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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

Bernard Lagat is not invincible.  We already knew this, of course, but with seven Wanamaker Mile titles to his credit it seemed like he couldn't lose at Millrose.  In my meet preview I said Deresse Mekonnen would give Lagat get the biggest push he'd had in quite a while at the Garden, but I incorrectly picked Lagat to win.  How did Mekonnen beat the master strategist?  By using basic indoor strategy.

In the third quarter, Mekonnen got ahead of Lagat.  Neither was really moving at full speed yet, as evidenced by their ability to run 55 seconds for the final quarter mile on the tight Millrose track.  In the last three laps, twice Lagat tried to pass, and twice Mekonnen accelerated enough to force Lagat wide around the turn and deny him.  Lagat had neither the time nor the remaining energy to try again.  Basic indoor strategy is to never let someone get ahead of you who could possibly fight you off in the race's late stages, but Lagat did and it was his undoing.

The Millrose Games and their telecast are better, but...  A year ago, control of the meet was handed over to the Armory Foundation, the people who run Manhattan's hugely successful indoor track arena.  This year they hired Tom Jordan, the longtime Prefontaine Classic meet director, to put on the show.  And the meet was better, with decently deep fields in most of the events and interesting new competitions, one pitting Jamaica versus the USA in the sprints and the other bringing in the world's best decathletes for a special multi-events competition.

But other things weren't so good.  Attendance was apparently way down, probably the worst since World War II or earlier--which is surprising given the area's fanatical group of  Jamaican expat track fans.  The highly anticipated 2-mile featuring Galen Rupp became a nothing race once he withdrew with illness.  And here are some tidbits from people who were there:
The only part that really was annoying was the loud blaring of AC/DC and other similar loud bands during the SP competition. It was horrible and then the field announcer (Dan O'Brien) asked the crowd for some noise. What for? No one could have heard anyone in the audience over the blaringly loud music. I don't hate loud music. In fact, I went to see Green Day's American Idiot a few days ago. I just don't like it with my track.
I couldn't agree more about the loud thudding music. In addition to being just plain annoying, having announcers try to talk over it constantly just makes the already difficult acoustics in the Garden so much worse. I barely heard an intelligible announcement all night, and I think that (along with the ridiculously amateurish use of the Garden's scoreboards) makes the all-important conveying of information to the crowd just about impossible, leaving a lot of people watching an event they can't really follow.
As far as TV presentation goes, certain things were much better. Ato Boldon had promised us marked improvement and to some extent it was delivered. ESPN brought in Tim Hutchings, who you may know as one of the British announcers on the IAAF world feeds that picks up (which is by itself an important indicator that ESPN/ABC both intends to win Olympics rights and thinks it can). There was intelligent use of basic video technology to seamlessly integrate races held before the broadcast began at 8 PM. And they were able to work around the 2-mile, which apparently was no longer deemed worthy of broadcast without Galen Rupp.

But other things stunk as much as they always have. While camera positioning was better for the shot put, for the women's pole vault we got the same old head-on shot looking down the runway. My real beef with Friday night's telecast was the same problem I always have with US track broadcasts: important numerical information should never be communicated solely by voice, but should also appear on screen. We should see on the screen how many laps are left in a race. We should see what the score is between Jamaica and the USA. We should see who the leaders in the shot or the pole vault are and what their on-screen efforts do for them. We should see what the standings in the multi-event challenge were right after each event. There is NO EXCUSE for this not being done.

Field events are ignored at track's peril. I thought two of the most interesting events of the whole night were the men's shot and the multi challenge. In the former, Ryan Whiting scored a big upset win over Christian Cantwell in a seesaw battle. In the latter, Ashton Eaton set two PRs (and passed on trying for another) and showed he's ahead of schedule to become the best decathlete in the world.

It's not just there, though. This week's college action was highly oriented to individuals rather than teams, but had few great track races. There were a lot of good times but some hoped-for matchups of top runners never materialized. By far the best competition of the weekend was the men's high jump in College Station, where Ricky Robertson of Ole Miss and Erik Kynard of Kansas State faced off. Going into the meet they were the top two on the NCAA list, and when the bar went up to 7' 6" (2.28m) they were the last two left. Mano-a-mano, the way individual sports are supposed to be. Kynard made the height, a new collegiate leader, and Robertson didn't.  No other single competition of the weekend offered up as much.

Some of the problems we have in track are related to the makeup of the sport itself. Runners can't compete too often, the best ones are pretty expensive for a meet director to bring in, and it's easy for them to duck each other by choosing different distances. These problems are more or less nonexistent in field events, though. Field eventers can compete two or three times in a week with few ill effects, they're always happy to pick up another paycheck, and the necessary specialization in a single event means they always have to go up against each other.

Over in Europe there has been a wise decoupling of field events from track and field meets, mostly during the indoor season, with positive effects. There are two different tours in eastern Europe that are high-jump only. Germany has its "Springermeetings" which usually have a high jump and a pole vault competition. England and France have a pole vault tour. Germany has an annual shot put meet, and outdoors there are some throws-only meets. The structure of these competitions allows them to be held in an ordinary gym, where a crowd of 2,000 or less could be a sellout. The low cost of assembling an elite field in just a couple of events, and universally underappreciated events at that, allows many of these kinds of meets to be held in rapid succession, which in turn builds media attention and a fan following. On Saturday Ivan Ukhov came oh-so-close to the world record in one of these high jump meets in front of a sellout crowd of eight hundred. (You must follow the link--the tininess of the venue is unbelievable and the proximity of the crowd is wonderful.)

Here in the USA only one group of field-eventers has figured this whole thing out, and that's the pole vaulters. They had their annual Pole Vault Summit this weekend, and street vaults and beach vaults are a staple of the summer. They were close to creating a professional pole vault tour last year but it fell through. (Arizona has a few throws-only meets but that hardly qualifies as an entire movement.) There's no reason that other field events can't do the same.

Jeff Demps may not be running track for Florida this spring. Or ever. We'll see. The defending NCAA champ in the 60 and the 100 (and the High School and American Junior record holder in the latter) also plays football at the University of Florida. Gator head coach Urban Meyer retired at the end of the season, apparently for good this time. The rumor (from reputable sources) is that the new coaching staff has told him he's not running track this spring--and if he does, he's done playing football.

It remains to be seen exactly what comes out of this. It might not be true. If it is, he might pick track instead, as there has been speculation that his long-term plans were headed in that direction instead. But even if he does, he then has the problem of paying for his 2011-12 school year. Football wouldn't do it, and UF's track scholarships are likely all spoken for given that national signing day is coming up this week.

Given that Demps got the crap beat out of him this fall, I can't see him lasting very long in the NFL. And he's on the cusp of being a legitimate worldwide superstar in track--which, while admittedly paying a heck of a lot less per year, is something he could do for the next ten to fifteen years, so he'd probably make more over his career as a runner rather than a running back. If he does choose track, he'll probably have to turn to the professional ranks after the end of this season.

The London Olympic Stadium row was predicted. Months before the final selection of the host of the 2012 Olympics, the Paris bid team already said the London Olympic Stadium would not honor its promise to retain its track. They thought it would either become another football stadium or be torn down completely. This comes to us from Jon Tibbs, the PR consultant retained by the Parisians, as reported in Athletics Weekly.
"There were six to eight IOC members at the time who were related to athletics who probably voted for London in the final rounds," said Tibbs. "We’ll never know but let’s assume they did. That includes Lamine Diack, Sergey Bubka, Hicham El Guerrouj and Nawal El Moutawakel. They were all under the impression that London would be leaving a lasting legacy for athletics."
Apparently the Parisians didn't go public with their doubts, else those people would have voted for Paris and London wouldn't have won. It was considered an upset at the time, and the conventional wisdom then was that Tony Blair's personal lobby made the difference. In retrospect it sure looks like the stadium promise was the difference, not Blair.

I'd also like to put down some money on the next IAAF presidency vote once this is all sorted out. If Coe manages to save the stadium, he'll win. If not, Bubka will be the unanimous choice.  As Tibbs said, it will not go over well if the IOC is hoodwinked into giving the Games to a city that had no intention of backing up the promise central to its candidacy.

Ryan Hall is not the best-prepared athlete in his family.  Hall mad his much-anticipated return to racing at yesterday's USATF Half-Marathon Championships, where he was beaten to second over the last 300 meters by Mo Trafeh.  The time was, by Hall's standards, nothing terribly impressive.  He looked OK.  But that's what he's raced like for the last several years.  Just OK.  And that's not going to win anything.

Wife Sara, on the other hand, ran a very good race on Friday night to win the 1500 at the Millrose Games.  Last year was quietly one of her best years ever and Friday continued it.  As Ryan has famously turned away from being coached by anyone but himself and his intuition (or divine inspiration, which are two names for the same thing), Sara has retained Deena Evans, her coach while in college at Stanford, where she was twice an NCAA runner-up at 5k.

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