The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell will race each other, but Bolt and Tyson Gay probably won't meet until the Worlds. This pronouncement from Gay's agent, Mark Wetmore, has led to a lot of bitching about the Diamond League and how it was supposed to create head-to-head matchups between superstars like these but hasn't.

Personally, I like the Diamond League better than its forerunner, the Golden League, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the above. The problem we have here is fairly basic: money.

When the Diamond League was launched in the fall of 2009, the idea was that the biggest stars would be signed to series contracts mandating a minimum number of competitions. But that costs money. A lot of money, considering what kind of superstar Usain Bolt is. And there's a lot less money floating around sports these days, especially second-tier sports.

Then there is a specific issue relating to Bolt and Gay: they are both more or less equally good at two different events. The idea behind the Diamond League's rules about which meets can hold which events was to limit the competitions and thus concentrate the talent. But these two can spread out over fourteen races instead of just seven, and they can duck each other.

Or is it ducking? More likely, it's that each of them is so expensive in terms of appearance fees that none of the early-season meets can afford both of them. The late-season meets can, and they may race each other there.

The poster children for this kind of ducking were another pair of great runners who were equally good at two different events: Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. They met at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, and not once in between.

Bolt and Gay compete under different conditions than Coe and Ovett did. Not just being openly professional, but with a World Championships or Olympics in three out of every four years. We will get to see a showdown between them this year (provided both stay healthy), no question about it. This, then, is Exhibit A for why the IAAF should stage a Worlds in every non-Olympic year.

Is it essential for the health of track and field that Bolt and Gay meet with regularity? Probably not. In the most popular team sports, the best teams usually don't meet more than a handful of times a year, sometimes just in the championship. Ali and Frazier fought only three times, yet that was a lot for a heavyweight championship. As long as they meet every year I think it's OK, provided that it comes at the end of an all-summer-long buildup of hype and with a lot at stake.

Tyson Gay will run on a 4x400 with Jeremy Wariner at the Texas Relays. That's a pretty good concentration of talent. It's nothing but early-season shakeouts for them, but domestic fans get the benefit of seeing two of our very biggest stars competing at home. I'm guessing these two are working together because they're both adidas-sponsored athletes.

This team, along with Reggie Witherspoon (44.99 PR, 2008) and Lionel Larry (44.63 PR, 2008), will run in the invitational section. A college team or two might be put in with them; last year Mississippi State was in that section.

Relay meets kick ass. I mean real relay meets, not meets that call themselves "relays" but are 90% individual events. In a few weeks I'm going to the granddaddy of them all, the Penn Relays. How hyped am I? Last night I had a nightmare in which I missed half the meet.

Ato Boldon's 4x100 relay rules for Team USA. Speaking of relays, the USA invented them. Recent results in the 4x100 at World Championships and Olympics, though, have been nothing short of embarrassing. More often than not, we can't get the stick around the track without a DQ.

In a response to Wallace Spearmon on Twitter, Ato Boldon laid out the rules he'd put in place for Team USA's 4x100 teams if given the power to do so.
Rule 1
Running the 4x100 is a privilege not a right. No camp, no run, no likea the rules, sita in the stands.

Rule 2
[Texas A&M head coach] Pat Henry is in charge.

Rule 3
Managers/agents stay the $%&* out of practice/discussions. What YOUR client "wants to run" means nothing.

Rule 4
For the next 3 years no collegians and no newbies. Look at the drops/miscues since 1988 and the experience level of those involved

Rule 5:
Camp is 3 deep at every leg, and no switching. You train/practice with dif runners, but everyone is grouped by the leg u run.

Rule 6:
See rule #3. Start there and the US may not win the next 3 years but the stick will actually travel 400m around an oval.

The situation for Team USA's 4x100 relays is similar to the problems faced by USA Basketball between 2000 and 2008. The specifics are different, but the basic problems of arrogance about winning, a lack of focus and responsibility, and increasing levels of competition from other nations are all the same.

Boldon's prescription sound similar to what Jerry Colangelo put into place to address those problems. Those were stability in coaching, by picking a respected college coach without a dog in the fight; stability in athletes, by requiring a three-year commitment; and a willingness to reject superior athletes if they are not willing to work within the system.

There are significant differences, though. Measuring success for USA Basketball is almost entirely based on its ability to win a men's gold medal in international competition. They were facing complete disgrace. USA Track and Field, however, can hide failures in the relays among many successes. Our leadership can continue to delude themselves about Team USA success, because they have no direct relationship to 90% of it. The 10% with which they do have a direct relationship, the 4x100 relays, they f**k up with regularity.  But, being elected officials, they'll never admit it.

Another difference is that a well-organized team with only of half our top basketball talent can still win gold medals. A well-organized team of all of our top 4x100 talent, either men or women, is in the near future still likely to be beaten by the Jamaicans. Thus Boldon's Rule #6. The willingness to tell top basketballers to take a hike is not a sacrifice, but to do so to top sprinters is. Besides wins and losses, there is the money issue: USA Basketball loses no favor with sponsors or broadcasters if Kobe Bryant does not play, but USA Track and Field stands to lose a lot if Tyson Gay does not run.

Yet another difference is the power structure. Colangelo, being part of NBA management, is not beholden to athletes' desires, and USA Basketball, being wholly separate from the NBA, had nothing to lose by instituting tough love. USA Track and Field's power structure is elected by the athletes and heavily influenced by their agents. Reforming our national relay team structure is as difficult as Congress passing meaningful lobbying reforms, and possibly less likely.

Lastly, and most importantly, is a difference in culture. Basketball is a sport which preaches team play, even if it doesn't always practice it, but the idea of putting the needs of the group ahead of your own is there from the first time a kid puts on a jersey. Not so in track. Track people are almost universally individualists by nature, fiercely independent and suspicious of everyone and everything. At the professional level, we are the Tea Party of sports, and I mean that in the worst possible way.

A significant part of why pro tracksters chose track over other sports at an early age is that they are not team players. They chose a sport where they were not expected to play well with others. Getting them to agree on anything, no matter how much in their own interest it may be, is more difficult than herding cats.

Dual meets kick ass. Want an example of how track people are as difficult to herd as cats? Look at the death of the dual meet. There was a time when the typical track team's schedule was built around dual meets, relay carnivals, and end-of-the-year championships (plus arena-based indoor invitationals for those in the north). The implosion of that system, in favor of massive all-day unscored snoozefests, has been mirrored by a similar implosion of spectator and media interest. There are other issues of course, and we all know that correlation does not show causation, but it's hard to argue that the first had nothing to do with the second.

Over the weekend we had a fantastic tri-meet in Austin that turned out to be a two-way fight between Texas and UCLA. The Longhorns led by one point going into the 4x400, in a must-win situation over the Bruins, and pulled it out. There are very few things in sports more exciting than a track meet that comes down to the mile relay.

Every single athlete who scored a point for the Longhorns was the MVP. If any one of them failed, then the team doesn't win. You could make an argument that the meet was won by a mere 0.004 seconds, as that was the margin of victory in 200 by Texas' Trevante Rhodes.

Sara Hall is getting serious about a new event. She's been a 1500/3k/5k type for many years, and the last eight or so months have been among the most productive of her career. But there's a problem: a glut of talent in these events.

In the 1500, Team USA has five athletes with recent PRs of 4:02.40 or better, all of whom are savvy racers. With a PR of 4:08.55, Hall isn't going to make a national team in the 1500. In the 5k, Team USA has six current athletes whose PRs are at least 20 seconds better than Hall's, putting up a similar brick wall. The option of going longer, to the 10k or marathon, is a risk and nearly as unlikely to pay off.

So Hall is now trying the steeplechase, and I think it's a smart move. Team USA has a pair of studs in the event in Jenny Simpson and Anna Pierce, but both have spent most of their time recently in other events and while one or the other might return to it, I can't see both doing so. After that, the next best the USA has is Lisa Aguilera, who has broken 9:30 just once twice.  After that, Bridget Franek has broken 9:40 twice in her life, and a few others have done it once.
EDIT: reminded me that Aguilera has broken 9:30 twice.

On Friday night at Stanford, Hall ran 9:50.68. That's big. It's less than a second off the IAAF "B" standard and eight seconds off the "A" standard. Remember, if she can beat Franek and Nicole Bush, she'll likely be on the US team for the Worlds and/or Olympics. She's still quite a bit behind them in terms of best time—but this was only the third full-distance steeplechase of her life. In the process, she trounced 9:40 steepler Lindsay Allen by sixteen seconds.

Is Hall too small to run the steeple? Apparently not. The barriers are only 30 inches tall for the women. That's three inches shorter than the women's 100 hurdle height, an event mastered by 5' 2" Gail Devers.

Hall may have found her niche. She's a smart racer, tough, and with a good enough kick. If she's in the hunt to make the top three at the US Championshisp or Olympic Trials, I think she'll make the team.  For more, see Jim McDannald's post at

College meets are figuring out when to attract fans.  The hard-and-fast rule is that meets are held on Saturdays.  Period.  And that's not the way to attract college track's natural fan base.

Who is their natural fan base?  High school athletes and their coaches.  And what do they do all day on Saturday?  Compete in their own meets.  So they can't come and watch.

A Sunday college track meet used to be rarer than hen's teeth, but a few have come around this year.  Ohio State's Jesse Owens Classic, the Ohio State-Michigan dual, this weekend's Alabama Relays, and several conference championships have all made the jump.  Friday meets are happening too, such as the above-mentioned Texas-Arkansas-UCLA triangular.

The day of the meet by itself will make no difference in terms of attendance.  But it's part of thinking outside the box for new ways of drawing in spectators.  (By the way, someone needs to think outside the box to come up with a new term so we can retire that cliche.)

Think about this: up through the mid-80s, college basketball teams played on Tuesdays and Saturdays.  That was it.  They rarely played any other day of the week, and never on Sunday.  There weren't a whole lot of games on TV, and a coach who would change his scheduling to fit TV demands was sneered at like a prostitute.  Things sure have changed, haven't they?  Why don't we?

A 104-year-old track star died before his time. Japan Running News reports that Takahashi Shimokawara, a 104-year-old man who held three world records in the 100+ age group, died in the tsunami that overtook northern Japan on March 11. Japanese masters athletics officials called it "a shock" and "a terrible pity".

There are comedians out there heartless enough to make jokes about this, and they're easy to write. I take something different from this: a goal. I want to be 104 and die too early, in a way that has nothing to do with old age or infirmity.

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