BEIJING -- Late Friday night in Beijing, Bryan Clay won a gold medal in the Olympic decathlon, the first such victory for the United States since DanO'Brien in 1996. It was immensely deserved and not altogether surprising: Clay was a silver medalist in 2004, a world champion in '05 and the favorite in Beijing among his peers.
"We would have to be perfect to beat him here,'' said Roman Seberle of the Czech Republic, the '04 gold medalist.
Clay's 240-point margin of victory was the largest since Munich in 1972, with all due props to the brutality of the event -- "You've still got to keep putting one foot in front of the other in the 1,500 meters,'' said Clay long after he was finished -- Clay's victory was never in doubt.
But these being the Games of Team USA's discontent, larger implications were immediately attached. Clay's gold medal came one night after both U.S. 4x100-meter relays failed to get the baton once around the Bird's Nest track, the first such double face plant in history. It came nearly at the end of an Olympics in which the U.S. has, with one day of track and one marathon remaining, just five gold medals and a total of 21.
"Competing so late [the seventh and eighth days of the nine-day track competition], I got to stand back and watch it,'' said Clay after his medal was awarded. "I got to watch a lot of events. As much as track is an individual sport, you're part of Team USA and you want everybody to do well.
"There's nothing better than walking down the hallways and everybody has their heads up saying, 'Good job,''' said Clay. "Like, we killed it out there. There are some people [in Beijing] who can say that. And there are some people who can't.''
The numbers suggest not many can say it. Clay's gold medal was the fifth of the Games for the U.S.. Projecting to Saturday, Team USA looks like a lock in the men's 4x400-meter relay (although when batons are involved, this is a very dicey prediction), and will be in the thick of a very good race in the women's 4x400, with Russia looking particularly tough with its assembly line of willowy, blonde long sprinters. Bernard Lagat and Matt Tegenkamp both should be in the hunt in the 5,000 meters. Shannon Rowbury looks like a major player in the women's 1,500. On Sunday, Ryan Hall has a chance in the marathon.
Let's give the U.S. two more golds. That would be a total of seven golds. The last time Americans won so few golds was in 1976, when they won six (matching the '72 total). There is plenty of interpretation hidden in the numbers: U.S. athletes won only eight golds in both Sydney 2000 and Athens '04. But that followed an average of 12.7 in the three previous Games (never mind the 16 in Los Angeles in 1984; those Games were weakened by a boycott).
Total medals is another story. Team USA has 21 medals after Friday, with two more virtually certain (in the four-by-fours). Lagat, Tegenkamp, Rowbury and Hall, again, are in the mix. Americans won 25 medals in Athens and could get there, but probably will fall ever so slightly short of that total in China. But they won only 17 total in Sydney and just 23 in Atlanta, a home team Games. Beijing will stand up favorably to either of those Games.
It is clearly stretching the truth to call Beijing a disaster for USA Track and Field. It is also stretching the truth to call it a success. Of the total medals, eight have come in three events (the men's 200, 400 and 400 hurdles). The U.S. qualified only four of 22 entrants for finals in the eight field events, an alarming dearth that suggests a huge hole in U.S. technical training at all levels. (The women were slightly better, with nine of 22, and a stunning gold medal from Stephanie Brown Trafton in the discus).
U.S. performance is magnified by Thursday night's relay chaos. For the men's 4x100 team, dropping sticks has become almost a cliché -- they have failed to complete five of the last 12 major global championships. On his blog Friday, new USA Track and Field CEO Doug Logan wrote:
"I have received e-mails from people across the country, particularly about the relays. They all say more or less the same thing: The dropped batons were reflective of a lack of preparation, lack of professionalism, and of leadership. I agree. 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.''
Logan is trying to shake things up, but I think he's being too strong. British Athletics committed $1.12 million to relay preparation for '08, and neither of its 4x100-meter relays completed the race (the men, defending Olympic gold medalists, went out in the semifinals and the women in the final).
Then there is Jamaica, which has been the star nation of the Games, with six gold medals (the same number as Russia, actually) and the birthing of a superstar in Usain Bolt. On Friday night, the Jamaican 4x1 shattered the world record by running 37.10 seconds. But earlier in the night, the Jamaicans' potentially dominant women's 4x100 relay failed to execute the second baton exchange when Kerron Stewart ran away from incoming Sherone Simpson.
It can happen to anybody. The U.S. is criticized for not conducting more relay practices, but Jamaica's women's team has two women who train in Jamaica (Stewart and Shelly-Ann Fraser) and two who train in the U.S. (VeronicaCampbell-Brown and Stewart). They can't practice often, either.
That said, it happens to the U.S. men more often than to most elite, medal-threatening teams. If there is a universal reason for this, it isn't self-evident, because sticks have dropped and held in every possible way. Efforts have been made in the past to conduct national relay training, but in the end, the brutal U.S. Trials system prevents coaches from knowing until the last minute who might be sent to the Games or the worlds.
A year ago, Walter Dix was hardly a lock to make the U.S. team in one event, never mind two. Now he leaves Beijing with two medals. Beyond that, athletes travel the globe to make a living, collecting appearance fees both large and small and satisfying shoe and apparel company contracts.
The larger medal count is challenging. Critics suggest examining the U.S. system. Surprise: There is no U.S. system. There is a Chinese system. In the U.S., there is a nation of more than 300 million people, some of whom end up running track as kids and staying with it. It is among the most popular -- by numbers -- high school sports, but colleges are cutting track programs with aplomb to balance budgets. It's a difficult to make a living for all but the stars on the professional level. (Brown Trafton, for instance works 20 hours a week at a part-time job, just like Kobe Bryant).
The reality is that U.S. track and field has lived on the underpinnings of stardom. Carl Lewis comes along and wins nine Olympic gold medals. He wasn't produced by a system. Neither was LaShawn Merritt, who won the 400 meters here on Thursday night. USA Track and Field makes a commendable effort to support its athletes from grass roots programs to Olympic teams, but that doesn't matter a whit when Usain Bolt is in the lane next to you. The gold medal is not in play.
Likewise, the Olympic Games remains a small target. Allyson Felix has won consecutive world titles in the 200 meters but has had a long, tough year and thus won only silver in Beijing. Lagat won two world titles in '07 but came up empty in the 1,500 here (and hopes to do better in the 5,000). There is no way to legislate performance on a given night. Sometimes it works the other way. When LoLo Jones fell in the 100-meter hurdles, Dawn Harper was there to scoop up a gold medal for the U.S.
Volumes will be written after this meet is finished about the U.S. team's performance. The men's field event struggles are troublesome. Yet in the end, the numbers will be disappointing but not terrible. Other superstars will come along and they will perform on the appointed day. Fortunes will rise and fall, and they will not be controlled. That isn't the nature of the sport.