Some back-in-the-U.S, jet-legged final thoughts after the Olympic track meet in Beijing:
• Usain Bolt I: The protracted debate on Bolt's behavior in the 100 meters is remarkable. Sitting maybe 30 feet from the finish line on the night of the race, I never thought of bad sportsmanship. Here is what I scribbled in my notebook during the race and in the four or five minutes afterward:
Bolt avg start. Great transition. 50m race over. Turns rt, beats chest well bfr finish. 9.69! How much faster? Bolt keeps running around turn, partying. Powell and Frater standing at line, looking at board....Dix 3rd
I made no notation of any outrage. Trying to recall here how I felt in the aftermath of the race: I was excited to write about a world record, but I expected Bolt to eventually get it somewhere. His slowdown at the finish injected the moment with intrigue that, for instance, the 200 meters didn't have, because Bolt clearly left nothing on the table. The 100 had this element of "He could have run faster'' that made it surreal.
Not once that night, from the minute the race ended to when I was standing alone with Bolt in a parking lot two hours later, did I think that his reaction had been disrespectful in any way. I had met him in May; he comes off as loose and cool and younger than his chronological age (22 on the day after the 200).
Bolt likes to run and he never rips his opponents. I remember asking him in the spring what he thought of the news that Maurice Greene had been potentially implicated in a steroid scandal.
Bolt's eyes widened: "Maurice Greene used drugs?'' He looked genuinely hurt. Maybe he was messing with me, but I didn't get that impression. On race night, he was having fun.
On the day after the race, Ato Boldon (whom I quote so often I feel like he should have a co-byline on some of my stories; but he's just that good) told me that he didn't approve of Bolt's behavior because it was insulting to the other runners.
Two days later, Frankie Fredericks told me he didn't approve either, but for a different reason: He wanted Bolt to appreciate that opportunities to create something truly special -- good conditions, adrenaline-charged atmosphere -- are rare and should be embraced. IOC president Jacques Rogge took a clueless rip at Bolt (after letting China off the hook on human rights and JoeyCheek). And then Bob Costas, whom I don't think takes stands frivolously, piled on.
Nobody in the race complained. The stadium went nuts in support. And think about this: On football fields across the U.S. throughout the autumn, outside linebackers make tackles for no gain in the first quarter and rise, pounding their chest as if they have just stopped Jim Brown on fourth-and-goal. And as for taking the record down as far as possible, that's on Bolt. He probably will take it down further, but if he doesn't, he'll have to live with it. And the rest of us can revel in guessing what he might have run.
• Usain Bolt II: He had better be clean. Few in the track community are entirely comfortable with the fact that Jamaica announced the formation of a national drug-testing agency (similar to USADA) only after the Olympics had begun. After Bolt first broke the world record on July 31 in New York, his Jamaican manager, Norman Peart, told me that Bolt had been tested only once, out of competition, before he began running meets in the spring. That's unsettling.
At the same time, Bolt ran fast when he was very young (52-flat for the 400 at age 12), and presumably he wasn't using anything then. (Of course that's what we said about Marion Jones, too). Jamaican sprinters were blood-screened repeatedly in Beijing, so the IOC was probably suspicious, too.
This is sprinting. If you love track, you cross your fingers and hope for the best.
• Usain Bolt III: On Friday night, after the conclusion of the decathlon, I approached Maurice Smith of Jamaica, a decathlete who had been Bolt's roommate in the Olympic village, and asked him about his speedy roomie. "Usain can talk for himself,'' said Smith, "and he's doing a pretty good job of that.''
I'm thinking, wow, that was fast.
• Usain Bolt IV: Whatever the level of criticism for his display in the 100 meters, it would have been exponentially worse if he had been wearing a USA uniform.
• Usain Bolt V: One year ago at the worlds in Osaka, Japan, Bolt was the guy we chased down after the 200 meters to give us quotes on how good Tyson Gay was.
• After Allyson Felix's silver medal in the 200 meters, clearly and transparently a huge disappointment, I asked Felix if she was planning to run the rest of the Grand Prix season. She said, "I'm running Zurich because I'm contractually obligated. That's it. I'm going home.''
Felix's 2008 season measures how difficult it is to win a gold medal. After taking silver behind Veronica Campbell-Brown in '04 and beating Campbell-Brown twice for world titles in '05 and '07, Felix had to grind her way through a challenging '08. She missed training in April when the father of her boyfriend, Kenneth Ferguson, passed away, and also when she graduated from USC. She interrupted her European season to serve as maid of honor in a close friend's wedding, adding two long flights to her itinerary.
In the end, she still ran a very respectable 21.93 seconds in the final, well behind Campbell-Brown's PR of 21.74, which was .07 under Felix's best.
• Felix's presumptive rival, Sanya Richards, was equally disappointed in her 400-meter bronze. Richards rigged up badly in the homestretch and later cited a hamstring cramp. Another possibility is that after fighting illness (Behcet's Syndrome) for all of '07, Richards is still not quite back to the type of sharpness and strength she possessed in '06, and that deficit shows up in rounds.
That said, Richards and Felix were both brilliant and tough in the U.S.' 4x400-meter victory. Felix ran 48.55, the fastest split in the event, and Richards ran the second-fastest, 48.92, and bravely ran down Russia's AnastasiaKapachinskaya, on the anchor. From an American perspective, it was the most satisfying race of the meet.
• Ethiopian double gold medalists Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba are stunning athletes. No news there. But watching the strategy of their races was fascinating.
Bekele is a terrific finisher, but first and foremost the world record holder in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Four years ago in Athens, he let the 5K go down to the last 100 meters against Hicham El Guerrouj, which is a mighty arrogant move -- thinking that you can out-kick the greatest miler in history off a slow pace in the 5K. El Guerrouj dusted him. Not this time. With help on the front from his brother (shades of El Guerrouj), Bekele forced a brutal pace that left nothing to chance and crushed the Olympic record in 12:57.82.
Dibaba, meanwhile, ran comfortably in the middle of the women's 5K, secure in the knowledge that she, apparently, can out-kick anybody off any pace. And unless Pamela Jelimo moves way up, she's probably right.
• Apparently NBC didn't present enough full-form track coverage in prime time to satisfy true track fans. I figured this would happen as soon as I heard, months ago, that unlike swimming and gymnastics, track finals had not been moved to the morning in China for live primetime presentation in the U.S.
I would watch a track meet, start to finish any time, but I get a little sleepy during the hammer throw and 10 heats in the first round of the 100 meters. Shoot me. And if I get sleepy, my neighbors are going to pass out.
NBC delivered record ratings by emphasizing Michael Phelps and household-wide sports like gymnastics and beach volleyball (although I watched plenty of beach volleyball in Beijing and after a certain point, it's a challenging spectator sport: Serve, dig, set, spike, point. Occasionally: Serve, dig, set, spike, dig, set, spike, point).
I would like to see the entire 5,000 meters for both genders. I would like to see a bunch of pole vaults. But NBC is trying to appeal to the widest audience possible and track, with its Jamaicans and Ethiopians and Russians, might not be the sport that delivers mom, dad, and two kids to the television set in the U.S.
I do wish that NBC had shown full track events live in the morning on one of its obscure networks or streamed them live on its Web site. Track fans can decide to watch live or wait for prime time. (Or DVR live and watch in prime time). Maybe in London.
• What if Tyson Gay was healthy? The guy who ran 9.77 in Eugene, Ore., at the U.S. Trials would have pushed Bolt longer in the 100, possibly long enough that Bolt wouldn't have celebrated at all. The guy who ran 19.62 into a headwind at the U.S. championships in Indianapolis in '07 would have gotten into Bolt's peripheral vision at some point in the 200, and maybe runs 19.50. But the end result? Two silver medals.
• Behind Bolt, the men's 200 was one bizarre race. Both Wallace Spearmon of the U.S. and Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles were DQed; Spearmon for stepping on the inside lane line (cutting the distance) and Martina -- after a protest by the U.S. -- for stepping on the inside lane line (impeding another runner).
Three days after the race, Michael Johnson told me, "Wallace I could understand, because even though he didn't gain much, you can't step on the inside line. Martina stepped on the outside line, but he didn't impede anybody.''
The U.S. bullying poor little Netherlands Antilles was a hot-button story for a day in China. I had no problem with that. Would it have been more acceptable to protest a sprinter from Russia? Should protests be made based on the population of the country? It all seemed contrived. But I agree with Johnson; you've got to toss Spearmon (very regrettable, because he's a solid guy), but some common sense should have been applied to Martina's case.
• At the end of every Olympics (and some world championships), I run a lap on the track. This looked like a challenge in Beijing, where dozens of uniformed law enforcement officers walked onto the track, and stoically shooed trespassers away. Taking a shot, colleague Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune and I stepped onto the track and walked into the first turn. Nobody stopped us.
I went up to the media work room and grabbed another colleague, Jere Longman of The New York Times and we took a lap together. Hersh joined us for a second lap. The police simply stared at us and we waved genially at them.
I can only guess that nowhere in their crowd control manual was there a chapter on what to do with crazy Americans running the track, sweating profusely in the humidity, laughing giddily and moving out to Lane Five to commemorate Bolt's 200.