Thursday, September 29, 2011

What Will Our Male Middle Distance Presence be in London

Looking back on 2011 & Daegu, and forward to 2012 & London, I find three areas in the U.S. that concern me. One is the men’s sprints & hurdles which I recently touched on. Another is our field events in general – something I’ll be talking about in the very near future. The other, that I’ll be addressing today, is our male middle distance runners. I say this in spite of Matt Centrowitz’ surprise bronze in Daegu, because it was just that – a surprise. Because right now there is only one middle distance runner that we can count on to produce when needed – Bernard Lagat – and his career is moving away from the 1500 and on to longer events.

imageWe do seem to have potential competitors in wait in the 1500, however. Centrowitz dropped his PR dramatically in ’11 (3:36.92 to 3:34.46) and ran well in Daegu. Andrew Wheating (3:30.90), Lopez Lamong (3:32.20), and Leonel Manzano (3:32.37) all ran well in 2010 (all actually faster than Lagat) but had difficulties with injuries in 2011. A return to good health among this group would make a tremendous difference in our fortunes for London, as they roved in 2010 to n ot only be able to run fast, but to be able to compete with several high placings on the European Circuit between them.

Also potentially in the mix is Russell Brown, who has had steady improvement in the last three seasons – 3:37.32 (’09), 3:36.89 (’10), and 3:35.70 (’11). The Olympic year could prove to be a breakthrough for him. The same could be said for David Torrence who was 3:34.26 in 2010, and after a bit of a letdown this year (3:35.95) ended the season on a high note finishing third in the recent 5th Avenue Mile in 3:52.4. Then there is always the spectre of Alan Webb, who will be trying to pull it together one last time before his window closes on the Olympics.

While there is the potential to make a good showing next year in the metric mile, I’m much more concerned about our prospects moving forward in the 800 meters. We only have one athlete running under 1:44.00 (Nick Symmonds, 1:43.83) in an event that typically finds the best athletes UNDER 1:43 in an Olympic season. Which means getting into a position to medal will be near impossible unless the pace goes very slow – something almost unlikely to happen with David Rudisha and Abubaker Kaki in the race.

There are two things that are of great concern to me regarding this event. One is that our top two athletes are aging. Nick Symmonds will be twenty eight by the Olympics; Khadevis Robinson (1:44.03 this year) will be thirty five. This in an event that has seen a major “youth” movement in the last few seasons with this year’s top four athletes in the 21/22 year old age range and the year’s #5 athlete only 17 years old!

Of even more concern is that we don’t seem to be bringing much speed to the event. Among our current group of half milers only Robinson brings a decent 400 PR to the table – a 46.55 run way back in 1998. The rest of our crew rely more on mile strength than speed – Symmonds 3:38.18, 1500; Robbie Andrews 1:44.71/3:41.09; Tyler Mulder 1:44.83/2:17.91, 1000. With Charles Jock (1:44.67) and Cory Primm (1:44.71) running almost solely the 800 meters.

imagePersonally I see this as a great weakness, as historically the top 800 men have traditionally brought great speed to the event. The first man to break the 1:44 barrier was Marcello Fiasconaro, who moved up to the event after competing in the 400 and setting an Italian record of 45.7. He used that speed to carry him to a 1:43.7 back in 1973. His success was part of the rationale for Alberto Juantorena (El Caballo) moving up to attempt the 400/800 double – which he successfully did winning both events in 1976, and establishing PR’s of 44.26 & 1:43.44, the latter a WR at the time. The man who broke the 1:43.00 and 1:42.00 barriers, Sebastian Coe, ran the open 400 in 46.87 and ran the 4x4 in 45.5. And the last two WR holders, Wilson Kipketer and David Rudisha had/have 400 PR’s of 46.85 & 45.50 respectively. Clearly there is something to bringing a bit of 400 meter speed to this event when it comes to competing at the highest levels.

So hopefully we will see a couple of things in 2012 and beyond when it comes to American’s in the 800. One is that it would be nice to see our half milers spend some time working on foot speed and working to improve their 400 meter times. The other is that it would be nice to see some quarter milers begin to give this event some consideration. Fiascanaro moved up because he realized that while he was the Italian record holder at 400 meters, 45.7 was never going to get him far in the event. Similarly we have a lot of 400 meter runners in that 45.5 to 46.0 range that might find greatness in the 800 instead of being obscure in the 400. America’s #2 all-time 800 man, Mark Everett, competed in both, a la Juantorena, and ended with PR’s of 44.59 & 1:43.20! And U.S. #3 all-time David Mack (1:43.35) was a main cog on both his high school (Locke) and college (University of Oregon) 4x4 squads.

Perhaps we can either get some of our current 800 men to cross train a bit in the 400, and/or get some of our 400 meter men that are currently running in the David Rudisha range (mid 45’s) to give the event a try.

In either case, I hope to see some progress from our male middle distance corps, because it’s been some time since we’ve been on the podium in either event in Olympic competition. Our last medal over 800 came in 1992, when AR holder Johnny Gray took bronze in Barcelona. And, believe it or not, we haven’t medaled over 1500 meters at the Games since Jim Ryun’s silver medal WAY back in 1968! So we have a lot of work to do in 2012.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Whose Windows Could Close in the Olympic Year

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

imageJeremy 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

imageVlasic 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

imagethe 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.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

American Women Leading the Way to London

As we close to door on the 2011season all was not bleak for the U.S. on the track. While our men had their difficulties and many lament that the rest of the world has “caught up” to us; the distaff side of things did remarkably well.

From the 100 through the 1500, including the relay and hurdle events – U.S. women were on or very near the podium. In some cases “catching up” to the rest of the world!

imageFollowing the Beijing Games, many were ready to concede sprint supremacy and dominance to Jamaica. After a Jamaican sweep of the 100, another 200 win by Valerie Campbell Brown over Felix, Shericka Williams (2nd) finished one spot better in the 400 than Sanya Richards (3rd), and our women dropped the baton in the 4x1 – things couldn’t have gone much worse for our women sprinters. And that was good compared to the licking out women took in events longer than 400 meters, where the only bright spot was a bronze by Shalane Flanagan in the 10,000. We didn’t even have finalists in most events as Shannon Rowbury (8th in the 1500) Dawn Harper (1st 100H) and Sheena Tosta (2nd 400H) the only other women able to make a final on the track.

We closed that gap in Berlin, however, as Carmelita Jeter (3rd in the 100), Allyson Felix (1st in the 200), and Sanya Richards (1st in the 400) brought home sprint medals. And in the 1500 we place three women in the final as Rowbury moved up to bronze. We did drop that stick in the 4x1 again, and continued to have problems in the 800.

Daegu completed the transformation, as American women were solid from the 100 through the 1500 with Carmelita Jeter winning the 100 and taking silver in the 200; Allyson Felix taking silver in the 400 and bronze in the 200; two finalists in the 800 with Montano centimeters from a medal; and in spite of our favored runner getting tripped in the 1500 we STILL came through with gold! Throw in gold in the 400 hurdles, silver and bronze in the 100 hurdles and a dominating sweep of both relays, and I would say that our women are in prime position as we head into the Olympic season, because in addition to the medalists form Daegu, we had outstanding depth over the course of the season.

In the sprints, Marshevet Myers (10.86), Alex Anderson (11.01), Shalnoda Solomon (11.08/22.15), Jeneba Tarmoh (22.28), and Bianca Knight (22.35) all stepped up their games in 2011. So did quarter milers Francena McCorory (50.24) and Jessica Beard (51.10) – McCorory finishing just off the podium in Daegu and both contributing legs to the gold medal 4x4 squad. image

Similarly we’ve built great depth in the middle distances. In the 800 we had eight women under 2:00 lead by Alysia Montano (1:57.48), Morgan Uceny (1:58.37), Maggie Vessey (1:58.50) and Alice Schmidt (1:58.61). Uceny lead the world over 1500 at 4:00.06, with Jenny Simpson (4:03.54), Christin Wurth Thomas (4:03.72), and Worlds semifinalist Shannon Rowbury (4:05.73) all among the world’s best.

In the short hurdles, we had the world’s three best hurdlers not named Sally Pearson in Danielle Carruthers (12.47), Dawn Harper (12.47) and Kellie Wells (12.50). We could use a bit of work behind World Champion Lashinda Demus, but there is potential in Queen Harrison (54.78), jasmine Chaney (55.22), Turquois Thompson (55.53) and Ti’erra Brown (55.59), all of whom seemed to be a season away in 2011 – and wouldn’t 2012 be the season to shine.

So on the heels of what was a subpar Beijing, our women have rebounded nicely, gaining ground on the rest of the world, leading the way in Daegu, and providing a great base rounding the corner towards London. Similar improvements in 2012 from our men on the track and thirty medals in London would certainly be within reach.

So here’s to the women of 2011 who often don’t get the recognition that their male counterparts get, but who carried the load for the U.S. this year. They’ve rebounded well, and are leading the way into the Olympic season.

Friday, September 23, 2011

What Happened to U.S. Sprint Camps?

The sprints have traditionally been the bread and butter of U.S. international teams since, well forever. Heading into your typical Olympic or World Championships competition, one could count on U.S. domination of the sprints, hurdles and relays.

imageIn Daegu, however, such was not the case – at least on the men’s side of the ledger. As a matter of fact, when the smoke cleared, we had two sprinters make sprint finals – Walter Dix in the 100 & 200, and LaShawn Merritt in the – and only one gold medal from our male sprint crew with Merritt’s come from behind win in the 4x4.

Granted the rest of the world is improving, but as I said previously I believe the problem lies more in our lack of improvement than in the rest of the world catching up. After all, we still have as much talent as ever. At the end of the 2010 season things looked to be going well. Tyson Gay had defeated Usain Bolt over 100 meters and ended the season undefeated, with the co-fastest time in the world, and ranked #1 in the world in the event. Gay (19.72) Combined with Walter Dix (19.72) and Wallace Spearmon (19.79) gave us three men under 19.80 over 200 meters. And Jeremy Wariner looked healed and ready to resume his role as one of the world’s best quarter milers after dropping times of 44.13 & 44.22.

Things also looked good from the up and comers in 2010. Ryan Bailey became a staple on the European circuit and responded with bests of 9.88 & 2010. Trell Kimmons and Ivory Williams were solid and respectable, each running 9.95 during the summer. Curtis Mitchell went sub20 (19.99) with back up runs of 20.06, 20.23 and 20.27. And 2008 H.S. record setter J-Mee Samuels PR’d at 10.03 in his best season since leaving high school. We had 11 athletes at 10.10 or better, 8 under 20.30, and 14 running faster than 45.30. The point here is that our talent pool was/is as strong as ever – still the deepest on the planet.

So, a year later, why did we enter Daegu stadium with only two sprinters able to make finals? Why did we need a come from behind effort to win the 4x4? Why were we “hoping” to maintain contact with Jamaica in the 4x1? You can point to injuries – Gay, Wariner, Spearmon, McQuay. You can point to bad luck – Patton going down in the 4x1. But I’m going to point to the fact that our sprinters have gotten away from what has worked in the past – training TOGETHER with the best available coaches. And when we talk about the rest of the world “catching up” they have done so using the very same methodology that our sprinters have gotten away from!

When you look at the modern era of sprinting – going back to the 1960’s – the vast majority of our Super Sprinters have been developed by top coaches coaching multiple talented athletes – a combination of technical expertise joining with a fierce training environment.image

The 60’s had the Santa Clara Valley Youth Village – better known as Speed City – coached by all-time great Bud Winter. The camp produced Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, John Carlos, and Bill Gaines among others. The 70’s saw no major camps and, perhaps coincidently, a drop in success internationally with Borzov dominating the ’72 Games and Caribbean athletes the ’76 Games. Once again in the ‘80’s however, we saw the emergence of a super camp – the Santa Monica Track Club. Under the tutelage of Tom Tellez we witnessed the development of Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell, Joe DeLoach, and Mike Marsh, et al – and a climb back to the top of the world’s elite and international podiums.

The late 80’s saw John Smith gather 400 meter talent and develop Steve Lewis, Danny Everett and Quincy Watts. Then create a full on club in the 90’s – H.S.I. – that produced Ato Boldon, Jon Drummond and Maurice Greene, and maintained sprint supremacy into the turn of the century. The mantle went to SprintCap in the early oughts with Shawn Crawford and Justin Gatlin, then inexplicably the sprint training camp system seemed to simply dissolve – at least in the U.S. The pairing of Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon was the last great U.S. training pairing, coming on the heels of them being teammates at the University of Arkansas. After going pro, however, Spearmon left the “group” while Gay continued to train with coach Brauman.

Ironically, however, as American sprinters began to seek “individuality” in their training and coaching, Jamaica began to embrace the training camp philosophy. Jamaica started with the MVP camp headed by Asafa Powell, Michael Frater and Nesta Carter – coach Stephen “Franno” Francis. Then the Racers Club with Usain Bolt, Daniel Bailey and Yohan Blake – coach Glen Mills. And as Jamaica went to training camps that combined the country’s best talent with the best available coaches, and the U.S. to individuals working independently, the pendulum swung from U.S. success internationally to Jamaican success – culminating in multiple international finalists, medals, and records!image

Even more ironic, is that while American sprinters have abandoned “training camps” U.S. middle and long distance runners have discovered them with great success. On the women’s side of things the Mammoth Track club has spawned Morgan Uceny, Anna Pierce and Amy Hastings. While the men have found much success in Oregon under the tutelage of Alberto Salazar as he’s churned out Dathan Ritzenhein, Galen Rupp and Chris Solinsky among a cast of what have become America’s best ever distance crew!

Obviously getting the best athletes together with the best coaches WORKS. Once upon a time, Maurice Greene sat in the stands of our Olympic Trials and watched as others made the team he felt he should have been on. He then moved half way across the country from Missouri to Los Angeles to be trained by John Smith. After four individual World Championships, an Olympic title and an Olympic bronze for good measure, Greene retired as the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) in the 100 meters. This past year, British distance runner Mo Farah decided that he too needed to find a coach and group that would take him to the top. So he came across the Atlantic Ocean and across the United States to Oregon to train with Salazar and his group. His reward, gold in the 5000 and silver in the 10000 in Daegu!

I’m starting to overuse this word, but ironically John Smith is still coaching outstanding sprinters – they just happen to be women! His latest champion is Carmelita Jeter, gold medalist in the 100 and silver medalist in the 200 in Daegu. At 10.63 she is the second fastest woman of all time – second only to WR holder Florence Griffith Joyner. And Jeter was no accident because before Jeter he coached Torri Edwards (10.78) and before Torri, Inger Miller (10.79/21.77). I would say that Smith still has it. Yet with a resume that includes Olympic and World Champions Steve Lewis, Quincy Watts, Maurice Greene, Inger Miller and Carmelita Jeter (and World Champion hurdler Jason Richardson added just this year) not a single top level U.S. male sprinter has entered the H.S.I. camp since the retirement of Maurice Greene after the 2004 season!

Instead, training solo, American sprinters have watched as MVP and Racers training partners have churned out the results: Usain Bolt (9.58/19.19), Asafa Powell (9.72/19.90), Nesta Carter (9.78), Yohan Blake (9.82/19.26), Michael Frater (9.88) and two WR’s in the 4ximage 1 (37.10 & 37.04) – and that’s just on the top end.

The moral to this story is that there is a CLEAR path to success. A path and system that the U.S. PIONEERED and rode to tremendous success for several decades! When we have gotten off that path, the 1970’s and the “oughts”, we have seen others take over and begin to dominate. And when we have watched others emulate that path, they too have had the same type of success that our sprinters once enjoyed.

So my suggestion to all of the American sprinters out there that aspire to greatness is, find yourself a partner or two and the best coach you can, and just as Maurice Greene once did BEG him to make a champion out of you – because it WORKS! Yes, you may have to go half way across the country a la Mo Greene. But on the positive side, you won’t have to move half way across the world like Mo Farah! Then again, if you don’t mind getting beat, stay right where you are. Mediocrity requires no change in comfort. There is a cost to greatness, however. Luckily for American sprinters it is within reach – and the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lack of Transparency Leads to Finger Pointing

It seems that every year there are one or two performances, such as Brussels’ 200 meters, that leave everyone saying, “What was that?” Followed by a mass discussion of the sport’s tainted history in the area of drug use including “border wars” between American & Jamaican fans on message boards; articles in newspapers such as the one recently written by the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Hersh; then counter articles asserting that Hersh is wrong in questioning the performance; and generally lots of whispered accusations and innuendo regarding what is or is not going on within this sport.

imageThe problem is that both sides are correct in their own right. Those that question “exceptional” performances have reason to do so, because everything that Mr. Hersh stated in his article is correct. His “evidence” however is “circumstantial” – as are most of the arguments that are given with respect to these types of performances. On the opposing side, those that are angry when their athletes draw scrutiny are also right in their arguments, but just as with their opposition their “evidence” is also “circumstantial”. More importantly, however, their “trust” in the performances is based on “faith” – the faith that they trust “their” athletes to do the right thing. Trust and faith that they lack in other athletes, and in the system that is supposed to provide the security that EVERYONE is indeed clean.

You see the REAL problem is twofold. Part A is that the sport is suspect in the application of its anti-doping program; Part B is that the sport does not provide enough information to the public to secure confidence in its programs and thus in the performances of its athletes! A & B combined result in the questions that always arise when athletes accomplish something extraordinary.

Part A exists because there have been far too many high profile instances where the public has been “fooled” by the sport. Ben Johnson and the Dubin Inquiry back in the late ‘80’s, early 90’s; BALCO in the early 2000’s; the revelation from former U.S. officials that Carl Lewis and others may have had positive tests covered up in the late 80’s; all have had the cumulative effect on the general populace, as well as athletes themselves who’ve expressed as much in this age of social media, of taking away any confidence that once existed in this sport’s drug testing policies and procedures.

Now, I’m not a fan of the system that is in place. Nor am I happy with the way the sport is going about its attempt to change it – but that’s for a different discussion, one that I will have in the very near future. Whatever system is in place however, needs to have buy in from all concerned – athletes, coaches, media and fans – because perception is reality to the masses whether it is reality or not. And currently the perception of track and field is that tremendous performances are the result of outside forces as much as they are from good old fashioned hard work – because too many athletes that have had great performances have been found to have supplemented that hard work with something else!

So how does the IAAF (the lead agency of track and field) hope to change that perception? Like any other organization or individual does, by showing that it has nothing to hide. By saying “Here is what we do, what has been done, here are the outcomes, and as you can see everything is working as it is supposed to.” – In other words by being transparent with the public regarding its anti-doping program. As I said in April of 2010, and alluded to above, the rash of high profile failures of the program has lead to distrust. And the sport’s “veil of secrecy” regarding testing doesn’t help. Nor has its insistence on allowing the program to be circumvented. In this age of the Internet, we all know when a country doesn’t have an anti-doping agency in place – and is simply allowed to go without rather than take part in a regional agency. We know when a federation questions the right of anti-doping personnel to come into their country. We know when athletes go out of their way to avoid “testers” that are looking for them. We also know that the only information that the IAAF provides to the public about the program is the listing of those that are banned. Personally I think one of the biggest PR blunders of this sport is the level of secrecy that envelopes the anti-doping process.

When you are a sport that a) is supposed to be the centerpiece of what is the world’s premier competition (The Olympic Games) and b) you tout yourself as the bastion of cleanliness when compared to other sports (such as MLB, NFL, et al) then you must appear to have all your cards on the table. You don’t do that by responding to questions about a country’s “cleanliness” by saying that you personally (IAAF officials) are going to that country to take samples (WADA’s job, not yours). Then exacerbate it by telling us that samples have been taken in a country, and by an anti-doping agency, that does not have a lab ratified to test them. That’s an insult to the public’s intelligence and raises more questions than it provides answers.

If you can say, however, “go to www.availableinfo where responses to all of your basic questions about our anti-doping program can be found”, the matter becomes immediately defused. In an age where I can go online and find out the results of my kid’s math test before he gets home from school; where the day’s results of the entire Olympic Games can be transmitted around the world AS they happen; where the answers to almost any question one can imagine are just a few “clicks” away; it would seem that providing a reasonable level of information regarding the sport’s anti-doping program could be done by enlisting the aid of a high school computer science intern who would probably be happy to set up the system for little more than advanced credit.

For the IAAF to allow the questioning of its performances, and the athletes that are the face of the sport, to continue when it has within its ability to quell the argument seems rather irresponsible to me. Especially given that our biggest failing seems to be in the area of marketing and our biggest obstacle the negativity of doping. More so, when your marketing plan seems to hinge on the development of athletes that you WANT to perform at levels approaching the ceiling of human performance, it would seem that you would do everything in your power to ensure that those same performances do not draw NEGATIVE publicity, otherwise you are at odds with yourself – which is where I find the sport of track and field with respect to its best performances, at odds with itself.

So, on my list of things I sorely would like to see the IAAF fix, providing transparency for its anti-doping program sits at #1 on the list – right above fixing the anti-doping program itself, and fixing the broken false start policy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Pan Am Games as a Development Tool

Believe it or not the season is not quite over. Among a handful of very small competitions, the Pan American Games will be taking place in Guadalajara Mexico, October 24th through October 29th. image

With the World Championships and Olympic Games combining to give us three major championship meets every four year cycle, meets like the Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games don’t have the same importance that they once had thirty or forty years ago. I do think, however, that they present an opportunity to help in the development process of our National teams for the Major events.

Looking over the USA’s roster for the event, I’m pleased to see that in some areas we have athletes that have made, or are on the cusp of making, major teams getting the opportunity to compete in this type of environment – Rae Edwards, Michael Berry, Tyler Mulder, Kibwe Johnson, Jamie Nieto, Jenn Suhr, Michelle Carter, Aretha Thurmond, Sara Hall, and Virginia Powell chief among them. I would hope that going forward that we would see more athletes of this level competing in these kinds of events; because I don’t think we can get too much “practice under pressure”.

I understand that personal schedules, etc. have an effect on who can and cannot attend, but I would love to see more “up and comers” involved. Budding young stars like: Rakieem Salaam, Robbie Andrews, Johnny Dutch, Will Claye, Jessica Beard, Phoebe Wright, and Lauren Fleshman, among others. Because, in keeping with my theme of maximizing our potential, we need to begin to get as much “seasoning” for those who appear to be our future. And taking these young people out of their “comfort zone” and having them compete in the kinds of environments that they will see in Major competitions in the future is money well spent – especially if we are already committed to spending the money!

On that note, and given the poor results we’ve had over the last half decade with our relay squads, I think we need to start looking at competitions such as the Pan Am Games as a critical part of the process of developing our relay squads. Especially given that there are precious few international opportunities available to have squads compete – let alone under “championship” type conditions. I know that this is the time of year when athletes want to shut it down and get a bit of rest – and the positioning of this meet near the end of October really extends that timeline. By the same token however, it does provide an opportunity when most of the principle players would be available. And having a one or two week “camp” culminating in a somewhat high level race would provide both a solid way to end the season as well as give us a preview of how we should be tweaking our squads going forward.

And I’m talking about both our 4x1 AND 4x4 squads, because if we learned anything from Daegu (and I hope we did) you can never have too many quartermilers ready to go when you might possibly need them! It’s probably too late in the process to pull together our “National” teams to compete in Guadalajara this time around. But I think it is something that should be considered for future events.

With that I hope that we see great performances out of those athletes that will be in Mexico. Hopefully it will be the kind of experience that can help jump start one or two careers heading around the corner to London.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I Want to Maximize Our Potential

Brussels effectively closed out a very interesting 2011 season – a season that for me opened up as many questions as it provided answers. So there are lots of things I want to discuss and look at over the course of the down time between now and the indoor season. I want to start by following up on a comment I made last week – that I don’t think that twenty five medals is the best that the U.S. can do in a major, that out potential is greater than that. I feel that I need to start there because many of my comments and observations of the season that just ended, and looking forward to London, are interrelated to our potential.

imageSo, Last week I said we are not realizing our potential as an international team – and I stand by that. As a matter of fact after watching Brussels, I’m even more sure. It’s not a slam against our athletes. It’s actually a compliment because I think we have the best talent base in the world. It’s not a slam against our coaches either, because I think we have some of the best coaches in the world. So what’s the problem? The problem in my opinion lies in our organization – or lack thereof.

You see, when you have the best talent base in the world AND many of the world’s best coaches, but you rely on chance and happenchance to create the right combinations of the two you are seriously lacking in organization! And watching the end of the season in Zurich and Brussels, I’m more convinced than ever that our issues lie in organization more than anything else, because we have athletes with the talent of Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Sally Pearson, and Anna Chicherova, but they are not getting the attention and assistance they need from USATF.

Because in my opinion the one thing that hasn’t improved as this sport has moved from amateur to professional is our organization. During the evolution from AAU, to TAC, to USATF we have yet to develop real coordination among all the training factions that actually make up our “National” teams. The athletes have lots of “physical” tools – tracks, shoes, masseurs, and coaches. But we lack coordination. You may have your own coach, and he/she may be good at one aspect of your event, but perhaps there are others that have better expertise in other aspects. You as the athlete however,only have access to your own coach. Training “camps” don’t come together. So while we have some of the best coaches and minds in the world, they are not accessible to all. I watch Walter Dix sprint and I see all the things that are missing in his race that are present in Tyson Gay’s – and I sorely want to see them on the track working together if only for a couple of weeks – sharing training tips and technical expertise between athletes and coaches. So I look at how we can be better coordinated.

The models of organization in this sport were the old Cold War East Germany and Soviet Union. They took sport seriously – some might even say a bit too seriously. Yes, they had their faults – primarily their state operated doping programs, so let’s get this out of the way off the top. I’m in NO way suggesting that we emulate THAT part of their program – because I’m sure someone will say that I am. What I am saying is that doping aside, they were the model for identifying talent (athletic and coaching) and seeing that talent was matched with coaching, and that potential was maximized.

And THAT is something that we currently have no program/system in place to handle – which in my humble opinion is a big reason why we have run in place for so long, and why the rest of the world has “caught up”.

So where do we start? Well we can start by hiring a leader – a CEO – to run things. That should be PRIORITY ONE for 2012. It won’t be in time to impact London, but it could be for things going forward. And that expensive, fancy, full of verbiage, job description aside, what the organization really needs is someone with vision; able to hire competent people capable of carrying out the vision; and able to delegate without micromanaging so that things can actually get done.

Next, should be a move to separate the “professional” part of the sport from the “amateur” part of the sport. Either by actually splitting them into two distinct organizations, or by moving the “professional” half of the sport into its own self sufficient Division with a “President” at the helm reporting directly to the CEO – replete with separate budgets, funding sources, Mission Statement, goals and objectives, operating guidelines, etc. in order to actualize our potential internationally, I believe there needs to be more focus in this country on our professional/international programs and athletes, because as I said last week, twenty five medals WITHOUT a real program in place says that so much more is possible.

We have a great “farm system” with the youth/amateur side of the sport. Thousands upon thousands of kids are out there running jumping and throwing in both club and school programs (middle and high school) – and are among the best in the world at what they do for their ages. It’s that transition somewhere between high school and college, and after, where we drop the ball organizationally – where it then becomes a matter of happenchance and the singular influence of shoe companies that determines the fates of our national teams. This is where we need USATF to step up to the plate. This is where we need more “professional” focus.

Without sitting down and trying to put a business plan into a post there are several things that I think could be done towards that end. The primary focus of which should be the development of talent across the country. Because the key to the success of East Germany and the Soviet Union was twofold: the identification of talent, and the referral of that talent to coaches that could properly develop it.

So for starters we need to identify our top coaches with the goal of developing two things: a Mentor/Shadow program for developing coaches, and a referral network for athletes – in some cases in conjunction with their “personal” coaches.

The Mentor/Shadow program should be obvious – in a country this large we need to develop as many top level coaches in every discipline that we can across the nation. I would even look to develop Regional Coaches Directories, along with Regional Coaching Development Programs that put coaches like John Smith, Alberto Salazar, Bobby Kersee, and Dick Booth together with their peers to exchange information/techniques. This should be mandatory for all coaches who want to work on international programs – because we want to replicate their success, we want as many athletes as possible benefiting from their knowledge. Similarly the Athlete Referral program would take elite athletes and put them in touch with coaches that can help shore up their weaknesses. For example, while a Walter Dix has his own coach, he (and his coach) could be referred to Jon Drummond for analysis and tweaking of his start mechanics. Again, without disrespect to their personal coaches, acceptance of referrals should almost be a mandatory component of competing on international teams. As we want those athletes competing in the Red, White and Blue competing at their absolute maximum potential.

Having a program in place to better utilize our best coaches, we then need to focus on identifying our athletic talent and funneling athletes to coaches that can best help them develop. I know that in this age of shoe companies, agents and the like that this will not be as easy as it could be – which is why a CEO will need to be able to either interface with those various factions to assist in facilitating this process, or be able to find individuals who can. But matching up athletes with coaches is key to our achieving our potential as an international program. Because in watching our athletes perform in Daegu (and elsewhere) we have far too many “elite” athletes with glaring technical flaws. And for our athletic population base, we have far too m any athletes that plateau and stagnate at too young an age. I look at an athlete like a Ryan Bailey – with the physical attributes of Usain Bolt – who was 9.88/20.10 last year in spite of major technical flaws, who literally disappeared this year. Then contrast him with Yohan Blake who was 9.89/19.78 last year and ended up as World Champion in Daegu and the star of Brussels. I see a disconnect in both organization and philosophy. Because I guarantee that in nearly any other country this Ryan Bailey would be nurtured as a near athletic national treasure. But here we treat him as disposable because we have so many others that we feel will come through when we need them! Yet at the end of the day we showed up to Daegu with only one viable sprinter – Walter Dix – a story that was repeated in several events at Worlds. So perhaps our athletes are not quite as disposable as it seems – and as an organization we need to nurture as many as we can get our hands on.

Moving on, in addition to coaching and referral programs, I think that USATF could benefit from the addition of two other specialty divisions. One is a Nutritional Division where athletes are able to go to get nutritional analyses performed. Part of this should be a vitamin/supplement analysis – both of those that they are using as well as those they may need to add. I understand that “lists” are available to athletes so that they know what they can and cannot take as far was what is on the “banned” list But this is a critical area where USATF should be more involved in my opinion. We should not exit our Trials with anyone testing positive for anything – let alone because of something “inadvertent”. We should be well beyond that by now and should be leading the way globally in this area. Project Believe is a start, but should be broadened and I believe a Nutritional Division work help a large portion of our athletes. And not just with respect to vitamins and supplements. The other focus should be a true nutritional analysis based on their diets – as there is a direct link between diet and performance. Staff dieticians could be a great asset in assisting athletes in developing proper diets to go with their training and performance schedules. As well as helping our athletes with meal planning when attending majors on foreign soil.

The other division that I think needs to be added is a Facilities Division that would be charged with securing adequate training facilities/usage for elite level athletes and programs. Too often our top athletes find themselves in a position of training wherever they can. There is no reason why a coach the level of John Smith, for example, should be precluded at training at facilities such as those at UCLA – where they have been prohibited from training. Smith, Carmelita Jeter, Jason Richardson and the rest of their training group should be welcome at any facility in the United States. If not, USATF should be there to negotiate on their behalf. So, in the short term the head of the Facilities Division would be charged with working out operational agreements at facilities such as those at UCLA and other top level colleges to ensure that our best athletes have access to the best facilities possible. In the long term that division would have the responsibility to develop and put into place a program to develop regional facilities specifically for the use of America’s elite track and field athletes and programs.

Now, I know I’ve put a lot out there – but there is much that needs to be done. After all, realizing one’s potential takes a lot of work. It may not be the only blueprint to success, but areas that I believe we can do much better in. Besides, when it comes to our elite athletes it seems to me, looking from the outside in, that we are near ground zero right now. So, on the positive side, we can make it what we want it to be.

With that, time to take a closer look at the season just ended.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Blake Deuce Louder Than Lightning in Brussels

It’s not been often over the last few years that Usain Bolt has been upstaged on the track, and after setting an SB and WL 9.76 100 it appeared that Brussels would be no different. Except that approximately six minutes later the men’s 200 went off – and 19.26 seconds later the sprint world was once again turned on its ear!
But that sonic boom wasn’t Bolt flashing past the electric eye beam – he was track side enjoying his 100 meter victory. He did have a great view however, of the duel that was taking place between training mate Yohan Blake, and Daegu silver medalist Walter Dix. Dix to Blake’s inside churning around the bend and coming up on Blake’s shoulder just as the turn straightened out – only to have Blake begin to pull away as they both blazed down the stretch. As they passed the finish line Blake’s eyes got wide with surprise; Bolt stared in shock; and Dix left the track and headed under the imagestands – I would imagine running 19.53 and losing to 19.26 will do that to you.
Suddenly the race that I had picked to be THE event of the season, but languished with few quality fields, looked like it could be THE hottest ticket in London! Blake moved to #2 all time with the #2 performance. Sliding none other than Michael Johnson back a slot – and making 19.32 look almost normal – in a race that was faster than both Johnson’s historic Atlanta ’96 win AND Bolt’s record breaking (19.30) Beijing run.
With the season basically done with the close of this meet, Blake closes out the year as the hottest sprinter on the planet, having run 9.82 to win in both Berlin and Zurich prior to today’s epic run. While his 100 meter times have been somewhat predictable and expected, Blake had given no indications at all that anything approaching today’s run was in the offing. Consider that Blake’s PR over 200 at the close of 2009 was 20.60 – his pre professional PR. He improved that substantially last year with times of 19.78 & 19.85 in his only two races of the year. His three early spring races this year of 20.39, 20.33 & 20.38 gave no indication however, that things were going to change significantly in that event this year – especially since he hadn’t been seen in it at all in Europe. I gather that we may see him there a bit more in the future. The smooth striding Jamaican doesn’t have the turnover of Dix, the power of Gay or the long stride of Bolt. He does have that moment of separation in every race – but that seems more conducive to the 100 than the 200. He made that work today, because he also seems to have the ability to hold his edge once he gains it.
I’m sure that everyone will be reviewing this race starting tomorrow. Because after this EVERYONE is going to have to go back to the drawing board as suddenly being as good as Michael Johnson could end up with only bronze in London – or shudder the thought, off the podium! And once again I BEG meet promoters to put this on their schedules because when the fields are right it’s the most exciting race on the track!
Walter Dix, though disappointed in the loss, was rewarded by moving to #2 all-time American, with the #2 time – moving none other than Tyson Gay back a slot! Only MJ’s Atlanta win is faster among Americans. And he will have to take solace in knowing that this was the best 1-2 finish ever in the event. But for Dix this is also the second time in his last two big 200’s that he has finished second – having also done so in Daegu behind Bolt’s 19.40. His times of 19.70 & 19.53 are better for two races than anyone else had done the past two years – including Bolt who was 19.86/19.40 this year and 19.76/19.56 last year. But I have to say to Walter, that if he wants to win these races in the future he’s going to have to run taller. He may the best turn over machine in the business – but he sits in the “bucket” and looks like he’s riding a spin bike. He’s going to have to get up on his toes and run tall and get a bit more extension in that stride of his – because if everyone comes to the table next year this race is going to be ON!
Because after all the hype and crunching of numbers neither Usain Bolt nor Tyson Gay were in the race. They are the two best turn runners in the business hands down and change the dynamics of any race they are in – because they have the ability to take you out of your comfort zone. Also expected to be back and healthy next year is Wallace Spearmon – he owns a 19.65 PR; is the man that was ahead of Blake last year at 19.79 when Blake ran 19.85; and may be the best closer in the business. Christophe Lemaitre though still learning this event, scorched 19.80 behind Bolt and Dix in Daegu and has huge upside potential. So I go back to what I said at the beginning of THIS year – this will be the hottest event in London.
Oh yeah, there were other events in Brussels. As a matter of fact, in spite of the lack of heavy duty match ups, Brussels closed out the 2011 season with a BANG!
The women’s 100 lived up to its billing and showed just what happens when the best get together with some semblance of regularity. Daegu medalists Carmelita Jeter, Veronica Campbell Brown and Kelly Ann Baptiste lined up and gave the crowd its money’s worth with Baptiste and Brown bursting from the blocks to take the early lead. But as soon as Jeter came up into her stride she hit the gas and went past both women on her way to a swift 10.78 win – her 9th sub 11 and 3rd sub 10.80 of the season. Of course VCB didn’t give up without a fight, pressing Jeter all the way with a 10.85 – her 7th sub 11 of the season. With Jeter becoming a threat in the deuce, this pair could be the top sprint rivalry of the Olympic season!
All the heat wasn’t in the sprints though. The men’s 10,000 meters saw Kenenisa Bekele look like the runner of old as he flew to a WL 26:43.18 to lead seven men under 27:00! One of those was Galen Rupp who took down the AR with a sizzling image26:48.00 in third place – signaling that he is ready for prime time. Also moving up on the all-time list of American middle distance runners was Morgan Uceny who won the 1500 in a WL 4:00.06 – just missing breaking the 4:00 barrier and becoming the 6th fastest American woman ever. Uceny did it in what has been her typical fashion – running back in the pack on the first couple of laps; moving up on the third lap to the 6th position passing the bell; making a major move down the backstretch to move into a contending position, then attacking around the final bend and sprinting off the turn to victory down the final stretch. I don’t say things like this often, but I have no doubt that if not for the fall she would have won Daegu gold – and in my first prediction for 2012 she is my London favorite.
These were the hottest races on a track that was scorching! After what seemed like a somewhat down Zurich meet for the athletes, everyone seemed to have their second wind in Brussels – making me wish this was the middle of the season instead of the end! If nothing else, however, it wets the appetite for 2012 and London – and leaves much to talk about heading into the Olympic season. Let the speculation begin – because while the competition is ending I have lots to talk about! We can start with today’s deuce. Watch below. As Arnold said “I’ll be back”.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Brussels Will End Season with Few Big Match Ups

We were told that the Diamond League was going to bring the best of the best together on a regular basis. That all of those key match ups that had been missing in the sport were going to become reality by the Diamond League contracting with all the main characters to put them together in multiple venues. And that the “piece de resitance” would be Zurich and Brussels, as the season would come to a climactic end with athletes vying for Diamond League titles.

So, how’s that working out? Well if the season ending Brussels meet is a guide, not so good.

Take the men’s 100 meters for example. The last time we had a race with the world’s truly best on the track was back in 2009 iimagen the final of the World Championships – the epic Bolt, Gay, Powell final. The Diamond League was supposed to bring them all together last year – but that didn’t happen. We didn’t see them early this season, then of course mid-way through we lost Tyson Gay to injury. We still have Bolt and Powell however, and a new star with Yohan Blake taking the World title in Bolt’s absence and backing that up with back to back 9.82’s in Zurich and Berlin. What we get in Brussels, however, will be a 100 with Bolt, but no Powell or Blake nor Worlds silver medalist Walter Dix – not even Christophe Lemaitre who was 4th in Daegu and certainly a big draw in Europe. No, Bolt gets to run what should be an uncontested race against a field in which the biggest names from Daegu will be finalists Jimmy Vicaut and Nesta Carter – 6th & 7th in the seven man final.

World Champion Blake will be in Brussels – but instead of the 100 he’ll be contesting the 200, where he’s rarely been seen this year! But, as in the 100, no medalists from Daegu will be on the track. Blake will instead be competing against 4th placer Jaysuma Saidi Ndure and 7th place Rondell Sorillo. This theme is repeated throughout the meet, as we end yet another season with a lack of true top level head to heads outside of the global Major – something that the Diamond League was supposed to solve.

There is still a chance that the meet could give us a couple of thrills however, the biggest opportunity being in the men’s 800 which has David Rudisha (KEN) who once again is in outstanding form. This past Saturday in Rieti the Kenyan WR holder ran a sizzling 1:41.33 – the 5th fastest time in history. Last year he ran his twin WR’s (1:41.09 / 1:41.01) one week apart. So I would suspect that another 1:41 imagecould be in the offing and perhaps a shot at the WR – which would almost have to take us under 1:41! That alone would be worth the price of admission. He should have help in the form of top rival, and World’s silver medalist Abubaker Kaki (SUD), who I’m sure, would like nothing less than to be able to take down Rudisha. World 1500 meter champion Asbel Kiprop (KEN) – #3 in the world this year here – will also be in the race as will Adam Kszczot (POL) and Mohammad Aman (ETH) who were 2nd & 3rd behind Rudisha in the Rieti run. So this is a loaded field.

The other event is one that actually brings together all three medalists from Daegu – the women’s 100 meters. While we’ve been having tremendous difficulty getting the top men’s dashers together this century, the women have been happy to take each other on. So Brussels will give us World Champion Carmelita Jeter (USA), runner up Veronica Campbell Brown (JAM)and bronze medalist Kelly Ann Baptiste(TRI) in one final go round before we turn the corner for London. Brussels has a fast surface, so expect something swift to close out the season. This is how the season was supposed to end – times sixteen!

I hope that two days from now I’m going WOW that was an awesome meet. And I’m sure that athletes like Bolt and Sally Pearson in addition to the events I highlighted will provide us with some outstanding moments. But the Diamond League group needs to go back to the drawing board, because this is supposed to be the showcase portion of our season, and so far two years in the only difference between the Diamond League and the old Golden League is the name – as the promises made have yet to be delivered.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Twenty Five is Good, But Not Our Potential

imageI’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 imagethe “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 toimageo 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 imageup 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 timagehe 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.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rudisha 1:41.33 in Rieti !

With World gold in his pocket, David Rudisha (KEN) went to Rieti in search of a shot at his own WR. While he came up just a hair short – 1:41.33, #5 all time – it was his 4th foray under 1:42.00 in the last two seasons. He now owns the #1, #2, #5 & #6 times in history. And the only marks better than today’s run were all WR’s at the time they were run.

The scary thing is the ease with which he churns out these marks – as no one other than the first lap rabbits are able to stay with his long flowing stride. If ever there was a man born to take the WR under 1:41 it’s Rudisha. And I dare say it’s only a matter of time and good health before he does so.

In other action in Rieti LaShawn Merritt (USA) bounced back from his loss at 400 meters Thursday to record an SB 20.14 win in the 200. Likewise Asbel Kiprop (KEN) came back from his loss in Zurich to record a WL 3:30.46 over 1500 meters.

Full results from Rieti can be found here. The weekend action will continue in full force tomorrow with the ISTAF meeting in Berlin. In the meantime enjoy Rudisha’s sterling run.


Friday, September 9, 2011

Zurich – Speed Upstarts Rule

One of the recurring themes of the recently completed World Championships was that of up and coming athletes breaking through to the big time. While it was clear in Zurich that it’s time for the season to end as many athletes are now weary, several of the upstarts in Daegu are clearly out to prove that their performances in Daegu were no flukes.

Take the men’s 100 for example. Yohan Blake (JAM) became the youngest ever World champion, yet it rang a bit hollow as Usain Bolt (JAM) false started out, Tyson Gay (USA) was at home recuperating, and Asafa Powell (JAM) pulled out of the meet with a groin problem. In Zurich Blake and fellow medalists Walter Dix (USA) and Kim Collins (SKN) got to face ’09 bronze medalistimage Powell. At the gun it looked like Powell was going to run away with the race as he got his typical blitzkrieg start blowing the field away in the first 50 meters. The second 50 meters was also typical, except instead of Bolt and Gay shifting gears it was Blake as he ran past Powell to victory in a new PR of 9.82. Blake is clearly one of the elite sprinters and with this race may have become Jamaica’s #2 man. It looks like Bolt and Gay may have a new threat to deal with next year.

Kirani James (GRN) is another young champion that solidified his win in Daegu with a big win in Zurich as he once again took on LaShawn Merritt (USA) – and won! But this time it wasn’t in 44.60 – leaving a bit of doubt as to whether or not the win may have been more a component of Merritt’s “rustiness” than to James’ own ability. As they got in the blocks James himself seemed to have that on his mind. Because at the gun young Kirani was all business as he, Merritt and Jermaine Gonzalez (JAM) went sailing doimagewn the backstretch. And coming off the final bend the race looked like Merritt v Wariner of yesteryear, but it was Merritt and James that came sprinting down the final stretch – and James pulling away from Merritt in the final stretch to win in a sizzling new PR of 44.36! This kid is for real – and the look on Merritt’s face post-race said so. Suddenly the London 400 is looking like it could be one of the top tickets in the stadium instead of a bunch of journeyman level athletes looking to run mid 44! And I’m hoping that the IAAF does the right thing and puts Merritt on the track along with James, Gonzalez and whoever else is ready so that we leave no questions on the political table.

Speaking of leaving no questions on the table, Carmelita Jeter left none as to her commitment to the 200 meters with her resounding victory in Zurich. A novelty in this race when she stepped on the track at the U.S. Trials in June, she has since run under 22.30 four times including her win today in Zurich – her third in a row over three time World Champion Allyson Felix! Once again Jeter was stellar on the turn as she came off the bend a hair in front of Felix. But instead of Felix making up ground on Jeter, the World 100 meter champion pulled away in theimage stretch for yet another win over the distance. And the talk heading into London will not only be about Allyson Felix and a shot at the 200/400 double but also of Carmelita Jeter and a possible shot at the 100/200 double. As suddenly the hottest sprint for the women is becoming the 200 meters with Felix, Jeter and Jamaica’s two time defending Olympic champion Veronica Campbell Brown leading what has become one of the hottest races/rivalries on the planet.

In other action, Dayron Robles (CUB) and Jason Richardson (USA) again went 1-2 in the 110 hurdles. And with David Oliver back in third, we could be witnessing the latest changing of the guard for U.S. men in the hurdles. I know that Oliver has been struggling with some nagging injuries, but that is often how changes begin. This will be an important off season for the man that was undefeated last year in one of the events best ever seasons. Meanwhile Richardson seems to be gaining confidence by the race, and Robles too seems back to his pre injury level – Pre 2009. In the women’s 800, Mariya Savinova (RUS) followed up her Daegu win with another win over what was essentially a repeat of the World Champs final. American Alysia Montano came second, as she too is beginning to look like she is finally gaining confidence in her abilities over the distance. It was another odd race for Caster Semenya (RSA) who finished well back in 5th – and I’m starting to wonder about the motivation, or lack of, for this athlete. I have no question about Sally Pearson’s (AUS) motivation however, as she seems dead set in every race to prove that she is indeed the best 100 meter hurdler on the planet. Once again she decimated the field – this time by .29 sec with a solid 12.52 – even though clearly the efforts in Daegu took a bit out of her.

The full results for Zurich can be found here. This next week will be a busy one with meets in Berlin, Rieti and Roverto before the Diamond League concludes in Brussels on Friday. Between now and then I will be taking a few more looks at some of the happenings from Daegu.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Zurich Preview

Zurich is once again in the position of following a global major, which means that it could serve as a “redemption meet” for several athletes – especially since there are only a handful of meets left before the close of the 2011 season. Most top athletes tend to shut things down once the championship meet is over. At best they compete in one or two meets to make a bit more money. So seeing top level head to heads is now going to become a premium. Making Zurich a meet to watch as this will be one of the few meets still loaded with top level competitors.

Following are six events that I find especially interesting. Because now that the World Championships are over the next goal is London, and everyone wants to end the year on a good note heading into the Olympic year!


Men’s Long Jump

The favorite for the World title was Aussie Mitchell Watt. He lost in Daegu however, to a man that was barely on the radar entering the meet – four time World Champion Dwight Phillips. They get to go head to head once again with Phillips looking to prove that Daegu was no fluke, and Watt looking to show that he is indeed a worthy opponent. Watt was having a sterling season heading into Daegu and had jumped 8.54m/28’ 0.25” in Stockholm. But Phillips was vintage Phillips at Worlds and if Watt wants to upend the World Champion he’s going to have to produce another 8.50m+ jump. Of course Phillips has nine career leaps over 8.50m of his own – five of which came in 2009. Watch the first two rounds, because that’s where the damage was done in Daeagu. Phillips won the gold but could use another win or two over Watt to earn a number one ranking for the season. I expect Phillips to be out over 28 feet.


Women’s 200

Prior to Daegu the only woman that had Allyson Felix’ number was Veronica Campbell Brown, who defeated her twice in the Olympics last year in New York. However short sprint queen Carmelita Jeter has been spending some serious time in the 200 this year, and pushed Felix down to bronze in Daegu. Friday they get to go at it again, along with several other women from the Daegu final. By the way, Daegu was the second time this season that Jeter has defeated Felix, as she also turned the trick in Monaco. She’s been fierce on the bend and if Felix wants to exact a bit of revenge on Ms. Jeter she’s going to have to get up on her horse and get around that turn. There are no rounds this time – just get in the blocks and go. I’d like to say that Felix is the favorite, but Jeter has proven that she’s for real, and suddenly Felix has competition right in her own backyard. Felix needs this race for her morale, because she’s not used to playing second fiddle in this event. But first off the bend will win again – and right now that favors Jeter.


Men’s 400

Kirani James became the youngest ever World Champion over 400 meters in Daegu. He did so by holding off defending champion LaShawn Merritt. If he wants to win in Zurich he will once again have to defeat Merritt - a very daunting task indeed. I’m a big fan of the young Grenadan, but his winning time (44.60 PR) was well off of previous winning marks at the World Championsimagehips – even off of the WL opening round run 44.35 run by Merritt earlier in the meet. An under raced Merritt made a couple of mistakes that I don’t think we will see him make in Zurich. I expect Merritt to be much closer to 44.25 this time around – can James improve that much? This race will say more about London than Daegu did in my opinion, as James will face a man more prepared than the one he ran against two weeks ago. Look for Merritt to set another WL.


Women’s 100H

I’m not looking for redemption here for anyone, but rather an attack on the World Record. Sally Pearson already proved just how much better she is than everyone else in the world. She’s faster of foot and clearly better technically. And she’s the first person I’ve seen in the last decade that seems capable of taking down the record – and Gail Devers wasn’t nearly as solid technically as Pearson. With no rounds and a fast track, I’m very curious to see what Pearson is capable of producing! The window of opportunity for most athletes is small, so when you are “in the zone” you have to strike while the iron is hot! Pearson is in that zone right now, and her challenge is less in winning the race than getting from 12.28 (her PR) to 12.21 (the WR). The best ever mark in Zurich is 12.46. I expect at the very least a new MR will be set.


Men’s 100

There will be no Bolt in Zurich, so we still won’t get to see him finish a 100. World Champion Yohan Blake is in town however, along with silver medalist Walter Dix and bronze medalist Kim Collins. They will get to ply their wares against Berlin bronze medalist Asafa Powell, who some believed was destined to win in Daegu with Tyson Gay home and Bolt “subpar”. Powell, however, missed Worlds with a groin injury, though he worked out while in Daegu. With Bolt out of the race, Blake had his way in the Daegu final, and unless Collins finishes stronger or Dix starts better, could do the same in Zurich. Powell, however, has a habit of running his season’s best after the close of a global major, and he will be more rested than the others. So the question is just how healthy is he – was two weeks time enough to heal the groin? I think there will be a lot of discussion after this race.


Women’s 800

The first five from Daegu are all in the race. But don’t expect to see the same order of finish. I have my own thoughts on Semenya (who was second in Deagu) which I will discuss after this meet. Suffice it to say, however that I expect a big win from the South African in Zurich. I’m more interested in what happens in places 2 and after and how these athletes fare – especially Montano and Morgan Uceny who is running the 800 this week. Montano because she was so close to medaling and I want to see consistency from her as it will bode well going forward – potentially for London. For Uceny I just want to see her out there and doing well. I still think she is one of our best hopes for London, and with this race essentially a replay of the World final, both will get a good test of their fitness and race strategy. I hope to see a new PR for Uceny (currently 1:58.37) and I would love to see Montano try to run with Savinova.