David Epstein
Saturday August 23rd, 2008

BEIJING -- That's why they run the races, and throw the disks and jump the bars. So that, with the taste of gold on their tongues, Lolo Jones can heartbreakingly hit the ninth hurdle, and Sanya Richards can tie up with 80 meters to go in the 400. So that Tyson Gay can get knocked out in the semifinals and miss the baton in the 4x100, and so that Stephanie Brown Trafton, who finished third at the U.S. Olympic Trials, can use her first throw to win the first U.S. gold in women's discus in 76 years.

Much has been made of U.S. track failures in Beijing, particularly on the men's side -- the four men's gold medals are the fewest ever. But American runners, jumpers, and throwers won 23 medals, (with the men's marathon still to go), two less than in Athens, but six more than in Sydney, and equal to the number won on home turf in Atlanta. Forget the medal-count-as-national-identity thing for a minute. This was one hell of a track meet.

American sprinter Darvis "Doc" Patton caught the spirit of this Olympic track and field session when, moments after finishing last in the 100 meters on Aug. 16, he found a silver lining in all the questions about Usain Bolt that were being thrown his way. "I love it," Patton said. "Everybody's talking about track and field."

A CNN producer I spoke with after the men's 4x400-meter relay Saturday mentioned, with relief, that he and other TV-folk expected the Olympics to be one long, slow exhale after Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal. American fans, and NBC, got what they came for when he touched his last wall. Pack up the Olympic circus tent and go home.

That was before, as Bolt said yesterday from a Beijing nightclub, "Jamaica practically took the Olympics over." Perhaps his imperialist assessment is a bit overdone, but Jamaica undoubtedly injected electricity into the second half of the Games. Even with Bolt tearing up the Mondo, and the record books, most of the track and field events in Beijing were dogfights. It was what track is supposed to be, with runners fighting tooth and nail to the line, medalists coming from unexpected corners of the world, and new rivalries developing, whether within countries, as with Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt, or between countries, like Jamaica and the U.S. Track and field sorely needs rivalries.

After the Athens Games, it looked like a back-and-forth might develop in the 100 between American Justin Gatlin, who always brought his A-game to big meets, and Jamaican Asafa Powell, who had a tendency to set or equal the world record. By 2006, they both had personal bests of 9.77, and the one time they competed at their respective peaks, Gatlin took a photo finish. The next time they were at the same venue, in May 2006, meet officials for the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., could not give them enough money to race head to head, so they ran in separate heats. That's like the Giants and Patriots choosing to play third parties and leave it to the public to decide who is the world champion.

The whole Jamaica-versus-America thing is, of course, cooked with a good measure of media hype. But it's contagious. Jamaican Danny McFarlane, after taking fourth in the 400-hurdles behind three Americans, said that "that media stuff spilled over to the athletes a little." Before his race, he toyed with Angelo Taylor, poking him in the back in the warmup area and telling him, "you American boys, you're a threat to me!"

Allyson Felix, who ran a 48.55 second leg of the gold medal 4x400-meter relay Saturday, was asked after the race if she took particular pride in flying past the yellow-and-green clad Shereefa Lloyd, of Jamaica. "It didn't matter who it was," said the diplomatic star. Pause. "But it was nice."

Bolt said yesterday that he recently told Gay to "get better, because I'm looking forward to competing with you next season." Gay, he says, replied, "don't worry, I'm coming." Somehow, these lines do not smack of platitudes idly spoken between men bent on dodging each other, or keeping their records clean a la heavyweight boxers.

Nor do the rivalries stop with Jamaica and Bolt, behind whom U.S. runners took three medals in the 100 and 200. How about those 110-meter high hurdles? The event was never a center-ring attraction at track meets until Liu Xiang put it on the map for 1.3 billion Chinese. Even with injuries to Xiang and America's Terrence Trammell, residual-Liu hype hung around, as two U.S. athletes took the medals behind Cuba's Dayron Robles, the world-record holder. So in the short sprints, U.S. men must now chase active world-record holders, and the U.S. women will chase the Jamaican women, who took five of six medals in the 100 and 200. What more could you ask for?

How about that, as other nations pulls up to America's shoulder in the short sprints, American runners are baby-stepping toward the shoulder of more dominant nations in the distances. The U.S. is far from a medal windfall in the distance events, but Shalane Flanagan won a bronze in the 10,000, and the U.S. had multiple runners in the finals of the 5K and 10K for men and women and the women's steeplechase, and one runner in the final of the men's steeplechase. And tomorrow, three American men will compete in the marathon. That's no small feat considering many observers, and some American runners, were ready to cede distance running to African countries in the 1990s, a situation that culminated in a single American man qualifying for the Olympic marathon in 2000.

So prepare for an age of greater parity in the most democratic sport in the world. Americans will win some and lose some, because track and field is the only sport that has legitimate championship contenders from every inhabited continent on planet Earth. But it will be engaging to watch athletes slug it out and race each other, rather than just the clock. The personalities that emerge, like Usain Bolt, will have the potential to drag track and field back to a modicum of mainstream recognition in the States.

So steel yourselves for some tough losses at future World Championships and Olympics, U.S. fans. It'll be good for the sport. Besides, the quarter-mile is still as American as apple pie.

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