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Monday, February 21, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete: Special Monday Edition

I'd like to say this week's column is delayed a day because of the holiday, or because of an ice storm that knocked out my power for eight hours. But it's really because if I was going to go out drinking last night, it to be before the storm hit. It's important to keep your priorities in order.

What did we learn this week?

Mo Farah is joining up with the Oregon Track Club. While this was news to me when it was formally announced, others have said this was well known for a month or two before it finally happened. The issue that held it up was sponsorship. As with most top British athletes, Farah was under contract to adidas and the OTC is a Nike group. Farah is specifically joining up with Alberto Salazar's subdivision of the OTC, which does a lot of its training right on the Nike headquarters campus. An adidas-sponsored athlete would barely be more welcome there than a Protestant would be in the Falls Road area of Belfast. So a switch in allegiances was a pre-requisite and various reports say it's happened.

This does bring up a couple of questions, though. First of all, why would Farah change his coaching right after the most successful season of his career? Last year he won a 5k/10k double at the European Championships and broke 13:00 in the 5k. It seems very foolish to make such a radical change when the current situation is obviously working. A comment by "John G" at the Track and Field News message boards sheds some light on the situation:
Steve Cram made the comment that it has been unclear for a while who was coaching Mo. He mentioned his agent Ricky Sims and Gary Lough as people who had advised him in addition to Alan Storey. He also said rather pointedly that Ian Stewart "claims" to have advised him. The latter remark made me laugh. I watched the Barcelona 10k in a pub in Teddington. A bunch of British and Australian athletes were in a corner of the bar cheering on Mo and Chris Thompson. After the race Ian Stewart got himself into camera shot and there was a chorus of "There he is, pretending he's had something to do with their success."
So if Farah really didn't have a coach, moving to Portland may not be much of a change--especially if he's planning on "being his own man", being advised by Salazar but ultimately making his own decisions regarding training and racing.

Another reason Farah may have wanted a change in scenery is to get out of the pressure cooker. Britain hasn't hosted an Olympics since 1948, and it is a far bigger deal there than it would be here. The British sporting press is on the whole nearly as savage as our sports talk radio. Getting out of England for the next year and a half will allow him to concentrate on training and racing and little else.

The other question raised by this move is in regard to Salazar's training group. Kevin Liao pointed out that Salazar's group was originally called the Nike Oregon Project, founded in 2001 by Nike VP Tom Clarke to improve American distance running. Why bring in Farah? He's not American.

There are a few different ways to look at this. One is that Farah is not the first foreigner to join the club. Jerry Schumaker's group, also under the OTC and Nike Oregon Project umbrella, already has Canadian Simon Bairu and Brit Chris Thompson along with a few other foreigners. Another is that the group training ethos of the OTC should welcome outsiders because they make everyone better (and Farah probably brings more to the table this way than most). But I think it's mostly that the OTC has accomplished the goal of improving American distance running, and has more or less discarded that as its raison d'etre.

Why indoor track became popular in the first place. At Saturday's Aviva Grand Prix in England, we got to see the indoor 400 meter hurdles. If you didn't see it, check out the YouTube video, it's awesome.

How the heck do you run an indoor 400 hurdles? There are two flights of hurdles on each straightaway, giving eight hurdles for the full distance. Thus they aren't exactly evenly spaced, especially since the start is staggered but the hurdles are not.

What's really wild is that, as with the non-hurdling indoor 400, the athletes cut in after one lap. You have to go wide to pass in the last 200, making it almost like a high-speed steeplechase. Felix Sanchez won the race on Saturday while stumbling at the finish and doing a somersault, after which he landed on his feet and took a bow.

Is this a legitimate track event? Does it conform to the idea of "fairness" that we seek to put into the sport, or does lane draw make a big difference? The answer is it doesn't matter. It's highly entertaining and close enough to real racing. What's more, this is how we always used to look at indoor track.

Back in the 70s and probably earlier, there were "devil take the hindmost" races at some indoor meets, where the last runner at each of various points in the race was eliminated until only the winner remained. Some had a guy in a Satan suit and pitchfork actually come out on the track to theatrically do the deed. The ITA sometimes ran a race between a woman sprinter and a male shot putter. As late as the 90s there were other stunts, like bringing Jackie Joyner-Kersee out to the competition on the back of a Harley.

Indoor track wasn't real track, it was a track circus. Even for field events, Track and Field News never counted indoor competition in its World Rankings until the late 70s. The IAAF didn't recognize indoor track records until the early 80s. Only for the last three decades has indoor track been thought of as anything like the real thing. It's kind of like Winter X Games versus Winter Olympics--one is for fun, the other is serious.

So if the indoor 400 hurdles catches on as a popular event, I could not be happier. It's nice that Mo Farah and Galen Rupp both broke 5k records at the Aviva meet, but that scripted evenly-paced 25-lap race isn't likely to make an SportsCenter highlights. Something that looks like roller derby with hurdles just might.

Ryan Crouser is nothing short of amazing. The high school senior broke Brent Noon's national indoor shot put record twice in his six throws at Saturday's Simplot Games in Pocatello ID, topping out at 77' 2 3/4". When indoor and outdoor marks are combined, it's the second-best distance in US high school history--the best being Michael Carter's 81' 3 1/2" from 1979, often considered an unbreakable record. Yet Crouser is closing in, and that was just his second meet of the season.

Think about this: Crouser is doing the equivalent of taking a 12-lb ball, bowling overhand, and hitting the pins while standing at the ball return, not the foul line..

Being a great athlete in high school sometimes leads to greatness as an adult, and sometimes it doesn't. For every Carl Lewis there are a dozen Michael Granvilles. Nowhere is the relationship between early success and world-class status more tenuous than in the throwing events. They are so highly technical, and fulfilling potential takes so long, that being a great high schooler can work against an athlete. Young people are not noted for their patience, and developing as a thrower requires a lot of it.

There are two things that make me hopeful that Crouser might be an exception. One is that he's so good, he might soon be world-class. The rule-of-thumb difference between the high school (12 lb) and international (16 lb) shots is ten feet, which implies Crouser would almost certainly make the finals at this year's World Championships.

The other, though, is revealed in a long feature at ESPN Rise about the entire Crouser clan of throwers, reaching back two generations. Ryan's cousin Sam was last year's high school athlete of the year, and his father and uncles are in the Oregon Hall of Fame. The story relates throwing as being as much family fun for the Crousers as it is highly competitive.

We sports fans (and athletes) like to repeat the mantra of "work, work, work". But there is no way that an athlete can keep up that level of motivation for the ten to fifteen years that throwing requires if it is only outcome-related. The elder Crousers say that they were obsessed with throwing further every day, but that their children haven't made that mistake. No doubt they're motivated by new personal records, but they understand they aren't going to come every single time.

I know an awful lot of high schoolers who were single-minded in their approach to sports, and then went away to college and found their minds distracted by other things. If the ESPN Rise article paints an accurate picture, I doubt this will happen to the Crousers for one simple reason: throwing is the most fun they can have. Every child or teenager has on at least one occasion found an object leaving their hand, followed a split-second later by their eyes popping wide open and their mouths saying "Oh s**t!" in a combination of horror and fascination at the destruction they've caused. In the Crouser homes, no one gets punished for this. They get asked things like "How far did it go? Was your form good?" Free reign to have constructive but completely rambunctious fun is a gift few young athletes are given.

Curtis Mitchell bombed. This happened the week before last, but he bombed so badly that I totally missed it.

If you do not recall, Mitchell was a star sprinter at Texas A&M who won the NCAA indoor championship at 200 meters last winter (and runner-up outdoors), then ran 19.99 at the NACAC U-23 Championships over the summer. He decided to forego his senior year and join the pro ranks just before the 2011 indoor season began, infuriating Aggie coach Pat Henry, who said "we have agents and management groups who prey on young people's financial dreams and aspirations".

Fast forward to the Tyson Invitational two Saturdays ago. Mitchell was entered in the 200 meters, and was described as "strutting around Fayetteville prior to the he was the second coming" and "spouting off before the meet he felt ready for a big PR and a run at the world record". He ran 21.43, more than a second slower than his NCAA title run a year ago on the same track.

Unless things change and in a big way, Mitchell will join the scrapheap of tracksters who left to go pro and did diddly-squat. It's either a pretty short list, or my memory doesn't come up with many because they didn't make themselves memorable.

Henry says agents and management groups take advantage of athletes like Mitchell. Right now I'd have to say Mitchell is the one taking advantage of someone else. Whatever his three-year adidas contract is paying him, so far he hasn't been remotely worth it.

Jon Terzenbach is taking a crazy track and field road trip. This I discovered through the latest House of Run podcast. This nutjob and his friend, Calvin Brawner, are taking a twenty-five week trip, going to things ranging from the Millrose Games to the Moby Dick 7-mile Snowshoe Race. You can read their daily blog at Runnerspace. A hundred and seventy-five days on the road...yeah, you'll never want to see the other one again. They'll be lucky if neither goes the full Travis Bickle on the other.

Don't get me wrong -- it sounds like a heck of a lot of fun and I'm a little jealous. But 25 weeks? Yow.  If they're still having fun at the end, it will be a remarkable feat of endurance akin to running across the continent.

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