m (18’ 6.5”) in the Olympic season of 2004, he leaped up to 5.87m (19’ 3”) in ’05, 5.96m (19’ 6.5”) in ’06, and 5.91m (19’ 4.5”) in ’07 – but only finished 9th in both Helsinki and Osaka. In 2008 it looked like he finally had it all together clearing 6.00m (19’ 8.25”) and winning Olympic gold. He then turned around and leapt 6.06m (19’ 10.5”) indoors and suddenly we were looking at the next 20 footer (6.10m) – or so we thought. He only cleared 5.95m (19’ 6.25’) outdoors, and suffered through a mediocre season before pulling it together to win Worlds at 5.90m (19’ 4.25’). The 2010 season saw another six meter clearance indoors (6.01m/ 19’ 8.5”) to win the World indoor title – but only 5.95m (19’ 6.25”) outdoors, with No Heights in four meets during the summer. This year saw only two meets due to injury – a 5.45m (17’ 10.5”) and a No Height. Hooker will be thirty this next summer and in his fourth Olympic cycle. More importantly, however, as with Wariner younger challengers have stepped up – specifically Renaud Lavillenie of France (6.01m/19’ 8.5” in ’09; 6.03m/19’ 9.5 indoors this year). As with Wariner, however, I’m more interested in whether or not he can close out his climb to the record than I am obtaining more hardware. Of course with the rise of new talent, he just may have to get to that level to be in the running for the podium in London.
Blanka Vlasic (CRO) – High Jump WR & Olympic Gold
Vlasic is yet another that seemed “destined” to break the WR. She competed in her first Olympics back in 2000 at the tender age of 16 clearing a modest 1.92m (6’ 3.5”) – she was World Jr. Champion the same year. She took her lumps in Edmonton, Paris, Athens and Helsinki, but clearly learned along the way, clearing 2.00m (6’ 6.75”) in ’03 (2.01m/6’ 7”), ’04 (2.03m/6’ 8”) and ’06 (2.03m/6’ 8”). Then in ’07 it all came together – an SB 2.07m/6’ 9.5” and gold in Osaka; 2.06m twice in ’08 and silver in Beijing; then gold in Berlin and an SB 2.08m/6’ 9.75”, just .01m away from the WR! The 2010 season saw her clearing much lower heights however, and she ended the season with a best of “only” 2.05m/6’ 8.75”. Then this year saw her struggle with injuries and nearly pull out of the World Championships before showing her mettle by taking silver in Daegu with her SB 2.03m/6’ 8”. Blanka will be twenty eight when London comes around and like several other stars will be facing Father Time and youthful competition as she stares two windows in the face. One will be her attempt at Olympic gold, because in spite of having two World Championships, she has yet to take the very top rung of the podium. She will also be trying to find the form to clear that last centimeter to WR status – a record that has stood since 1987! Vlasic is the only person on this list looking to climb through two windows, and I wish her well in the attempt. With Arianne Friedrich (2.06m/6’ 9”) returning from injury; Chaunte Howard Lowe (2.05m/6’ 8.75”)attempting to return to form after child birth; and Anna Chicherova (2.07m/6’ 9.5”)becoming #3rd all time this year, getting through that Olympic window to gold could be a tight fit.
Asafa Powell (JAM) – 100 Meter Gold
While Vlasic has been oh so close to the High Jump WR, Powell has clocked a WR in the 100 meters on four different occasions! What Powell has not been able to do is get to the top of the awards podium. Twice he has missed Majors due to injury – 2005 & 2011. Once he false started out before getting to the final – 2003. Twice he finished off the podium completely with 5th place finishes in the Athens (“04) and Beijing (’08) Olympics. And twice he has finished in the bronze medal position – World Championships in 2007 & 2009. So the man that has four times held the WR in the event finds himself looking for his first medal of any kind in the Olympic Games. The task will not be easy for the man that would be twenty nine should he arrive in London, because making the Jamaican team is not a given. He will have to face defending Olympic Champion and current WR holder Usain Bolt (9.58), Daegu winner Yohan Blake, and a host of rising Jamaican sprinters that should include #4 all-time Nesta Carter (9.78). Should he make the team, there is then the prospect of adding American Tyson Gay to the mix – #2 all time; gold medalist ahead of Powell in Osaka; and silver medalist ahead of Powell in Berlin. In short, the London final could be the deepest final in history, making for a very tough window to climb through.
Phillips Idowu (GBR) – Olympic gold
the Olympic Games being held in London, Great Britain will be looking for a Brit to shine as Michael Johnson did in Atlanta and Cathy Freeman did in Sydney. Idowu is an athlete with the potential to do just that. He was 6th in those Games in Sydney, and was 6th again in Osaka before hitting his stride with silver in Beijing, gold in Berlin, and silver again this year in Daegu. So he gives Britain a solid contender for gold in London. The hop skip and stepper will face tough opposition in London, however. The first will be Father Time as Idowu will be thirty three in London. But as tough as that will be his youthful competition will be even tougher as Teddy Tamgho (17.98m/59’ 0”) and Christian Taylor (17.96m/58’ 11.25”) are #’s 3 & 5 all time at the tender ages of twenty two and twenty one respectively – quite a formidable pair! Then there is twenty two year old Sheryf El Sheryf who seemed to hit his stride this year leading 17.72m/58’ 1.75”. Making the London triple jump final a possible showdown among a quartet of 58 footers! So Idowu may have the toughest job of all on this list, carrying the expectations of a host nation on his shoulders while attempting to get through that gold medal window before it shuts. I do not envy him the task.
So there you have it, a half dozen of the World’s best athletes with windows of opportunity looking to close on their careers. All should play a major role in the upcoming Olympic season, and their stories should be closely watched. I will begin following them in earnest once the calendar opens up on the Olympic Year of 2012.