Right On Track
By Dave Hunter
July 24, 2012
Last month’s USA Olympic Track & Field Trials provided many answers to the backlog of lingering questions that had piled up in the weeks leading up to the showdown in Eugene. But the intervening weeks since the Trials and the approaching Olympic Games have served to generate a whole new round of queries – questions that won’t be answered until the 30th Olympiad is actually underway. There is inadequate time and space here to wrestle with all of the inquiries that can be posed. But here are six track-related questions that have dominated recent conversations. [Field-oriented questions will be addressed next week…]
1. Can Allyson Felix end the Olympic Trials Tarmoh/Felix tie debate?
There is no question that Ashton Eaton’s dramatic world-record decathlon performance will be the lasting centerpiece of the 2012 United States Olympic Track & Field Trials. But just as Dan O’Brien’s disastrous “no height” in the decathlon pole vault has always been a primary memory of the ’92 Trials, the highly-improbable third place tie in the women’s 100 meters between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh – together with the unprecedented and awkward melodrama of resolution that ensued – is destined to become an enduring remembrance of the ’12 Olympic Trials. The incredible tie, the inexplicable delays, the several false starts toward resolution, the unseemly effort to encourage the athletes to suggest a solution, the 11th-hour scheduling of a match race, and, finally, the surprising and sad withdrawal of Tarmoh from the match race all have fueled conversation and speculation that will endure for many years. And while there is likely nothing that Allyson Felix can do to end these discussions completely, could an impressive Olympic performance by Felix turn down the decibel level and silence speculation about whether the better 100 meter sprinter is participating in London? While Felix’s dominance in the 200 is not evident in the shorter sprint, it is helpful to recall that earlier this season in the Doha Diamond League meet Felix turned in an unexpected and eye-popping performance when she won the 100 in a personal best time of 10.92 to defeat Jamaican sprint stars Veronica Campbell-Brown and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. A return to that form combined with a crisper, more responsive start – her weakness – would put Felix back in the 100 meter medal hunt. It would also do much to turn the page on the OT debacle, and would allow all of us to be reminded that Allyson Felix, with a legitimate opportunity to win 4 medals – maybe 4 gold medals – in London, is one the most gifted and accomplished sprinters of this or any era.
2. Does Ashton Eaton have an encore?
No one should be perplexed if Ashton Eaton, the newly-minted world-record holder in the decathlon, suffers something of an emotional letdown in London. To be sure, Eaton will be well prepared to perform at his best in all 10 events. But it would be unrealistic to expect another nearly-flawless decathlon effort from Eaton just 6+ weeks after his stunning world-record performance at the Olympic Trials. Former Olympic decathlete gold medalist Dan O’Brien offered a perceptive observation when he noted that Eaton had helped himself immeasurable and had taken the monkey off his back by capturing the decathlon world record in Eugene. “Now,” says O’Brien, “Ashton can focus squarely on winning the gold medal in London.” And, let’s not fool ourselves, the Olympic gold medal – and not a possibly ill-fated mission to better his new world mark – is Eaton’s goal for London. This is not to suggest that Eaton’s decathlon journey in these Olympic Games will not have special moments. Look for selected decathlon events where Eaton’s greatness – still far from fully developed – will shine through. But make no mistake, Eaton’s primary – perhaps exclusive – goal is to ensure that when we prepare breakfast later this fall, we are looking at his picture on the Wheaties’ box.
3. Who will produce the unexpected medal-winning track performance?
A solid number of American track athletes are expected to earn medals of some color at the upcoming Olympic Games and, in fact, will do so. Perhaps even more U.S. track athletes will perform at new and surprisingly higher levels but still not make it onto the medal podium. But who – and there will be at least one – will perform on London’s big stage at an unexpectedly-high level which will actually earn the athlete the medal that no one anticipated? Stephanie Brown-Trafton did it at the ’08 Olympics when she took gold in the discus. Jenny Simpson  and Jason Richardson [110 Hurdles] both won their specialties unexpectedly in last year’s world championships. But who will do it in London?
Could it be Tianna Madison in the women’s 100? Her 10.96 in the Olympic Trials placed her second in the final and demonstrated that she is not merely an indoor 60 meter phenom. Might she be catching these Olympic Games on the rise?
How about Dee Dee Trotter in the 400? Her sub-50 second circuit in the OT final – which saw her closing on Sanya Richards-Ross down the final straightaway – clearly demonstrated that the knee and other ailments that have plagued her over the last 4 years are finally gone. For this seasoned veteran with international experience and the relay gold medals to back it up, an individual medal in the London Games would be a career-crowning achievement.
Is Evan Jager ready to step up? Like many things in life, timing in track and field is paramount. And Jager is peaking at just the right time. His new American record in the 3000 meter steeplechase – 8:06.81 posted in Monaco last weekend – couldn’t have come at a better time and will immediately thrust him into the podium conversation. Only 7 steeplers have posted superior times in 2012. While it is true that Jager’s London competition will include Africans who have run sub-8:00 this year, it must be remembered that the Olympic steeple final is almost always a tactical affair that should allow Jager to be in the hunt. If Jager, who first cleared steeple barriers in earnest last November, can continue his crash course to learn this event, he could surprise in London.
4. Will the USA relay teams keep the baton off the track?
Yes, this vexing problem still lingers – due in no small measur
e to the highly-visible, nationally-televised exchange gaffes that have occurred in recent Olympics and world championships. The mechanics of getting the stick around – precise, timed exchanges within designated zones between athletes running at top speed – while tricky is not something that can’t be mastered with focused practice. The challenge in properly performing the task is exacerbated by the pressure of the moment. It is the track and field equivalent of the 5 foot putt to win the Masters or the last second foul shot to win the NBA playoff game. As Justin Gatlin frankly concedes, “We just have to man-up and get it done.” An effective and speedy quartet in the men’s 4 x 100 appears to be jelling. At Monaco last weekend, the foursome of Trell Kimmons, Gatlin, Tyson Gay, and Ryan Bailey didn’t bruise the baton and posted the year’s leading time of 37.61 – .21 seconds faster than Jamaica’s best time set earlier this year by a squad that featured Yohan Blake and Usain Bolt. But the drama – and the attendant anxiety – continues with the women’s short relay. In the Monaco meet, the USA’s top unit – Madison, Felix, Tarmoh, and Carmelita Jeter – was DQ’d when star-crossed Tarmoh muffed the final pass to Jeter as the duo couldn’t complete the exchange within the zone. The “B” quartet of Lauryn Williams, Alexandria Anderson, English Gardner, and Kimberlyn Duncan ended up notching the Monaco relay win in 42.24 – second this year only to the mark posted by the US women at the Penn Relays. But for USA’s relay specialist and coach Jon Drummond, it’s back to the drawing board as he works to find the foursome that can get it done.
5. Will Morgan Uceny obtain her long-awaited redemption in the 1500?
It would be rare for a track athlete to assemble a season of impressive performances that resulted in a #1 world ranking, yet be less than fully satisfied. Such is likely the case with American middle-distance star Morgan Uceny. Last year, in one horrific instant in the 1500 meter final in the Daegu world championship meet, a tripped runner lurched and fell in front of Uceny, taking her down as well. Going down with her was Uceny’s dream of capturing the world 1500 meter title. It is a tribute to the impressive portfolio of other performances and times that Uceny assembled in 2011 that, notwithstanding the third-party-induced disaster which took her out of the year’s most important race, she was nonetheless recognized as the top-ranked 1500 meter runner in the world last year. The focused and business-like approach that Uceny has brought to racing during this Olympic year serve as evidence that the Cornell graduate is on a special mission of redemption. Uceny posted an impressive Trials win in the 1500 – vanquishing a field that included reigning world 1500 meter champion Jenny Simpson – and has since posted in Europe a very solid 1500 time of 4:01.59. But with 17 other women having posted faster 1500 times this year, Uceny’s pathway to an Olympic medal will not be easy.
6. Will Galen Rupp meet newly-elevated expectations in the 5000 and/or the 10,000?
During the bell lap of the men’s 5000 final at this year’s Olympic Trials, 26-year old Galen Rupp re-engineered the perception that many track and field fans had about him and his prospects to win a medal at the London Olympics. Showing enhanced leg speed and fortified racing toughness, Rupp battled distance legend Bernard Lagat down the final straightaway and edged him for the victory. Alberto Salazar, Rupp’s coach and mentor, is to be commended on the thoughtfully-assembled program of under-distance racing he mapped out for his young star – a new and critical training ingredient that has given Rupp enhanced finishing speed and has calloused his racing spirit. Suddenly, a growing number of knowledge track and field aficionados believe that Rupp, who will be running both the 5000 and the 10,000 in London, has a legitimate shot to capture an Olympic medal. The Oregon product’s best opportunity will likely be in the 10,000 – an event where this year’s world-leading mark is actually 13 seconds slower than Rupp’s 10,000 PR of 26:48.00 which he set at the end of last season. In the 10,000 final, Rupp should be right in the thick of it all. But he will also need every ounce of the finishing speed that he displayed at the Olympic Trials – and perhaps then some – to compete for a medal.
Special Bonus Question: Who will light the Olympic cauldron to open the 30th Olympiad?
As each Olympiad approaches, there is always speculation that leads right up to the Opening Ceremony as to who will light the cauldron to mark the opening of the Games. Host cities go to great lengths to keep the plans for this pinnacle moment under wraps. Sometimes this ceremonial honor is accorded to a current athlete [e.g. eventual 400 meter gold medalist Cathy Freeman lit the cauldron in Sydney in 2000] or to one or more heralded former Olympians [e.g. a trio of gold medalist Olympians – boxer Evander Holyfield, swimmer Janet Evans, and boxer Muhammad Ali – handled the in-stadium duties in Atlanta in 1996.] Occasionally, the event is shaped to be less about the person involved and more about the moment [e.g. the archer who fired the flaming arrow into the cauldron in Barcelona in 1992 and the suspended “floating runner” who circled the stadium via a wired contraption to ignite the cauldron in Beijing in 2008.]
How will London handle this marquee moment and who will perform the task? Many names have been included in this conversation: Could it be Queen Elizabeth, basking in the afterglow of the recent Diamond Jubilee celebration that marked the sixtieth anniversary of her reign? How about Sebastian Coe, two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1500 and likely the single individual most responsible in securing these Games for London? Or maybe Daley Thompson, two-time Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon – an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of its creation and its first Olympic appearance?
A particularly qualified selection would be Roger Bannister. While Bannister did not perform at his best on the Olympic stage – he missed the medals by placing 4th in the 1500 in the Helsinki Games – his entire life and his subsequent achievements reflect the Olympic ideals. Undaunted and likely driven by his Olympic disappointment, Bannister persevered after the ’52 Games and ultimately became the first to break 4:00 in the mile – a watershed event that has inspired others, even to this day, to pursue the same goal. Perhaps more importantly, after setting his iconic mile record, Bannister then turned his attention to medicine and choreographed a celebrated career in neurology. Bannister also served with distinction as the first chairman of England’s Sports Council – an accomplishment for which he was ultimately knighted by the Queen. Bannister, now 83, through his perseverance which overcame Olympic disappointment and his pos
t-athletic accomplishments in both medicine and sports governance, personifies many of the Olympic ideals the Games are intended to promote. For these reasons alone, Dr. Bannister would be an especially appropriate choice to light the cauldron and open the Games. To honor this legend in this way would be a perfect commencement to this much-anticipated Olympiad.
Let the Games begin!