Much said, yet much still desired at the midway point of IAAF worlds
DAEGU, South Korea -- Four days of track and field world championships in the books, four days to go. (No disrespect to the women's 20K race walk, a road event, and the only competition on humpday in Daegu). Here's a look back and a look ahead.
In the men's 10K, Mo Farah, the Briton who trains in Oregon with Alberto Salazar and has been the best long-distance track runner in the world this year, turned loose a sensational finishing kick with 500 meters to go. According to the smart guys at
Roughly 24 hours later, Allyson Felix of the U.S. pushed out of the blocks in the 400 meters, trying to add gold in that event to her three world 200-meter golds and complete the first piece of a very tough 400m-200m double. She was passed on the backstretch by Amantle Montsho of Botswana. "She always makes her move there,'' said Felix after the race. Felix made hers in the final 150 meters, unlike Jeilan, it was inches too late, as Montsho held her off in a bloody stretch duel. Both PR'ed, Montsho in a national record of 49.56 and Felix in 49.59.
What connected these races was the intensity of the final meters. Farah's face was distorted with effort as he tried hold off Jeilan, and even after he had been passed. Felix, clearly with nothing left, clawed at the air with her arms, trying to will herself past Montsho. It's a reminder of competitive running's fundamental quality: It hurts.
Then came Tuesday night's men's 400-meter race, in which Kirani James of Grenada, who won two NCAA titles at Alabama and doesn't turn 19 years old until Thursday, wore down defending champion LaShawn Merritt in the final five meters of a punishing stretch battle to become the youngest world 400-meter champion in the 13 renewals of the event and third-youngest male gold medalist in any event.
Merritt, who beat '05 and '07 world champion and countryman Jeremy Wariner in both the '08 Olympics and '09 worlds, returned to competition only in July after serving a 21-month suspension for a banned substance that Merritt says was contained in a male enhancement product. But he shook the field here with a year's best 44.35 in the first round in Daegu, faster than any other man in the field had ever run. He followed that up with a solid, shutting-down 44.76 in the second round and was clearly the favorite to give the U.S. its fifth gold medal.
He attacked James the same way he began finally beating Wariner in 2008--by seizing control on the turn. In the final 80 meters, James chewed inches off Merritt's lead with every stride until heaving himself across the line for the victory. ``I was just trying to stay as relaxed as possible [in the stretch],'' said James, echoing the manta of every 400-meter race winner in history. On the clock, the winning margin was just .03 seconds (44.60 to 44.63, a margin complicated by the fact that Merritt's reaction time to the starting gun was a glacial .263 seconds, whereas James' was .137. Start times are not usually significant in a 400, but that difference is startling).
James, who turned professional in June but plans to continue attending classes at Alabama, is a likable gold medalist, sheathed in the appeal of potential and the first-ever world championships medalist from Grenada (yet another Caribbean Island producing great sprinters).
But gone in the embrace of James was the lost opportunity by fading U.S. quartermilers. James' winning time of 44.60 was the slowest worlds gold medal time since 2003 and he is the first non-U.S. winner since Avard Moncur of the Bahamas (Caribbean, again) in 2001. Either Merritt or Wariner at their best would have crushed James. There are excuses: Wariner missed the worlds with an injury (although he never ran faster than 44.88 this year and even his manager, two-time 400-meter Olympic champion Michael Johnson, expressed concern that he might not return to his highest levels) and Merritt was coming off a long and embarrassing suspension. "Forty-four six, silver medal, I'll take it,'' said Merritt. "I had some mechanical issues.''
Now he has bureaucratic issues: Currently the International Olympic Committee bans any runner who has served more than a six-month suspension. Merritt is appealing his Olympic ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Americans haven't failed to win the Olympic 400-meter gold in a non-boycotted Olympics since the great Alberto Juantorena of Cuba won the '76 400 (and the 800) in Montreal, a streak of seven consecutive Olympics. It's very much in danger, even a year out from London.
I have great respect for Johnson, the men's distance coach at Cornell; and especially for Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist whom I've quoted so often I should send him royalties. But I'm still not sure. Watch Bolt's reaction after the false start. He throws his shirt to the track and shouts, "You idiot!'' If he had seen -- or sensed -- that Blake caused him to jump, would he have shown even a millisecond of anger toward Blake or the officials? Afterward I talked to Bolt's coach, Glen Mills, and he didn't blame Blake, either.
Boldon says there's a reason for this. "It's his lil brother almost and his training partner,'' Boldon texted. "Would u throw him under the bus?''
Still not convinced.
As for Blake's twitch, there's no doubt. But it didn't trigger the electronic sensors that register if an athlete moves early. That's why he wasn't tossed, apparently.
And as for the popular theory that the Bolt Affair produced controversy that put made these worlds more relevant, OK, sure. But that's a short-term hit. A healthy, butt-kicking Bolt is still what's best for track, and someone like Blake or the injured Tyson Gay is pushing him? Even better.
Working late means you leave an abandoned track on the outskirts of a foreign city (where everyone I've encountered is very nice and only a few have asked to take my picture, presumably because I look different from them; it happened far more often in Beijing). It means often you have to hail a cab. No problem. Part of the job.
After Monday night's flood of stories, I wrote an Inside Track Column for Sports Illustrated and then left the building to look for a cab so that I could go back to my hotel and write
After 10 minutes at the curb, a taxi pulled up. I stuck my head into the window and, since I know zero Korean, spoke the name of my hotel in English. "Novotel?''
The driver, a young guy in a yellow golf shirt, shot his right fist in to the air and shouted: "Novotel! OK!''
I jumped into the back seat and the cab squealed away from the curb. For the next 14 minutes, the driver tore through the mostly empty streets of Daegu at speeds approaching 120 kilometers per hour (74 miles an hour). Every minute or so, he would again thrust his right fist skyward, tip his head back and scream "Novotel! OK!''
At last we pulled up in front of said hotel. As I fumbled for Korean won with shaking hands, the driver fell back in his seat, dropped his hands to his side and quietly spoke. "Novotel,'' he said, just above a whisper. "OK.''
Cutting to the 'look ahead' section of this column, the top end for American gold medals would look to be in the 14 range. Low end: Maybe 10. The U.S.A.'s alltime high is 14, which is reachable, but only if a bunch of things break perfectly. For instance, a sweep of the 400-meter hurdles by Lashinda Demus and Bershawn Jackson, a win in the 5,000 by Bernard Lagat, three relay golds, a gold in the men's shot by any of the tree ex-champions in USA units, 200-meter gold by Felix or Jeter, gold in the 100-meter hurdles by Kelli Wells, Danielle Carruthers or Dawn Harper, an upset win by Morgan Uceny (look for my feature story on her Wednesday on SI.com) or Jenny Barringer Simpson in the women's 1,500). That would be 14, but it would also be a perfect storm of come-through performances. Still, what looked to be a potentially grim worlds could in truth range from acceptable to triumphant.
The thrilling 400-meter final Tuesday was contested before a less than half-full stadium. It's not fair to call this a measure of track and field's waning popularity, but it is fair that it's robbed these championships, which have been terrific, of their live, emotional gravitas.
But also, for pure joy, no one can top shot-putter Valerie Adams of New Zealand, who punctuated her victory by dancing around the throwing area, a 26-year-old, 6-foot-4, 295 pound ballerina now in possession of three world titles and an Olympic gold medal.
But the longer view is even more intriguing. By doubling here, Felix set herself up to emerge from Daegu as the marquee women's track athlete moving forward toward London. (It was a position she was expected to have by default as a three-time Olympian and one of the most decorated female track athletes in U.S. history). But now? Now Jeter is knocking on the door. If she comes away with a successful 100-200 double, she is the U.S. track queen for 2012. Not Felix. It will be a remarkable turn of events.
VCB? One of the best big-race sprinters in history. Don't go to sleep on her. This final is on Friday.
Lagat became a U.S. citizen in 2005 and currently holds the U.S. records at 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters, and, even more importantly, has given resurgent U.D. distance runners a role model and a target. His retirement, probably after London, will leave a giant void. In Daegu he will be boxed, shoved and surged on by the Kenyans who were once his teammates (actually the current Kenyans are all younger than Lagat, some by many years). But championship races are tactical and Lagat is a brilliant kicker, even at 36.
Now it's a morbid parlor game of who's next?