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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

It's the week when Track and Field News' annual World Rankings were released. I'm of two minds when it comes to writing about the magazine's World Rankings. The summary of the rankings sent via e-mail specifically states "This is NOT meant as fodder for discussion on the TFN boards." On the other hand, I'm about 100th on the list of people blabbering this all over the internet. So if anyone from TFN is upset about this, e-mail me and I'll take this post down, but otherwise here we go...

Nadzeya Ostapchuk got jobbed. And by only one person.

I have stated again and again that I thought she was far and away the best female athlete of 2010. She did not win TFN's Athlete of the Year, and ended up third in the voting behind Blanka Vlasic and Allyson Felix. The shot putter nearly ran the table, losing only in her final meet of the year. Her best mark, a monster 21.70 throw in February, is the best distance since the Iron Curtain fell. And she went up against the best, nine times facing off against Valerie Adams (who herself is no pushover).

I can see why Blanka Vlasic was rated #1. I won't argue that one. She won 18 out of 20 high jump competitions, and the nature of the event makes it rather difficult to put together an undefeated campaign. She put up pretty good marks and took a few realistic shots at the 23-year-old world record. I'm OK with that.

Felix was good, but I can't even call 2010 her best season. She was top-ranked in both the 200 and 400, but didn't run all that fast by her standards. She lost her lone matchup with Veronica Campbell-Brown.

The thing is this: most of the voting panel agreed with me. #1 votes were split: 22 for Vlasic, 6 for Ostapchuk, 2 for Felix. More voters put Ostapchuk #2 on their ballot than anyone else, too; 10 for her versus 7 for Felix and 5 for Vlasic.

But one jag-off put Ostapchuk tenth on his ballot. Tenth! That one lowball vote was enough to bump Felix ahead. Idiot.

USA men's distance running fortunes continue to rise. In terms of calculating World Rankings by points, 2010 was the best year for USA men since 1986. We had two in the 800 (Symmonds #6, Wheating #10), two in the 1500 (Manzano #6, Wheating #9), two in the 5000 (Lagat #6, Solinsky #8) and one in the 10,000 (Solinsky #3).

And let's think about how much different the world of distance running was in 1986. At that point, Kenya was a non-factor in the marathon. As hard as it is to imagine now, no Kenyans made the World Rankings in the marathon that year. In fact, to that point only one Kenyan ever had (John Nzau, 9th in '83 and 8th in '84).

Equally hard to imagine is that in 1986 Ethiopia had only two athletes in all the World Rankings put together (6th and 7th in the marathon). In general, Ethiopia was a non-factor throughout most of the 1980s due to drought, famine and a government that was unusually self-serving and corrupt even by African standards. Remember Live Aid? And all the trouble they had distributing the aid?

So kudos to the American runners who have met the ever-increasing challenge and fought their way in. They look like America, too, being black, white and brown. And they come from all over; Vermont, Wisconsin, Texas, Oregon, and an immigrant. Diversity is strength, and America should never forget that.

David Rudisha had a really good season. We knew that, but we can put a finger on how good. He was a unanimous choice for Athlete of the Year. This has happened only four other times in the history of the men's AOY: Henry Rono '78 (world records in four different running events), Michael Johnson '96 (first Olympic 200/400 double and a stratospheric world record), and Usain Bolt '08 and '09 (you know what happened). Rudisha is in very good company.

I've got a beef with one ranking. While I nearly always second-guess the voting for the Athlete of the Year honors, I rarely if ever question the individual event rankings. For the latter, the criteria is laid out and the rankings created by committee consensus. It's a very good system. My own Superfan Rankings differ a little, but that's just because my system rewards ever-so-slightly different things.

I'll be curious to see the justification for the men's steeplechase, in which Paul Koech is ranked #1 over Ezekiel Kemboi. It will probably be that the most important criteria, "honors won", will go to Koech, as he won three races in the Diamond League to Kemboi's two. But I'd argue that one of those three wins, the adidas Grand Prix in New York, was against a pretty substandard field and shouldn't be considered much of an honor, putting the two runners even in that category. Far and away the most important race of the year was the Zurich Weltklasse Diamond League final, where Kemboi beat Koech rather handily.

Kara Patterson broke a 29-year drought. That's how long it's been since the USA had a woman in the javelin World Rankings. Going into this year, we knew she was a decent thrower but didn't figure her to be so prominent. If you had rated the events least likely to produce a World or Olympic medal for the USA, the women's javelin probably would have been at the top. Now she's #6 in the world and a very real threat to get on the stand at Daegu '11 and London '12. More importantly, she does not fold under pressure, as in something like four or five meets in a row her best throw came in the final round.

Ohio produces hurdlers. I have no idea why this is so, but virtually all of our historic men's stars have been hurdlers. Ed Moses, Glenn "Jeep" Davis, Jesse Owens (yes, he hurdled), Willie Davenport, Harrison Dillard. Our top-ranked men's athletes this year were again hurdlers, in David Payne and Ryan Wilson. Even our most prominent former track stars in the NFL this year were high school hurdlers (Brian Hartline and Ted Ginn).

Recently we've begun to produce steeplechasers too. It started with Mark Croghan in the 90s, and this year's top steepler in the US rankings was Dan Huling, who spent his college years at Miami University in Oxford OH.

Trevor Barron has made a rarity. The high school racewalking stud was the top-ranked US walker in the 20k. When was the last time a high school boy was the #1 US ranker in an event? This is not a rhetorical question. I really don't know and want to find out.

Non-World Rankings items...

This year's Pre-Nationals (cross country) Invitational will be on a Sunday. Pre-Nats is always hosted by the NCAA Championships host school, and this year it's an unusual situation. It wasn't until just over a month ago that Indiana State had any idea that they might host this year's NCAA meet, and the official word came even more recently than that.

So the Sycamores had little advance warning to keep a weekend open. Their homecoming football game is scheduled for September 24 October 15, the day that Pre-Nats would traditionally be scheduled. What little hotel space there is in Terre Haute will be filled on Friday night. The cross country meet had to be moved to Sunday.

What about schools which will not compete on Sundays? There are a lot fewer of them than you'd think -- so far as I know, only BYU and Liberty have such restrictions. Both are fairly significant programs in cross country, so they'll need to run somewhere else. Arkansas' Chile Pepper Invitational is the same weekend and nearly as competitive, so it's a decent alternative and should pose little if any hardship.

The other interesting thing about this situation is how it may affect attendance. Your most natural audience for college track and XC are high school athletes and coaches, who are invariably busy on Saturdays. I'm no exception. Will significantly more people come to watch? We shall see.

Finally, we learned something big here. Indiana State schedules football around cross country. How do we know? In all the years ISU has been hosting the NCAA and therefore Pre-Nats, this issue has never come up before. Think about that. Cross country calls the tune and football dances. Only in the Missouri Valley Conference could this ever happen.

Mo Farah is primed for a big breakthrough. Or maybe he's already there. Of the fifteen or so New Year's Eve races worth analyzing, the most interesting result was from the BOClassic 10k in Bolzano, Italy. There, Britain's Mo Farah took on Diamond League champ Imane Merga (TFN #1 at 5k) and Olympic bronze medalist Edwin Soi (TFN #9 at 5k). Farah lost to Merga on a sprint finish by just two tenths of a second, and both left Soi well in arrears.

It's worth noting that Merga is race-sharp, having run several top-quality cross country races as well as another road 10k over the last two months. Farah is not, having just come down from a stint of altitude training in Kenya. The list of runners around the world who can give Merga that kind of push is short, and never before did it include Farah. It's December, and things can change, but I think he may have climbed into the top half-dozen or so long-distance track runners in the world.

Farah next runs at the USA-UK-Europe cross country match in Edinburgh on January 8, and I would call him the favorite. The UK's distance runners, particularly on the men's side, have fallen off precipitously over the last few decades; it's a much bigger fall than experienced in the USA, as their best was better and worst was worse as compared to us. But things look to be turning around, at least at the highest level, and who knows what could happen in the London Olympics.

Seb Coe told Margaret Thatcher to stuff it. Maybe not in so many words, but he directly defied Thatcher by competing at the 1980 Olympic Games.

The UK has a 30-year-rule in its Official Secrets Act which, in American parlance, "declassifies" material. Documents released on Thursday showed that Thatcher and others in the then-new Conservative government put huge amounts of pressure on athletes not to compete in the 1980 Olympics. Similar documents just released in Ireland and Australia show more of the same.

That Coe or other world-class athletes would ignore such calls for boycott is hardly surprising. It was their life's work. From an American perspective, it's interesting to reflect on a few other issues. First, while the US government is one of the world's few that does not directly subsidize its Olympic program, it could direct its Olympic Committee to boycott. But in UK, which does subsidize its Olympic Committee, the government did not have that power. Second, Coe did not pay a price for crossing the Tories in his post-athletic political career.

The biggest budgets in college track. TFN message board maven jazzcyclist used Dept. of Education data, adding up men's and women's expenditures across all three sports, and came up with the top 25 schools. They are:
1 $4,200,365 Arkansas
2 $4,153,599 Oregon
3 $4,144,543 Texas A&M
4 $3,510,105 Wisconsin
5 $3,462,928 Florida
6 $3,461,591 LSU
7 $3,457,669 Texas
8 $3,199,766 Nebraska
9 $3,130,991 Oklahoma
10 $3,095,438 Tennessee
11 $3,037,402 Syracuse
12 $3,011,587 Florida State
13 $2,973,832 Auburn
14 $2,931,410 Michigan
15 $2,877,134 Baylor
16 $2,802,068 Stanford
17 $2,736,678 Ohio State
18 $2,735,522 Alabama
19 $2,732,251 South Carolina
20 $2,624,590 Arizona State
21 $2,586,669 UCLA
22 $2,512,551 Indiana
23 $2,423,297 Brigham Young
24 $2,413,662 Texas Tech
25 $2,366,320 Washington

Stunningly, Oregon is outspent by Arkansas. Of course, all the top teams are the perennial powerhouses of their conferences. Arkansas has dropped off a bit in recent years after John McDonnel retired (which is pretty much like saying UCLA basketball dropped off after Wooden retired), but I think they'll be back up there soon.

Other trends: Syracuse is definitely not getting its money's worth. Michigan isn't either, and Ohio State is only just recently getting any performance out of its women's program. BYU is the only non-BCS school on the list, but they're a one-of-a-kind case. Neither the ACC nor the Big East have much of a presence, with only one school apiece--meaning that 22 of the 25 come from just four conferences.


Chris Nickinson said...

NCAA Pre-nats is October 16th.

The Track & Field Superfan said...

Corrected. Thank you.