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Monday, August 02, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete: Special Monday Edition

Back in the 80s, when ABC broadcast a Thursday NFL game, they called it "Monday Night Football: Special Thursday Edition". So my version of Monday-morning quarterbacking gets a similar title when it gets delayed a bit.

What did we learn during Championship Week?

Christophe Lemaitre has arrived. The young French sprinter became the first man in European Championships history to win the 100/200/4x100 triple. The manner in which he won the individual sprints was just as impressive as the wins: left in the blocks in the 100, he remained calm and stormed past the field, and in the 200 he ran down Christian Malcolm and pipped him at the line. He's a competitor and one with nerves of steel.

None of this, however, means he's a first-tier sprinter. That's reserved for Bolt, Gay and Powell alone, and no one appears ready to crash their party just yet. Lemaitre is probably not yet a part of the second-tier either, as he'd be unlikely to make a World Championships final at his current form. With him, it's the anticipation of what may be coming in the next few years that's so exciting. He's got an awful lot of work to do, as he's probably the most-raw sub-10 sprinter in recent memory, but if the moxie and the coaching are available then he'll be a great sprinter someday.

The big winners were the British and French men and the Russian women. The latter comes as no surprise, as the Russkies have had the best women's program for some sixty years or so. The former two, however, are the best thing that could have happened to European track...excuse me, athletics. The popularity of athletics has been on a consistent downward trend in the UK over at least fifteen years. In France, while track has been a bit more popular, it's still been a bit less than it could be. Both countries had severe disappointments in the World Cup, and both have the population and the wealth such that a boost in support for athletics there would have a significant knock-on effect to athletes and meets elsewhere.

It was pretty nice to see how it was done as well. Athletics is a sport that both depends on and celebrates diversity. Europe has become more diverse, but probably nowhere more so than in Britain and France. And when you look at the faces of their European Championships heroes, they certainly do not all look alike.

The big losers were Germany and Spain. Sure, the Germans were fourth on the medal table, but after last year's huge successes in Berlin it seemed like a bit of a letdown. Spain was sixth in overall medals and tied for seventh in golds, but you'd think the home team would get a bit more of a bump than that, and their medals came in a very narrow range of events. This could also explain the championships' relatively poor attendance.

Charles Van Commenee deserves some praise. Just exactly how much credit should go to the head coach of UK Athetics' Olympic program, or any national coach, is open to debate. But under his not-quite-two-year-old leadership, the national team's medal counts have gone from a twenty-year low in 2006 to a sixteen-year high in 2009 and a record high in 2010. His team goal of 14 medals for this week was eclipsed by over a third. And all of this with many top athletes injured (or, in the case of Paula Radcliffe, out for other reasons). Of course, in football-mad Britain, his leadership is being compared and contrasted with that of national coach Fabio Copello and Real Madrid and former Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho (aka "The Special One"). That people are even taking the trouble to make the connection tells you a lot about how seriously the Euro results are being taken. When hired, he was seen as prickly and demanding and there were many doubters. As it's a lot easier for a national coach to screw up a team than to make it into a winner, the doubters have to be discounted. And he is widely credited by athletes and sportswriters alike for raising the expectations for success. In other much is it going to cost us to get him over to this side of the Atlantic?

Maybe a Worlds should go to Africa. This week, the president of the African Athletics Confederation said that the success of the World Cup has encouraged the continent into bidding for the 2017 IAAF World Championships. A Moroccan city such as Rabat is seen as the most likely candidate, as it's got the best infrastructure both in general and in the track-specific kind. But based on this week's African Championships, I'd at least give Nairobi a passing thought. Why? Turnout was huge. Several times Nyayo Stadium was packed to its 30,000-seat limit and then some with thousands more turned away. Police feared a riot because people couldn't get into a track meet. A TFN discussion board member said he'd never seen a crowd as thoroughly into a 10k race as it was this week. There are few places on the earth where you'd get as much enthusiasm for track and field as in the Kenyan highlands. It won't happen, for the elevation reason alone, but going to a championship meet of some kind at Nyayo is now on my bucket list.

A little more about the Doug Logan situation. The first, and as far as I know the only, sportswriter to shed any real light on the Doug Logan's possible ouster as USATF CEO is the Chicago Tribune's Philip Hersh. He identified the issues on which Logan is being criticized as "sponsorships, athlete relations and expenditures". He noted that the board of directors similarly went after his predecessor, Craig Masback, in 2004 and 2007. Masback survived both of those. But most important is what Hersh said about the timing and the larger issues in play:
Dumping Logan without just cause likely would not sit too well with the USOC, which spent several years hectoring USA Track & Field to reform its governance -- that reform occurred in December, 2008 -- and telling the board to stop meddling in the federation's day-to-day affairs [such as this]...

And imagine how financially reckless it would be in these economic times for the board to fire Logan willy-nilly with an estimated $1 million -- and a severance fee -- left on a contract that expires in 2013.
Hersh's analysis came down to "the old axiom that the only amateurs left in the Olympics are those running them."

The influence of shoe companies is...interesting. Let's Run's TXRunnerGirl, via Facebook: "This fall, the Foo Fighters will record a new album and Alan Webb will race again. Did I take a dip in the Hot Tub Time Machine?" Alan Webb is making a much-anticipated return to racing next week, and of course the press needed to be told about it. In distance running, that means Oregon newspapers and Runner's World.

In the Portland Tribune article, we were told a lot about the form problems that Webb had developed and the efforts coach Alberto Salazar put into fixing them, much of it including barefoot running. Born To Run author Christopher McDougall noted in his blog that the Runner's World summary of that article was conspicuously missing something...any reference to barefoot work.

Now, I've been a bit skeptical that the running shoe industry is one big monolith foisting unnecessary crap on all us runners, and that Runner's World is the monolith's shill. But then I started thinking. McDougall's book was a runaway hit like nothing since The Complete Book of Running. He was interviewed on The Daily Show, for crying out loud. And he and his story have barely been in the pages of Runner's World if at all. I was quite surprised to find out from my local running shop that the heavily-advertised Newton shoes don't sell much, while they can't keep the nearly unadvertised Vibrams in stock because they sell out so fast.

I tell you one thing, though: one of McDougall's tricks works. The single best way to kill a young kid's football/basketball hunched-over running style is to make them run barefoot on pavement for a few hundred yards. Within seconds they learn how to run right.

Merlene Ottey is our Gordie Howe. Yes, this woman is fifty years old. She won an Olympic medal when Leonid Brezhnev was still in power. The Jamaican-turned Slovenian ran on her national team's 4x100 at the European Championships, and said she still wants to keep going when she's 60. She's got a little while to go before she catches up with Mr. Hockey, as he played a full 80-game NHL season at age 51 and a single shift in the IHL at age 69. But the attitude is the same.

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