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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

They call them stars for a reason. Somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 fans were going to come to the final day of the Penn Relays no matter what happened, but Usain Bolt is what the business world calls a "rainmaker". 54,310 fans showed up on Saturday and 117,346 over all three days, breaking both records by over 3,000. The only meets in US history to draw more people on a single day were the Olympics and a few USA-USSR dual meets. Even Bolt said he'd never experienced energy like that outside of the Olympics and Worlds.

The Penn Relays are really important to Jamaicans. Years ago an Iranian expatriate I later came to know decided to move to Toledo because he thought it was one of America's most important cities. He was underwhelmed. It turns out that he, like a lot of Iranians, thought my hometown is a big deal because wrestling is the national sport and all their scales say "Toledo" on them. I'd have to guess that a lot of Jamaicans who don't pay attention to the news would have similar assumptions about Philadelphia. I always knew the Penn Relays were a big deal to Jamaican-Americans, but it finally sunk through my thick skull that the same is true for Jamaican-Jamaicans. It's why Usain Bolt greatly discounted his appearance fee, and it's why their USA v. the World teams always run up to their potential. Other countries' runners just use it as a spring run-out, but the Jamaicans prep for it. Bolt reports that his club had been practicing handoffs for two weeks with markings specially made to mimic Franklin Field's quirks. Which leads me to my next point...

I have a new Pick N' Win rule. A year ago I decreed to never pick against an Ethiopian because they always show up ready to run their best. Rule #2: if a Jamaican relay team has any real chance in a USA v. the World competition, take them. If I had observed this, I'd be tied for first. As it is, I'm in an 86-way tie for 10th. I picked the USA to win the women's sprint medley and they were second to the Jamaicans; I called the other five races correctly.

USATF still doesn't get it with their TV coverage. They're trying. You can tell because they're experimenting instead of doing the same old thing. But they don't understand what their basic job is. A sportscast, be it TV, web or radio, should attempt to give the fan at home as close to an experience of actually being there as is possible. Good baseball announcers do this by occasionally pausing and allowing the sounds of the ballpark to filter through; good college football broadcasts do the same by integrating the marching band, cheerleaders and students. The experience of the Penn Relays is that it is wall-to-wall action, almost zero down-time between races. You can safely ignore field events here because their existence is basically incidental, but there's no excuse for only showing eight full races and parts of three others in the space of two hours. This is the Penn Relays! There should barely be time to catch your breath between races.

Announcing isn't as easy as it looks. The Flotrack play-by-play announcer on Thursday night was atrocious (and, to their credit, never heard from again). The USATF TV broadcast brought in Matt Centrowitz for the distance races and he barely registered a pulse. As good a thing it was to kick Larry "Go Down To Your Local Track" Rawson to the curb, they've got to find a new person to pick up the duties. The ability to announce has precious little relation to the person's prior athletic accomplishments (see: Joe Morgan). They've got to have a good voice, previous experience, and be knowledgeable and opinionated without being obnoxious. Doug Logan, call me. I will work for food.

Community is a draw. The big-attendance meets have figured this out, possibly by accident but I doubt it. The Drake Relays is a three-week long festival that is the real Drake homecoming and a decent amount of the activity takes place outside the stadium, woven into the city of Des Moines. Penn is more centered around immigrant groups, Jamaicans in particular, as well as deep and proud tradition. Both integrate major colleges, small colleges, high schools, youth and masters, which constantly brings in a new generation of casual spectators who are there to see their one person but in the process find out that track meets are pretty darn interesting.

Some guys know how to compete, and some guys don't. Ryan Hall started off the week with a bizarre approach for a professional athlete: don't care if you win or not. Before the Boston Marathon began, I didn't think he was a prime-time player. I now know for certain that he will never fulfill the expectations we placed on him after a surprising 2007 season, because he does not have the killer instinct. On the other hand, there are two middle-distance guys in the pipeline who just might have what it takes, and they both showed some big-time cajones at Penn on Saturday.

In the USA v. the World men's distance medley, the field was surprisingly compressed going into the last turn, with Kenya, Australia, and both US teams still in the hunt. Leo Manzano made a momentary hesitation as he was passed by David Torrance, which caused him to be boxed in and have to go wide to try for the pass. He was two steps back of Torrance and Kenya's Josephat Kithii as the runners came onto the straightaway but had the best finish, coming up just a half-step short at the tape. It was such a minor tactical error, yet I'm certain one he will not soon forget. Manzano is a tough and smart runner with very good finishing speed. While he's unlikely to win a lot of races on the Diamond League circuit--I don't think he's got a lot of 3:30-type races in him--I think he's got what it takes to sneak onto the medal podium at international championships.

His five-year-younger clone is Robby Andrews. A freshman at Virginia, he ran down Andrew Wheating, Oregon's Olympian, to win the 800 at the NCAA indoor championships. Yesterday he made it two-for-two by doing the same in the college men's 4x800. Obssessive track-on-TV watchers will recall that this is exactly how he won the Millrose Games high school boys' mile a year ago. It is a rare gift to be able to read your own speed and your own reserves of energy as well as everyone else in order to know exactly when to pounce. Bernard Lagat is a master of it (even though he lost at Drake); Andrews shows an unusually high level of it for a 19-year-old. If USATF is to fulfill its Project 30 goal, it will need "surprise" medals in typically low-performance events, and Manzano and Andrews are two who could do it.

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