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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

White men can run.  Or at least one can.  Christophe Lemaître ran 9.98 at the French national championships, becoming the first white man to run 100 meters in under 10.00.  Well, except that Italian Pietro Mennea ran 19.72 for 200 meters some 31 years ago, and in so doing ran a 100-meter segment well below 10.00.  And, of course, there's the fact that nearly all sub-10.00 sprinters have had mixed ancestry,  and calling them "black" and Lemaître"white" is an arbitrary either/or decision based on appearance alone with no allowance for gray areas.

But I digress.  Here's the important thing:  Lemaître is the third-fastest ever at age 20, regardless of skin tone.  If he continues to progress--and it's entirely possible he won't--a large European country will have one of their own in every big sprint race.  It will contribute to the long-term health of the sport, and would do so even if his name and appearance were similar to that of Thierry Henry or Zinedine Zidane.

David Rudisha is FAST.  How fast is he?  David Rudisha is so fast, he's already the second-fastest half-miler of all time at just 21 years old.  On Saturday night he ran 1:41.51 at the KBC Nacht meet in Heusden, Belgium.  The converted quarter-miler, whose father won a silver medal in the relay at the '68 Olympics, is two years ahead of WR-holder Wilson Kipketer's improvement curve and one year ahead of Seb Coe's.  As the summer season is just hitting its full stride, there might be more where that came from.

The superstars are healthy...we hope.  On Thursday, Usain Bolt ran 9.82 in the 100 meters at Lausanne's Athletissima meet in his first race back after a short achilles-injury-induced layoff.  He was originally scheduled to run the 200, but wished to switch distances according to medical advice to avoid a turn.  There was no 100 on the schedule, but one was hastily assembled, and it was the usual butt-whuppin by the man who might currently be the most well-known athlete in the world.

Two days later in Gateshead, Tyson Gay ran his first 100 of the season, but with a formidable opponent in Asafa Powell.  Gay got an awful start, then showed amazing late-race power to blaze by Powell.  Afterwards I got a scare when I saw Gay momentarily touch his hamstring, but I've heard no bad reports since then.  Note: How often has Powell run well with a headwind, and how often has Gay run poorly?  Not often at all.  And this race was into a stiff breeze, so we should hardly be surprised that Gay blitzed Powell over the last 30 meters or so.

Another star is in trouble.  Olympic and World 100 champ Shelly-Ann Fraser tested positive.  For a painkiller.  Which is not performance-enhancing.  And was taken after dental work (she wears braces).  Or at least that's what she says, and no one ever gets out ahead of the story in a scandal (sports, politics or otherwise) with this much detail and not tell the truth.  So let's all hope this keeps the streak alive.

US distance fortunes are up...and down.  At Gateshead, Leo Manzano closed very well to get third, just an eyelash behind Augustine Choge (both were given the same time).  He showed the kind of late-race power in a scrum that you have to have in order to have a shot at a major international medal.  Two days earlier in Lausanne, steepler Dan Huling ran an 8:13 PR for fourth, beating the reigning Kenyan champ in the process.  Huling noted some weaknesses in his race, most notably the last two laps, and declined to discuss the possibility of soon breaking the American Record (8:09) in the same way a pitcher working on a no-hitter does.

At that same Gateshead meet, Galen Rupp ran his first 5k of the outdoor season.  The pace wasn't terribly fast, and eleven runners were still in contention at the bell.  Rupp finished ninth, and the winners put at least eight seconds on him in that last lap.  While Rupp's time (13:10) was respectable, and not at his preferred 10k distance, I still think this exposes his essential weakness: no late-race speed.  Chris Solinsky smashed him over the last two laps in the big 10k American Record race in May.  As long as he stays on the track, he'll be somewhere between the 5th and 12th best runner in the world, but he has no chance at a major-championship medal.  Even Geoffrey Mutai and Wilson Kiprop, the top two at10k in the recent Kenyan Championships, have essentially abandoned the track in favor of the roads.  One of our biggest problems in the USA is that our stars wait far too long to do the same.

Ryan Hall, the man who looked like a world-beater in 2007 but has failed to live up to it since, was supposed to run a 5k at the Heusden meet on Saturday but pulled out.  This led to some interesting discussion at Let's Run.  I'm with the camp that thinks this is a bad sign, as Hall has scheduled no other races--and for years has planned to race on the track but pulled out.  As much as he was touted as The One, when you compare his accomplishments with Meb Keflezighi's, you wonder why Hall?  Meb won an Olympic medal, the New York City marathon, and set an American Record on the track.  Killer instinct.  Hall is a free spirit, a modern-day hippie (albeit with a spiritualism atypical of that type).  Meb will tell you, and mean it,  that he's the least-accomplished child in his family, while Hall will tell you how to communicate with God, and mean it with just as much conviction.  Each is getting what they want out of life.

The USA's biggest throwing star is our newest.  Provided, of course, that you accept Christian Cantwell's domination of the shot as a bit boring and that Kara Patterson is the big new thing.  Patterson had a surprise big throw at the USATF Championships, smashing the American Record; a come-from-behind win over a top field at the Pre Classic; and then a second at Saturday's Diamond League meet in Gateshead.  After a bad first-round throw and two fouls, she came through in the clutch in the last of the four rounds to get her runner-up position with an excellent 63.11.  In fact, all of these big results have come on her final throw.  Cantwell may not deserve to get ignored, but could you make it interesting for a round or two and let someone else think they might win?

The Brits might be taking control of their situation.  Bear with me, this needs a lot of explanation.

Jillian Michaels, a trainer on NBC's The Biggest Loser and star of her own Losing It, deals with the minds of people who come to her at least as much as she does their bodies.  Almost all of them have a "woe is me" attitude, convinced that only bad things happen to them,  and they are powerless to change their circumstances.  One of her most-used lines is "You are not a victim!"

The city of Cleveland could use some of her tough love.  The reaction out of northeast Ohio this week was another "we're always crapped on" tirade, the same kind of thing they've been talking for decades.  While Cavs owner Dan Gilbert seemingly spoke for the city, he should have been condemned by the citizenry for failing to build a lineup that would have enticed LeBron James to stay.  It's as simple as that.  While these are not good times for rust-belt cities, Clevelanders have elevated fiddling while their city burns to an art form.

We in track and field often have that same attitude of victimhood.  We assume we can never make a difference and keeps us from seeing what can be done.  It's bad in the USA, but from what I can tell it's worse in the UK.  This is why I was very happy to see a new website, Athleticos, started up this week.  Essentially, Athleticos is for the UK what Flotrack is for the US...Athleticos was born out of a persistent frustration at the limited media coverage of our sport. Therefore we aim to support athletes with the exposure their endeavors merit while providing fellow athletics' enthusiasts with the breadth and detail they deserve. These Brits have taken charge of their situation.

A glimmer of hope.  Earlier this week I reported how ESPN now knows track fans care and are more reliable viewers than baseball fans.  On the other side of the Atlantic, Swiss hammer thrower Martin Bingisser sent me the following:
I thought you might like this blurb I saw in a tabloid newspaper here in Zürich yesterday. It lists the top 3 google search terms for the past 24 hours. Taking top honors in Switzerland is Athletissima. In a country of 8 million people, that's pretty big, especially considering no local athletes were contenders in any event. Heck, athletes from neighboring countries barely made headlines. And this isn't even the top meet in the country (Weltklasse is much bigger). It shows with the right marketing (the meet was nationally televised on a top channel and ads for the Weltklasse meet in August started in early spring), right meet format, and right stars a meet can get this sport some big exposure.

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