Tuesday July 13th, 2010

At 39, Allen Johnson decided to retire from the sport he loves. It would be easiest to review the career of one of history's finest hurdlers simply by scanning his astounding resume. The 1996 Olympic champion in the 110 highs was, after all, a four-time world outdoor champ and a gold medal winner in 1995, 1997, 2001 and 2003. He came back to win bronze in Helsinki in 2005, 10 years after winning his first title. He took second at the world indoor championships in Valencia two years ago, when he was 37.

But ironically, I'll remember Johnson for his performance off the track at the Sydney Games in 2000. Johnson finished fourth despite being the pre-race favorite. He limped off the infield reaching for a bum hamstring. Though he was obsessed with fitness, it seemed Johnson's body was never quite right. He regularly pulled hamstrings and calves and went through one season fighting a stress fracture in his pelvis. He emerged as a hurdler only because his first love, the decathlon, was too taxing on his body.

Cuba's Anier Garcia won the Sydney Games race in 13 seconds flat. Terrence Trammell, a Johnson protégé, took second, followed by their teammate Mark Crear. A healthy Johnson could have gone under 13 seconds, as he has done 11 times throughout his career, more than any other hurdler in history. Even those marks, scattered over his years on the track, were a testament to his persistence.

In the tunnel of Sydney Olympic Stadium, Johnson strained, stunned, fighting to find words appropriate for the moment. He said Garcia was the better man that day, that he was proud of Trammell's emergence, that competition is unforgiving, that he would be fine. As he reached for a folding chair to continue the interview, he said injuries are no excuse, and continued to answer questions under physical and emotional duress. "Take care of T," he told us, making sure Trammell got his due in the papers after winning a strong silver.

In a sport that has simply acquired too many bloated egos over the past two decades, Johnson's humor was also refreshing. After a slow heat at the worlds in Edmonton nine years ago, he walked off the track strumming his fingers along an imaginary piano to indicate that he'd been carrying one on his back during the race.

Tyson Gay got off to a great start in the 2010 season, winning his first 100-meter race on Saturday in Gateshead, England. He broke the 10-second mark and beat a top rival in the process.

Gay, the 2007 world champ at 100 and 200, crossed in 9.94 seconds, two-hundredths ahead of Jamaica's Asafa Powell, who had run a wind-aided 9.72 this year in Oslo. Gay was behind for most of the race, before outleaning Powell at the tape.

• As for Usain Bolt, the sport's marquee name, he ran a sparkling 9.82 to win a 100-meter race in Lausanne last week, but pulled out of a meet in Crystal Palace because of a bizarre consequence of British tax law.

Bolt commands up to $250,000 per appearance and would likely have earned somewhere in that ballpark for nine-point-something seconds of work in the UK. But the tax laws in Britain allow the government to withhold funds not only for appearance fees, but also from an athlete's outside endorsements, leaving the athlete to recoup the money from his own government, having already paid taxes on those funds. Bolt has said he does not expect to run in the UK before the London Games because of the law.

The rift called to mind the controversy spawned by the IAAF when it first began awarding cars, through an event sponsor, for athletes who won gold medals at the world championships. Many athletes complained about the taxes and shipping fees involved with the prizes, and the controversy reached a boiling point when athletes were first told that the sponsor contract did not allow them to decline the car if they won a gold medal. Only when agents started dropping hints that their athletes might skip the meet did prize money first replace non-monetary prizes.

• Powell was among the members of the Jamaican sprinting community who recently rallied around teammate Shelly-Ann Fraser, the latest member of the world's swiftest national team to be found guilty of a doping violation.

Fraser pulled out of the meet in Lausanne after learning she had tested positive for the painkiller Oxycodone at a previous meet in Shanghai on May 23. Fraser said she took the drug because of a toothache and forgot to declare the drug to the IAAF.

In 2008, sprinter Julien Dunkley was dropped from the team after testing positive for the drug Boldenone during the Olympic trials. Last July, five Jamaican athletes were found guilty of doping violations. One of them, Yohan Blake, a training partner of Bolt, had run 9.93 as a teenager and was the youngest sprinter ever to run under 10 seconds. Blake had tested positive for a stimulant.

Last weekend the Jamaican Anti-Doping Agency dissolved its 15-member board of directors.

• The decision this week by Johnny Weir, now 26, to pull out of the upcoming skating season might seem like a career ender, especially given his range of outside interests that run the gamut from fashion shows to reality TV to random acts of outlandishness. An Olympic or world title is likely out of his grasp and there is more money to be made performing than truly competing.

But Weir is an unapologetic Russophile. He skated to his practices at U.S. nationals in a Russian warm-up jacket, trading das and nyets with his Russian coach Galina Zmievskaya, who once taught his idol, Oksana Baiul. He is like an adopted son when he travels to Moscow or St. Petersburg, and Russian astronomers recently named part of an asteroid after Weir, in case he fancies a holiday visit to part of the asteroid belt one day. It does, after all, present a fine pattern of sequins.

But Weir is also a determined competitor and it would kill him to sit on the sidelines and watch the 2014 Olympics in Sochi from a broadcast booth or coaching position. Here is a bet he will jump and spin at the chance to skate on Russian ice.

• U.S. women rowers had a superb weekend at the prestigious world cup races in Lucerne, Switzerland. The women won gold medals in both the fours and the eights. Jamie Redman and Sarah Zalenka stroked in both boats. The team also took silver in the women's pair and bronze in the double sculls. Susan Francia and Erin Cafaro, both members of the eights team that won gold at the Beijing Olympics, took home one gold and one silver from Lucerne.

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