Jon Gugala continues his musings on the Olympic Trials. In this column, Mr. Gugala takes the 100 meter match race that did not happen as a focus and makes the match race his own. Let’s see how he fares on the sprint circuit…..
By Jon Gugala
July 4, 2012
Monday was, for most fans of the sport of track and field, one big bummer.
Dubbed “The Runoff” (Seriously? Was minimalism the best we writers and journalists could come up with? Was “Death” as adjective being overused by other events?), it would be a head-to-head matchup between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh, the two women who tied for third place down to the thousandth of a second in the women’s 100-meters final on June 23, the second full day of competition in the 2012 U.S. Olympic team trials.
Besides deciding which woman would represent the U.S. in the 100-meters at the 2012 Olympic Games (a Deep Voice says: “One Goes to London, and One Goes Home!”), the “Run You Down” was supposedly going to save the sport. It would be part of thirty minutes of tension-building 1812 Overture–way better than any episode of The Bachelorette–crescendoing until 100 meters and 11-odd seconds decided the winner-takes-all slugfest. Tchaikovsky’s cannons and church bells would ring the relevancy of track and field in a nation’s ears.
And who cared if USATF had previously said that this whole fiasco would be decided before the end of the 2012 Olympic team trials, which officially ended Sunday, July 1, the day before? Welshing on your word is small potatoes when it comes to the product of this Prime-Time Drama, this Epitome of Sport.
Well, that was a bust.
As early as Sunday evening, the “Track Death Match” (better) seemed on shaky ground as Tarmoh was quoted saying that she felt bullied into it. USATF was reported as trying to shore up her drooping resolve, likely sending fruit baskets that you and I will never know about.
But it was no use: early Monday morning, despite assumed fruit baskets, USA Today was the first to break news that Tarmoh was out. Shortly after, NBCUniversal and Sports Illustrated–two of the biggest media giants that had condescended to cover the trials, and therefore this event as its pinnacle–released information stating the same, citing a USATF announcement that Tarmoh had ceded. USATF would follow hard on their heels with their official statement, with Tarmoh saying she was “no longer running the 100m dash in the Olympic Games and will be an alternate for the event,” as well as a member of the 4x100m relay team.
The “Chariots of Fire Face-Off” was dead.
I sat in a coffee shop, midway through a recap of the men’s 400-meter hurdles final, and took a moment to let it sink in. I was still in Eugene, and though I don’t often cover sprint news, who wouldn’t want to be at a spectacle like this? Part tragedy, part triumph of sport, this is something you can recount as an old man, just as I’d listened to the old track journalists talk continually of past epochs between rain squalls this year.
It was in that moment that it came to me: Hell, I’ll do my own goddam runoff.
The whole purpose of a Guerilla Runoff, I thought, is that finishing is better than starting. A contest between two banged-up women who have already run six rounds each between the 100-meters and 200-meters rounds wouldn’t have been that exciting, performance-wise. And it wouldn’t have been close; one or the other would have won by a landslide.
But it would have been something.
On Sunday the trials were not concluded, as they should have been. “Join us tomorrow for the run-off!” we journalists parroted. There was one more day!
Instead, Tarmoh’s withdrawal left an ellipsis to end the trials instead of an exclamation point. It was the let down after a great first date when she doesn’t return your phone calls for a second.
For that reason, running 100 meters on my own seemed to make sense. It wouldn’t be an exclamation point. But it would at least be a period.
So I started spreading the word via social media–the deus ex machina in the past months for last-chance athletes after U. of Florida’s Genevieve LaCaze was elected by popular demand to the Australian Olympic team in the steeplechase (standard deadlines be damned!), Gabriele Anderson’s reinstatement in the women’s 1500-meters final became a hashtag, and 32-year-old Bryan Clay wasn’t even allowed to lick his wounds before a rally cry erupted from keyboards across the country to make the poor bastard do another decathlon within a week to earn the Olympic “A” standard after he’d been DQed and fouled-out at the trials (thank God he demurred, citing the “integrity of the rules”–code for “My goddam back is killing me”).
My own social media campaign didn’t become as viral as others, but I was OK with that; it is tough to foment revolution in less than six hours, especially if you’re not as good-looking as 800-meters firebrand Nick Symmonds.
In between instigating Tweets I phoned Donald Gruener, a local photographer that had gained some notoriety after taking pro-bono shots of Symmonds during the early days of his battle with USATF and IAAF (pre-Paris Hilton). Gruener is in a bit of a Catch 22, as he can’t technically sell any of his pictures of track and field because of an exclusivity clause he has with his real job of commercial photography. So he does them gratis as a hobby of sorts. For the duration of the trials he had regular sittings for any new-minted Olympian that wanted a professional photo.
Gruener, I said over the phone, you have the chance to document history in this 2012 Guerilla Runoff. You have a chance to capture people not just in word but in action–imagine!–who desire something better than our current state in track and field.
I’ll also put your name in the story.
Gruener said OK.
I biked to the track–South Eugene High School, as even I’m not dumb enough to believe that I’d be able to run on hallowed Hayward Field. In my social media blast I said to meet at 4:30 and I’d say “bang” at 5 P.M., the originally-scheduled time for the defunct “Blood and Guts Sprint-Off.”
There were two things I envisioned on arriving. The first was a throng nervously whispering as I pulled up. I’d climb to a high point–the bleachers, say–and behind an ambiguously-appearing lectern, address them with the solemnity of the moment, how We Deserve Better.
I also envisioned a track completely deserted, and I would run my symbolic 100-meters and go home knowing that there was one brave man willing, etc.
Instead I found the reality, which was a sporadically populated track, of which none present had any idea that a social movement was supposed to take place. A high school boy shirtless and in tights swung his legs through hurdle drills; an entire pole vault club, including a 65-year-old man wearing what appeared to be a red bicycle helmet, held their shafts at teepee angles in the infield. Pairs of women walked in lanes four and five as I ran my warm-up.
Around 4:50 Gruener showed up, his 12-year-old son in tow. Looking around at the distinct lack of crowd, I think he assumed he was at the wrong track. No, no, I said. This is it. He agreed to shoot anyway.
And so we did. I spiked up and ran my 100-meters at 5:00 P.M. I did a few more as Gruener took shots from different angles. Then it was over. We shook hands and exchanged emails, and he and his son–who may be the next Prefontaine or may not–drove home. And then after a cool-down, I biked home, too.
There has been plenty evaluation of What Went Wrong and Who’s to Blame in the failed experiment of tie-breaking contingency plans. If you’re looking for one especially filled with vitriol, check out Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden’s lambasting of the event. I don’t have anything to add to that.
But today is the Fourth of July, and we, in our American tradition, get to Blow Shit Up. And that’s how the 2012 Olympic team trials for track and field should have gone: an explosive finale on Sunday or with a prime time, do-or-die spectacle on Mon
day night. Instead, we got the softpop of a dud firecracker.
Plenty will come of the mismanagement of the events of the last week. But if you’re like me, if you feel something still lingers unresolved after the 2012 U.S. Olympic team trials, maybe you’re waiting like me for a finish, for some “Sprinting Cage Match” to conclude 10 days of trials in Eugene.
Maybe you should spike up and head to the track.