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Running With Heavy Burdens in Dark Shadows

sports central | Brian Cox ( Mon 25th, August 2008 )

Did you see USA track and field at the Bird's Nest in these Olympics?

If you're a Team USA supporter who watched the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the biggest story has to be some guy named Michael Phelps from Towson, MD (have you heard of him lately?) winning the most gold medals of any athlete in a single Olympics.

The second biggest story, however, could be up for debate. Some can say it's the success of USA gymnastics with Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson leading Team USA to a silver medal and both winning multiple individual medals, including gold, as well as the surprising bronze by a men's team with a bunch of no-names.

Others will say that it's USA basketball and the "Redeem Team" that has blasted their way through the competition. But considering the tradition of the sport in this country, the second biggest story has to be the faltering of marquee U.S. athletes in marquee events in track and field, only showing the dénouement of a sport and a nation that has been rocked by scandal and misfortunes ever since a successful campaign in Athens in 2004.

Since their conquest in Athens, some of the most revered athletes of USA Track have been rocked by doping allegations and findings that have been devastating. Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin, both former world record holders in the 100 meters, were banned for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Antonio Pettigrew, who was part of the 4x400 relay gold medal-winning team in Sydney, admitted to doping as part of plea deal in the case against coach Trevor Graham, whose figure has been cast as the towering shadow over the sport in America. Pettigrew and the rest of the gold medal relay team, including Michael Johnson, returned their gold medals from their Sydney triumph.

The most ominous figure in this debacle? Track and field icon Marion Jones, for years the poster girl for the sport. After her ex-husband and training partner C.J. Hunter was indicated in the BALCO scandal, and later her relationship with Montgomery, suspicions increased towards Jones. After initially denying all allegations that she took performance-enhancing drugs, Jones tearfully admitted in October 2007 that she lied to federal investigators in the BALCO case and was promptly stripped of all five medals she won while competing in the Sydney Olympics. Embarrassment was brought to the forefront and dealt a blow to the track federation less than 10 months from the 2008 Summer Games that they have never fully recovered from.

Looking at the final medal count, USA track and field has 23 medals; seven gold, five medals ahead of their closest competitor, Russia. But these Olympics for track and field have been less about the medals that have been won, but more about the opportunities that have been squandered. Sure, the sweeps by the men in the 400 distance, regular and hurdles, were great stories. Dawn Harper coming from nowhere to win the 100 meter hurdles, and Stephanie Brown Trafton winning the women's discus, Sheena Tosta with a silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles, Jennifer Stuczynski capturing the silver medal in women's pole vault, Walter Dix with bronze medals in the 100 and 200 meters and the two Davids, Payne and Oliver, with silver and bronze, respectively, in the 100-meter hurdles, are all great stories that can lift the morale. However, these Olympics have been more about the missed opportunities and devastating losses.

Let's see. Where do we start?

Tyson Gay, arguably the poster boy for these Olympics for Team USA, started things off by not even qualifying for the 100-meter final after being the world champion in the event. American women Lauryn Williams, Muna Lee, and Torrie Edwards were shut out of medals in the 100 meters, overwhelmed by a Jamaican sweep. Allyson Felix, who finished with silver in the 200 meters in Athens and was the world champion in this event, was subdued once again in the second slot on the podium by Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown, after she was expected to be the favorite.

Sanya Richards, widely considered the favorite in the women's 400 meters, had what seemed to be an insurmountable lead in the home stretch, before tightening up and finishing third and showing obvious disappointment. Bernard Lagat, who became a U.S. citizen after running for his native Kenya and silver medalist from Athens, failed to even qualify for the 1,500-meter run this time around. In the 5,000 meters, he was with the lead pack for most of the race, but fell to fifth at the finish.

Terrence Trammell, who won the silver medal in the 110-meter hurdles in Athens, pulled out of the race in qualifying with an injury. This was after defending Olympic champion Liu Xiang of China pulled out with a heel injury in qualifying, as well. If the door was open for Trammell with Liu pulling out of the race, it was slammed back in his face when his own injury occurred. Deena Kastor, who won the bronze in marathon in Athens, pulled out of the race at the 5K mark with a foot injury.

But possibly the most gut-wrenching story of all the individual failures was LoLo Jones, who was cruising to sure victory in the 100-meter hurdles when she clipped the ninth of 10 hurdles and fell all the way to seventh place. The obvious disappointment and pain that Jones displayed while kneeling on the track after the race showed only a fraction of what was to come.

If there was a race that showed the significance of how excruciating the campaign at the Bird's Nest was for USA track and field, it would have the be the disasters in the 4x100 meters relays for both the men and the women. For the men, Tyson Gay and Darwin Patton mishandled the baton exchange going in the final leg in the qualifying rounds and the baton fell to the track, squashing any chance of the U.S. men to regain gold in the relay they dominated for so long in Olympic competition. It was the third time since 1996 that the U.S. men failed to win gold in their signature relay. To top it off, the Jamaicans, led by the new star on the world stage, the electrifying Usain Bolt, broke the 16-year-old world record in the 4x100 relay set by the United States in Barcelona after Bolt crushed his own record in the 100 meters and Michael Johnson's in the 200 meters, a record once thought to be unbreakable.

For the U.S. women, it became the missed opportunity for the third straight Olympiad. Since 1996, the women have not won gold in 4x100 relay, winning bronze in Sydney and being disqualified for a dropped baton in Athens. But history repeated itself; as with the men, the final exchange was botched. Torrie Edwards placed the baton in Lauryn Williams hand one second and a millisecond later, it was on the ground in almost the same spot as their compatriots. The expression on Edwards and more importantly Williams' face, who for the second straight Olympics was part of a botched baton exchange, told the entire story. No words needed to be spoken, the agony said it all. The baton exchange, much like the free throw in basketball, is one of the few fundamentals in the sport that is so minuscule, yet so important that is rarely practiced and when not properly executed, often leads to defeat.

Want a cherry on top? No American did not medal in any jump event. None. In a tradition that has seen champions like Dick Fosbury, Bob Beamon, Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Mike Powell, Charles Austin Joe Greene, and Dwight Phillips, it is a severe disappointment, especially after the apex when the American men swept the jump events in Atlanta.

Rewind to 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, quite possibly the greatest performance by a country in the Olympics. USA track and field walked away with a whopping 30 medals, including 12 gold. The next closest team in the standings was the Unified Team, comprised of Russia and former Soviet republics. The most notable performance the men's 4x100 relay team that won their race in dominating fashion in 37.40, a world record that still stands today. Carl Lewis won his third gold medal in the long jump and led a U.S medal sweep that included world record holder Mike Powell and Joe Greene. On the women's side, Gail Devers and Gwen Torrence took gold in the 100 and 200 meters, respectively, and Torrence anchored a team that won the women's 4x100 relay. All-time great Jackie Joyner-Kersee repeated as heptathlon Olympic champion. The outstanding performance by the U.S. in Barcelona would clearly lead to great momentum heading into the next Olympiad to be held on home soil in Atlanta in 1996.

With more countries competing in the 1996 Olympics on U.S. soil, USA track and field garnered 23 medals, including 13 gold. The star of the track was clearly Michael Johnson, won ran an incredible time of 19.32 in the 200 meters. Carl Lewis won his fourth straight Olympic Gold in the long jump as the Americans won gold in the four major field events: all three jump events and shot put. Gail Devers repeated as the 100-meter gold medalist and the U.S. women sprint relays put on great performances, including the unforgettable shot of Atlanta home girl Gwen Torrence capping the Games in track and field, anchoring the 4x100 relay by lifting her arms to the sky in triumph as she crossed the finish line. It was also in this Olympics that the U.S. men were defeated in the 4x100 relay by Canada, led by 100-meter Olympic champion Donovan Bailey, for the first time ever in an Olympic final. However, with the popularity of Johnson's performance in Atlanta, USA track and field, who would soon be taken over by Craig Masback as CEO, seemed primed for a meteoric rise.

Twelve years later and after at least seven medals were wiped off the board for doping violations in Sydney amid constant speculation, track and field had some promising prospects for the future with sprinters Gatlin, Shawn Crawford, and Bernard Williams in Athens. After faltering in Barcelona and Atlanta, American men ascended back to the top of the podium with triumphs by Maurice Greene and Gatlin in the 100 meters. With the emergence of college stars such as Gay, Xavier Carter, and Wallace Spearmon, Jr., the U.S. men looked to keep their strong performances in the sprint events, except no one told the Jamaicans.

Usain Bolt, who came from nowhere to break the 100-meter world record in May, shot to the top of list of contenders for Beijing next to his countryman and former world record holder Asafa Powell. With Bolt's breathtaking performances in the sprints and the Jamaican men cruising to the gold in the 400-meter relay, the sprint title has been wrestled with great force to the island of gold and green, fitting enough. And the U.S. has let it go with a painful whimper, still licking its wounds from scandal, injury, and misfortune.

As for the women, the Jamaicans again have repeated the feats of their male counterparts. Twelve years after Deon Hemmings became the first Jamaican woman to win gold at the Olympics, the sweep in the 100 meters that left the American trio of Williams, Lee, and Edwards on the outside, coupled by Veronica Campbell-Brown haunting the dreams of Allyson Felix in the 200 yet again and the baton fiascos of Beijing, left USA Track 0-for-6 in the sprint events (men's and women's 100, 200, and 4x100-meter relays) for the first time in a Games not boycotted by the USOC. Think that heads of USA track and field are happy? Not one bit. CEO Doug Logan said in his blog that fiascos like the baton drops are viewed by fans as "reflective of a lack of preparation, lack of professionalism, and of leadership."

Bryan Clay may have helped salvage some dignity in the field events by continuing the tradition of American champions in the Olympic decathlon. With the men's 4x400-meter relay team blowing away the field and Sanya Richards with an epic kick in the home stretch to bring home the gold for the women's 4x400 relay team, it takes a little bit of the sting out the rap from reality. Twenty-three medals are nothing to sneeze at, especially when you have five more medals than closest country, Russia, competing in that sport. But if performances could have lived up to expectations without the disappointments and mistakes, it's quite possibly that, as predicted, this could have been the greatest medal performance by a U.S. track and field team in history.

The Bird's Nest could have been painted red white and blue; instead it has been splashed by the world's new superpower in sprinting, an island bathed in the colors of green and gold. Taking nothing away from Bolt, Campbell-Brown, Shelly Ann Fraser, and the rest of Jamaican contingent as they have performed magnificently during these Olympics, but it's as simple as the following. USA track and field has taken a sharp turn on the downslope in sprinting. That might work for other prominent countries, but for a country that provided sprinting greats such as the legendary Jesse Owens, Tommie Agee, John Carlos, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Maurice Green, Wilma Rudolph, Florence Griffith-Joyner, and Gail Devers, mediocrity in sprints will just not cut it.

You could liken the downfall of Americans in these Olympics to the plight of USA basketball in Athens. After an embarrassing loss in the 2002 World Championships and a disappointing bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, Jerry Colangelo assumed control of the basketball program, putting in plan a three-year commitment, a coach with a great reputation in Mike Krzyzewski, and a dedication to reclaim the top spot in the world in international play. The reason given for the stiffer competition was the adage of "the rest of the world has gotten better." That mattered none to Colangelo as the goal was taking back the gold in Beijing for 2008. In track, the rest of world has progressively gotten better, but it should matter not to USA track and field athletes. An extensive rebuilding of the program — more importantly, the sprint program — must be put in place, if for nothing else to keep up with the flourishing Jamaican success.

Seems like the same will go on at USA track and field headquarters. CEO Logan went on to say on Friday: "Dropping a baton isn't bad luck, it's bad execution. Responsibility for the relay debacle lies with many people and many groups, from administration to coaches to athletes. That's why, when these Games are completed, we will conduct a comprehensive review of all our programs."

The bans of Marion Jones, Montgomery, and Gatlin loom large over the sport and the disappointments of Beijing, which could have made for a spectacular showing, adds to the baggage that drags Team USA down. Stories such as Harper, Dix, Oliver, Payne, and Merritt are great for the future and competition for the team, but the marquee athletes who were so good in the clutch in the past are now gouged by so much. It will take a lot for USA track and field to rid themselves of the stigma and bothersome stench of doping and the BALCO scandal and another four years of hard work, so when it comes with the chance of having phenomenal Games across the pond in London in 2012, the runners won't drop the baton this time.

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