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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

The World Cross Country Championships are going to be very interesting this year.  Based on recent form, it looked like Kenyans Joseph Ebuya and Linet Masai were heavy favorites to win the individual titles. But then today's Cross de Italica race threw a wrench into the gears.

Masai, the 2009 World 10,000 meters champion, won her last two outings and looked very good while doing so. Today she ran against a loaded field and was beaten by Vivian Cheruiyot, the 2009 World 5000 meters champion. Cheruiyot has not been nearly as good in cross country as on the track, but today's result calls that into question. These two would appear to be the leading runners going into the Worlds, but there is also defending champion Emily Chebet-- who is a big question mark. She pulled out of today's race citing injury, and skipped the Edinburgh race last week in what appeared to be an inability to agree with race management on financial terms.

Ebuya, the defending World champion, had been continually beating good competition by remarkable margins. Today he finished a surprising fifth. It's entirely possible that he has over-raced and fatigued, which is not a good sign some two months before the Worlds. Leonard Komon, the world road record holder at 10k and 15k, took the win today. But if Ebuya is no longer considered the man to beat, I don't think that mantle now goes to Komon. Rather, it goes to Geoffrey Mutai, who stomped a deep field yesterday at the Kenya Police Service Championships, coming away the victor by 25 seconds.

Whether or not Mutai is even going to run at the Worlds is open to some question. He is one of the new breed of Kenyan runners, who runs very well at everything from the track 10,000 on up to the marathon and concentrates on the latter because that's where the money is. After the race he said "I will consider competing for selection in the World Cross team at the Trials only if I get assurances from Athletics Kenya (AK) I will be allowed to train at my camp." As you may know, Kenya's mandatory pre-Worlds national training camp is ridiculously hard, probably too hard, and many Kenyans have done their best running there rather than at the Worlds.

Normally, Athletics Kenya doesn't give a flying f*** what the athletes want, and would tell Mutai to take a hike. Depth of talent is so great that they can just take the next guy with no worries. But this week, national coach Julius Kirwa told Kenya's Daily Nation that he is worried about who he'd get and whether they'd be good enough to win the team gold medal. So Mutai at least has an opening.

Qatar is bidding on the 2017 World Championships. This comes to us from Alfons Juck's news service, who says local media in the tiny Arabian state are saying Doha definitely will bid. This has been rumored for quite some time already, but in the wake of the recent FIFA World Cup site selection for 2022 this takes on new meaning. The other cities considered likely to bid for 2017 are London and Istanbul. I figure the latter doesn't have much of a chance, and that London and Doha are the candidates that matter.

Reasons for the IAAF wanting to take the Worlds to Doha are similar to FIFA's reasons for bringing the World Cup there, but significantly different. FIFA's leading reason was to expand soccer's fan base to a new part of the world. The IAAF would like to expand track's fan base to the Middle East, but it's a bit of a hard sell considering that our female athletes are (at least nominally) treated as equal to men, and even more problematic is that they essentially compete in their underwear. The IAAF's greatest concern in terms of fan base is not really expansion but contraction--track's popularity in Europe and the USA is declining. For proof you need look no further than Germany, which probably has the strongest base of track fans in Europe, but whose state TV recently announced it will not carry live coverage of this year's Worlds in Korea. Thus Doha's location outside of Europe may be a strike against it in the eyes of the IAAF. But that's far from the biggest issue.

The second leading reason FIFA went with Qatar is money, and specifically graft in their case. It's hard to prove but we all know it happened. The IAAF likely doesn't have as much graft due to the simple fact that there's not much money in track. In fact it's often a money-loser, and this is why the IAAF would be interested in Doha. The Worlds local organizing committee usually has to have financial guarantees from its government, meaning that the locals are taking all the financial risk. Like the IOC, the IAAF has always depended on the kindness of others. That kind of cash is pretty hard to find these days, coming almost exclusively from either a) oil-rich nations or b) east Asian countries with still-expanding economies. The pattern is easy to spot: 2007 Osaka (b), 2011 Daegu (b), 2013 Moscow (a), 2015 Beijing (b). Score a big plus to Doha here.

But the biggest issue that will make a difference in the 2017 bidding is similar to FIFA's motivation in picking the 2018 World Cup hosts. There, it is commonly thought that England shot itself in the foot by its press publishing stories about FIFA's corruption. They were already behind Russia anyway, but making FIFA look bad eliminated any chance they had. The IAAF, being less corrupt, is far less concerned with a free and open press. Rather, they have reason to worry about dealing with the Brits on principle. The 2005 Worlds were initially awarded to London on the promise of a suitable stadium being built, but within two years the government reneged on the deal and those Worlds went to Helsinki instead. Considering that the UK made another guarantee to the IOC about the new Olympic Stadium being an "athletics [track and field] legacy", and the current kerfuffle which could easily break that promise, and the IAAF has to take any London bid with a huge grain of salt.

Ohio State knows how to do things. I went to the Ohio State versus Michigan dual meet yesterday in Columbus, and (with one exception) they made it a real spectator experience. They brought out a portion of the world-famous band to play in between events. They had t-shirt tosses and a raffle. Brutus Buckeye was there. They had a good announcer that kept us well-informed, and the scoreboard was very helpful too. The crowd, which I'd estimate at 600 or more, got really pumped. It wasn't a particularly close competition--the Buckeyes clinched with three events left to go--but it was entertaining. Head Coach Robert Gary borrowed a giant "Beat Michigan" banner from the football team, and brought in Flotrack to do a live webcast.

It was a men-only meet, meaning that there was only one team score to keep track of, and the meet went quick (just two and a half hours from beginning to end). The two women's teams met in Ann Arbor for an equally quick, well-produced, and much closer meet, which was surprisingly their first-ever matchup in a dual.

My one complaint? We were kept abreast of the team score, the most important thing in a dual meet, by PA announcer only. You could not see it anywhere. French Fieldhouse has two scoreboards, one used for track results but the other of the basketball tpe. The latter went unused yesterday but would have been the perfect place to keep track of the score.

By the way, one of the oldest major-college school records on the books could be broken. Ohio State's long jump record of 26' 8¼" has stood since May 5, 1935, when Jesse Owens lept and ran into history. Michael Hartfield, a JC transfer from Rend Lake, opened his Buckeye career yesterday with 25' 4", and had a foul that looked considerably longer. Another 16 inches is a long way, but the record has to go sometime...

Some coaches are terrified of their own shadow. When Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell famously said that "we've become a nation of wusses", he thought he meant moving an NFL game because of a snowstorm. He didn't know he was really talking about an unwillingness to score college track meets because someone will have to be last.

Yesterday Clemson hosted a quad meet with Miami (FL), Auburn and Georgia. Just those four teams and nobody else, and none of them split their squads with another meet. And they didn't score it. No. Team. Score. The only possible reason for not scoring it is because at least some of the coaches involved are not interested in being evaluated by others in terms of wins and losses. To me, this calls into question the entire purpose of their sports' existence. If losing is too scary, then you shouldn't compete. And I mean in anything, not just track.

Texas A&M head coach Pat Henry has recently made a compelling argument that this kind of wussitude is killing college track. He thinks we must emphasize the team aspect and most meets should be scored affairs with something on the line. I couldn't agree more, and it adds to my respect of him that he makes his case so strongly. But while Henry is talking the talk, he isn't walking the walk. Three of TAMU's four regular-season home meets this year are "conference challenge" meets that tally scores for conferences only, not individual teams. That's a nice diversion once in a while, but it's not the kind of "my team beat your team" competition that really drives fan interest in college sports. It really isn't an improvement over meets with no scoring at all, and that it is the default mode of competition means that our basic problem of a nonexistent fan base isn't being addressed.

Matt Tegenkamp may have some inside info on Alan Webb. Or maybe not. The two both compete under the umbrella of the Oregon Track Club, but with different groups and with different coaches. Either way, there's an interesting tidbit being debated.

Earlier this week Teg said one of his season's goals is to "finish top 3 [in the 5k] at USA Champs (it’s going to be a CRAZY competitive event this year with Lagat, Solinsky, Fernandez, Fam, Bumbalough, Jager, Derrick, Webb, and me)". Webb? In the 5000 meters? Oh, I hope so.

Webb has always been a miler and I think it's just because it's what he's always done. With best times of 1:43.8 in the 800 and 27:34 in the 10k, it's obvious that he can be competitive at a national level (and possibly international level) at whatever distance he wants to run. The big rap on Webb is that he's consistently failed to critically and dispassionately examine what happens and why. That's why he left Michigan and quit college running after a tough freshman year, it's why he's been so hard on himself emotionally after bad races, and it's why he's been so thoroughly outfoxed in championship races. If his new coach, Alberto Salazar, is able to do this for him, then Webb stands a chance to finally fully realize his tremendous physical gifts.

Webb is probably best suited to running the 1500 on the Diamond League circuit, but at championship meets like the Worlds and Olympics he's probably best suited to the 5,000. This is because distance races are fundamentally different depending on whether or not a pacemaker is present. With a pacemaker, a race is little more than a high-speed time trial. The field gets strung out quickly so there's no traffic, and the strategy is basically to run as fast as you possibly can. Webb has shown that he's good at this.

Championship races, on the other hand, tend not to be run hard from the gun, and have fast finishes with a lot of runners still in contention. Being able to win a medal in one of these requires being in the right place at the right time, and it sure helps to be able to accelerate quickly from a variety of paces. No one in recent memory does this better than Bernard Lagat. Webb has not been good at this type of running at all. Generally speaking, though, there's more room for error as the distance gets longer.

Someone with 1:43 speed and who probably could come reasonably close to 27:00 doesn't have to be a tactical genius in the 5k to have a shot at a Worlds or Olympic medal. Note that US men have only ever won four of those in the 5k. Let's hope Webb and AlSal go the unexpected route and take on the 5000 meters.

The USA has young shot putters coming along. Ryan Whiting, the 24-year-old who won six NCAA titles at Arizona State, started off his first fully professional season yesterday at Penn State with a world-leading 20.89 (68' 6.5"). Ranked eighth in the world last year and fourth in the US, he will likely beat out an aging Adam Nelson for a spot on the Worlds team, where is entirely capable of winning a medal or even gold. Yesterday wasn't exceptional for him, but right about where he should be starting off.

In Kansas on Friday night a youngster did have an exceptional day. While beating the hated Missouri Tigers in the annual Border Dual, Jayhawk sophomore Mason Finley put up a huge PR of 20.71 (67' 11.5"), which was the world leader until Whiting stepped it up the next day. Recall that at last year's NCAA outdoor championship, Finley was involved in a bit of a controversy when one of his throws was mismarked at 20.68 (67' 10"), which Finley said he did not (and could not) reach; 19.84 was his PR at the time. Finley is already 36 cm (14 inches) ahead of where Whiting was at the same age--and the season has just begun.

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