Saturday August 22nd, 2009

Throughout the week, the organizers paid tribute to Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in this Olympic Stadium at the 1936 Olympics. In particular, his victory in the long jump resonates years later because of the story behind it. With two jumps complete in the qualifying round, Owens had fouled twice and was one jump away from failing to qualify for the finals. Luz Long, a German competitor, suggested to Owens to start his jump far behind the take-off board, since he clearly had the distance needed to qualify. Owens took the advice, qualified and later won the event. Organizers invited Owens' granddaughter, Marlene Dortch and Long's son, Kai. The act of sportsmanship remains a highlight from the Games that Adolph Hitler had hoped would propagate the myth of a master race just three years before the outbreak of war.

The wonderful idea for the recognition came from Tom Surber, a history buff and public relations staff member at USA Track and Field. "Many years ago I had seen the Bud Greenspan film Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin and it made a big impression on me," Surber said. "I knew with the championships in Berlin that we needed to do something with this. . . Telling the story of Jesse Owens is something everyone can learn from. It's a story of brotherhood, integrity, sportsmanship, everything sports should be about."

Before the event, Kai Long spoke movingly about the friendship his father shared with a sports legend that many people in his country and during his time had expected him to hate. "I think it is not a question of race, of black and white," Long said. "It's about the spirit of the amateur athletes, the action of the clean amateurs. I was told it was absolutely that in amateur sports to help each other."

Nobody felt the spirit of Owens more than Dwight Phillips, who received the gold medal from Dortch Saturday night after jumping 8.54 meters to win the event. "He's been such a great icon for the sport and for humanity," Phillips said. "The humanity of Luz Long helping him -- that spoke volumes to the type of people they were. I'm just honored to represent the USA and the JO symbol on our uniforms here." When Dortch presented him his medal, Phillips said he immediately thought, "It's just history looking me in the face. I'm just so honored by it."

In fact, Phillips won the competition with his first two jumps. He took the lead in round one with a leap of 8.40 meters and then extended it on his next attempt, 8.54. South Africa's Godfrey Mokoena jumped 8.47 in the same round to secure the silver medal. The competition got easier for Phillips when Panama's Irving Saladino, the defending world and Olympic champion, fouled on his first three attempts and was therefore eliminated from further jumping.

The medal had a double meaning for Phillips, who won the Olympics in 2004 and world titles in 2003 and 2005, but finished fourth at the Olympic trials last year and was horribly out of shape by last winter. "That was an extremely low point for me," said Phillips "I had been injured seven weeks prior to the meet. I thought it would be hard for me to make the Olympic team, but I also thought I was Superman and three men couldn't beat me."

In the following months, Phillips got a degree in broadcast communications, but fell horribly out of shape, ballooning by 26 pounds to 198, the heaviest of his life. His new coach, Loren Seagrave, even mentioned that he would have trouble jumping well again because "fat don't fly."

"All this week I've been thinking of my weight," Phillips said. "I've been pretty obsessed with it . . .They had written the obit. The undertaker had taken out my organs and I was dead. Today I was able to rise."

We've seen this car wreck before. The last time was actually . . . last night. The U.S. 4x100-meter relay team was disqualified again. On Friday night it was the men. On Saturday it was the women. It is a pattern of self-infliction that has been going on for the past two decades.

This time Alexandria Anderson was passing the baton to Muna Lee between the second and third legs. Lee couldn't get the baton into her hands on the first reach. By the time she grasped the baton and started to run, it appeared she was already leaning forward with her body turned sideways. She went down on the track a few steps later grabbing the back of her left leg. U.S. officials confirmed that Lee left in considerable pain, but the severity of her condition wouldn't be known until Sunday. "I was just coming into the zone," Anderson explained. "When she pushed off, I couldn't tell what happened."

This was one night after the U.S. men's 4x100-meter relay team was disqualified for a highly unusual illegal pass before the designated passing zone. When teams don't pass the baton correctly, they usually stumble and fumble and finally make the exchange once they have run past the allowable zone. The U.S. men also messed up the baton pass during the heats at the Beijing Olympics and have now suffered disqualification in six of the last 16 world and Olympic competitions.

After the women's race, Benita Fitzgerald-Mosley was left to explain the mess. Fitzgerald-Mosley was a gold medalist in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and is now the Chief of Sport Performance at USA Track & Field. "There's certainly a cloud of judgment and stress around them [the relay runners]," she said, "and how can you be a human being and not feel that?"

Fitzgerald-Mosley said she spoke to Lee as she was receiving medical attention and that Lee told her, "We should have had a few more steps -- in other words give the receiving runner a little more time to get up to maximum speed so they're not crowded in the zone."

U.S. relay teams have often been criticized for not getting in enough practice time before major competitions, but Anderson pointed out that she had passed the baton to Lee at least a dozen times over the past month.

USATF informed the athletes whether they would be in the relay pool on July 6. At a subsequent meet in Cottbus, Germany, the U.S. men ran a strong 37.85. The women ran a solid 41.58, with Marshevet Hooker running the second leg. That would have been the order for the first round in Berlin, Fitzgerald-Mosley said, had Hooker not hurt herself earlier in the week.

Perhaps the most telling thing we learned from Mosley was that a lack of a unified approach and understanding still existed as to how the runners were going to pass the baton around the track. "Clinics would be helpful," she said. "We have to develop a [unified] philosophy. Is it a silent pass or do we yell 'stick?'" Without elaborating, Fitzgerald--Mosley said, "there was a level of confusion, even last night" when speaking of the men's relay.

Later in the evening, the Jamaican team of Simone Facey, Shelly-Ann Fraser, Aleen Bailey and Kerron Stewart won the gold medal in 42.06 seconds, with Bahamas in second and Germany third. The U.S. men's and women's teams in the 4x400-meter relays both advanced through the heats into Sunday's finals. "We definitely missed the Americans," said Aleen Bailey, the third leg of the Jamaican team. "We wanted the top eight teams there and we feel sad for them."

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