Rivalries highlight track's new look
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,
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.
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
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
After the Athens Games, it looked like a back-and-forth might develop in the 100 between American
The whole Jamaica-versus-America thing is, of course, cooked with a good measure of media hype. But it's contagious. Jamaican
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
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
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.