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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

How quickly sprint dominance changes.  About two weeks ago, people wondered if Usain Bolt could ever be beaten again.  Last week Tyson Gay beat Bolt in an upset; this week he outdid all in history (when environment taken into account) but Bolt's two out-of-this-world championship wins and Gay's own runner-up-while-injured at one of them.  Well before that race, Ato Boldon argued that Gay is a much more serious threat to Bolt than anyone realized, and Gay's run at London proved the point.  Barring strange occurrence, Gay will regain his Track and Field News #1 ranking he held in 2006 and 2007, before the ascendance of Bolt.

This is the best possible thing that could ever have happened to track and field.  A legitimate battle will be joined, with the outcome in doubt, any time these two titans meet in the sport's single most-popular event.  That they will meet infrequently outside of championship competition is a good thing, because media attention will be focused like a laser when they do.  They even portray the sporting culture of their respective nations, with Bolt's Jamaican-style exuberance contrasted with Gay's American-style "just win, baby".

Yohan Blake is now in the top row of sprinters.  The 20-year-old Jamaican ran 9.89 in cool weather with a headwind in London, and three weeks previous had nearly run down Gay over 200 meters.  While the sprint picture can turn on a dime (see above), right now I see only four contenders for three 100-meter medals in the next few years.  Those are the three Jamaicans (Bolt, Powell, Blake) and Tyson Gay.

Andrew Wheating may be forcing Nick Symmond's hand.  Symmonds tends to run the 800 meters in the Yuri Borzakovsky style, laying well back early and making a late rush.  It's a style that works very well when the pace is suicidal, but otherwise tends to leave athletes in no situation to win.  I don't know when Symmonds developed this style; recall that he was a D-III runner in college so hardly anyone outside of the west coast ever saw him run back then.  But it was a style that was effective when he was first coming up the ranks and mainly competing against Khadevis Robinson for domestic prominence, and now Symmonds is so much better than any other American that he can beat them all running however he wants.

Until now.  Andrew Wheating beat Symmonds in two of their last three meetings.  On Friday, Wheating started off back in the back but was third at the bell with Symmonds in tow.  They both only caught one more athlete in the last lap, finishing second and third.  This is not Symmonds' style.  He may have to change his style if he wants to remain the best American half-miler, and this week may have been the beginning.

National team success pays off.  The Diamond League meet in London's Crystal Palace sold out its 32,000 tickets well in advance of the meet.  Sales picked up after the European Championships, where the UK team outdid all but the very highest expectations.  Like it or not, national team competition is what drives interest of all but the most involved fans.

Kara Patterson is a competitor.  Her record this year stands at six wins (all in North America) and two runner-ups (all in Europe).  She went from basically a nobody on the world level to someone who is still (at least theoretically) in the Diamond League trophy hunt.  Better yet: in four of her five "major" competitions, her last throw was her best (and in the other her best was her second-last).  On Friday she came up only nine centimeters (less than two inches) short of the win.  At this point in time, she has to be considered a medal favorite for the next Worlds and Olympics, whereas at the beginning of the year the women's javelin was possibly the weakest event for Team USA.  If there was a "breakthrough athlete of the year" award or "we never thought we would be able to get something here for Project 30" award, Patterson would win it.

Christian Cantwell isn't unbeatable.  He took third in the shot put at the Diamond League meet in London, ending a 20-meet win streak and getting his first loss of the season.  He did fly in that same day, though, so maybe he's only beatable under extreme conditions.  It essentially ends his chance of being Track and Field News' Athlete of the Year, as they heavily reward undefeated seasons.  My system does not penalize a single loss quite so much; note that Cantwell has competed in 19 meets compared to 11 for David Oliver and 8 for David Rudisha.  I think that's a bit unfair to field-eventers, and it's reflected in the fact that a shot putter has been the male Athlete of the Year just once (Randy Matson, 1970).

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