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Monday, February 07, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete (Special Monday Edition)

In the early days of Thursday night NFL games, they were on ABC and known as "Monday Night Football, Special Thursday Edition".  I, like you, was otherwise occupied last night.

What did we learn this week?

The track fan’s viewing options are many, but can be better. Most weekends I don't have the time to sit back and watch track all day, but this time I did. On Saturday morning there was the Sparkassen Cup live from Germany, in the afternoon there were the USATF Cross Country Championships and the New Balance Collegiate Invitational, and late at night there was the Beppu-Oita Marathon. On Sunday morning there was heptathlon action from Estonia and the Russian Winter meet from Moscow. I didn't watch all of these, of course, but the point is that I could have.

I’m old enough to remember Vic Holchak’s 1-900-94-TRACK. This was during the 1993 World Championships. You called up and heard Holchak, an ABC radio announcer, use his tag line "All out for Stuttgart!" to kick off a recorded play-by-play of the day’s main event. That was cutting-edge at the time. In 1996 I "watched" the Olympic Trials pole vault online by hitting the refresh button on the results page to see the x's and o's and p's come up.

So from an internet perspective, things have never been better. From a TV perspective, though, it sucks. Hard. And I don’t see why it has to.

The biggest domestic event of the day on Saturday was the New Balance Boston Indoor Grand Prix, which did end up on TV. But it was not live, it was "dead", a tape-delay package aired the following day (and just hours before the Super Bowl). In fact this meet has been tape-delay for years. We needn’t settle for this. Direct your complaints to USATF's Director of Events and Broadcasting, Brian Brase (; the meet director, Mark Wetmore (; and sponsors VISA ( and New Balance (800-253-7463).

As for the TV coverage itself, it’s the same as it has always been. Bringing in Tim Hutchings as an announcer is a welcome change, but from a production standpoint it is still ridiculously amateurish. Never a lap counter. Basically no use of editing. Bad camera angles for field events, and essentially no desire to cover them in anything but a cursory manner. Talking heads preferred over action. And it’s been this way for at least 20 years.

What's more, I don't think track people WANT television coverage. The Big Ten Network now has live coverage of gymnastics and wrestling, but I don't see a single coach in the conference who is willing to sacrifice even one weekend of mark-chasing to get his team on live TV. With BYU already having a channel, the Longhorn Sports Network on the horizon, and a Pac-12 channel soon to follow, there will be lots of open air-time available. Will anyone find this gold mine worth their while?

Ashton Eaton is still improving. In case you're out of the loop from paying too much attention to pigskin antics, yesterday Eaton broke his own world record in the heptathlon. His new score is 6568, topping his old score of 6499. He did it with big improvements in the three sprint, hurdle, and throwing events.

Already a fast decathlete, he ran 6.66 in the 60—a PR and the third fastest ever run in a heptathlon—to go 19 points up on his record from last year. In the shot he hit 14.45, another PR and an 81-point improvement from last year's record. Eaton's most impressive mark was in the hurdles, where he ran 7.60. This is by far the fastest ever run in a heptathlon (the old record being 7.74 by Bryan Clay) and puts him sixth on the 2011 world list. It was a 45-point improvement over his mark in last year's record. Smaller improvements in the long jump and pole vault put even more points on the board.

Does this World Record mean Eaton is now the odds-on favorite for the World Championships? I would say it means he holds the heptathlon world record, and anything more than that is speculation. The heptathlon hides Eaton's weakness, which is the throwing events. Last year's WR was followed up by an 8457 decathlon, which wasn't even the world leader. This weekend's marks suggest he's ready to hit between 8500 and 8600 points, and that's not going to win the Worlds. He's going to have to get a lot better—but he already has gotten better in a very short period of time.  8700 or more may be in reach for Eaton this season, and that would put him in contention for the win.

What his record does teach us is that the decathlon is a lot like golf, in that even the very best will always have some part of their game go against them. Eaton has made improvement over last season in every event but the high jump, where he has gone backwards. His poor (for him) height of 2.01 gave back 89 points from last year's record (where he cleared 2.11), wiping out all the points he gained from his big shot put PR. While he made 2.05 at Millrose last week, that’s still not up to his standard. No one ever has a perfect multi-event competition, even in a world record.

There is a new Ethiopian. While it is true that "there are always new Kenyans', when there is a new Ethiopian making headlines it's time to take notice.

In Stuttgart on Saturday, Alamirew Yenew had his coming out party. The (supposedly) 21-year-old Ethiopian beat a solid field to win the 3000 meters at the Sparkassen Cup in 7:27.80. How fast is that? It's third on the all-time indoor list, behind only Daniel Komen and Haile Gebrselassie. It's faster than Kenenisa Bekele has ever run indoors.

It should also be noted just exactly how he ran it. If you watch the video of the race, you might be confused as to which one is Yenew until the very end. He didn’t lead. He basically sat and kicked his way to victory. He didn’t go full bore until the last 80 meters or so.

By the way, if you want to know who the next top Ethiopian is going to be, you should note the Great Ethiopian Run. The annual October mass-participation race has "discovered" such talents as Tirunesh Dibaba and Sileshi Sihine. Yenew was second at the 2010 race.

Upsets happen in distance running. Just a few weeks ago Let's Run noted that one drawback of distance running as a spectator sport is that upsets are rare. The best runner almost always wins. This may be true in the big picture, but not in the USA this week.

In Saturday morning's USATF Cross Country Championships, the first major race didn’t have an upset. Shalane Flanagan went up against a deep field in the women's open championship and beat the living tar out of it. She gapped second-place Molly Huddle, who broke Flanagan’s 5000 meter American Record last summer, by 44 seconds. Flan says she wants the 5k record back and clearly is in shape to attack it.

The second race of the day did not go according to most people's expectations. Brent Vaughn pulled off an amazing upset to win the men's championship. Just a week ago he dropped out of the USA Half Marathon Championship at eight miles and was ready to quit running altogether. Major victories have been basically nonexistent for Vaughn; as he crossed the line he yelled "Finally!". Andrew Bumbalough was second, and his is not exactly a household name either. Sub-13:00 runner Matt Tegenkamp was fourth, and other big names like Abdi Abdirahman and Jorge Torres were not a factor at all.

Then in Boston at the New Balance indoor meet, things got a bit weird too. In the men's 3000 meters, Dejene Gebremeskel lost his right shoe right at the start. No problem—he sat on the shoulder of British sub-13:00 ace Mo Farah and outkicked him in a furiously fought last lap.

In the women's 3000 meters, all eyes were on America's Jenny (Barringer) Simpson and Ethiopia's world indoor champion Kalkidan Gezahegn. But it was Sally Kipyego who took the win over Simpson, and Gezahegn was edged out for third by Canada's Megan Wright.

The highlight race of the night, though, was the men's mile. You had Olympic silver medalist Nick Willis, the tough and wily Leo Manzano, the unpredictable Alan Webb, and high school phenom Lukas Verzbikas. When it was all said and done, the win went to...Russell Brown? Really?

Maybe upsets don’t happen all that often in distance running, but rather our perception of who is the "best" runner in a race doesn’t always reflect reality. Brown wears the Oregon TC jersey, as does Kipyego, and all the various training groups under that umbrella are well-coached. Brown quietly took sixth at last year's USATF Championships and was second on the 2010 US indoor list, even while battling recurrent injuries. On Saturday he made a modest improvement, cutting his mile PR down by 0.98 seconds but running somewhat outside his less-than-a-year-old 1500 PR. With Manzano running like crap, Willis coming off injury, and Webb still recovering from the flu, in retrospect Brown doesn't look like such an upset.

College track buries the lead. The biggest collegiate meet of the weekend, no matter how you looked at it, was the New Balance Collegiate Invitational in Manhattan's Armory Track and Field Center. Pretty much all the headlines covering the event, what little there are, talk about times and records and list leaders and all that jazz.

That misses the point. The point is that LSU got even with Texas A&M. The Aggies swept the Tigers in their dual meet two weeks ago, and the Tigers swept the Aggies in Manhattan. BYU managed to beat them both in the women's competition. An awful lot of college sports fans have their particular college and will cheer for themir boys (or girls) in any sport, and if you want to build a following it's important to tell them whether they won or lost. Even better yet is to note the developing rivalry between LSU and TAMU.

Yelena Isinbayeva is back. The pole vault star, arguably the most popular female trackster in the world, took most of 2010 off. In Moscow on Sunday she competed for the first time in more than ten months, cleared 4.81, and looked rusty while doing it. But she's so good that only two other vaulters went higher than that all of last year. Whether she'll win and with regularity is almost not worth asking. No one else can beat her, she can only beat herself. Will she break any of her records? That remains to be seen.

USATF is tone-deaf. The USATF Cross Country Championships is obviously for US citizens only. The real qualifications are a bit more than that, though. You must be a USATF member in good standing. To compete in a meet which selects a national team, you also must be eligible to represent the USA in international competition. Until recently, that often didn’t mean anything different than being a US citizen. A new IAAF rule, which requires a two-year waiting period after gaining new citizenship, has made it an issue.

Kenyan turned American Joseph Chirlee wanted to run at those championships, but fell afoul of the rule as he’s not been a US citizen for the requisite two years and can’t run for the US at this year’s Worlds. He and his coach went to the press and pulled out the ultimate trump card in modern American PR: Chirlee is a volunteer in the US Army. That gets you more patriot street cred than Betsy Ross these days.

USATF was unwilling to make an exception for Chirlee. I can understand that officials may not want to set a precedent. But I sure wish they'd said that and no more. USATF public affairs officer Jill Geer didn’t.
...[B]ecause he could affect the outcome of the overall race. Geer said that based on race tactics — if, for example, Chirlee set an unusually fast early pace — he could cause other runners in the field to try to match his pace, which could negatively influence their strategy or performance, altering the tenor of the race.
It’s laughable on its face to anyone who pays much attention the athletes and what they say. Many of the athletes in Saturday’s races had no intention of taking a spot on the US team for the World Cross Country Championships and didn't hide it.
Two-time world cross country team member Scott Bauhs, who said if he makes a third U.S. team he will pass on representing the U.S. at the world championships in Spain on March 20 in order to focus on his outdoor track season, stated quite confidently on Friday that if he "can't win the race, he’d like to make it hard for others to win the race."
(emphasis added)
Geer is just saying what she was told to say. It's not her fault. But the last thing that USATF or American track and field needed was more bad PR. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that classic movie The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, but the moniker fits for USATF.

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