EUGENE, Ore. -- There's something charming about the Mayberry-esque embrace that this city puts on the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. At this moment, Eugene is awash in senior citizens and teenagers bedecked in hardcore Duck green-and-electric yellow (no pewter anywhere, football fans) volunteer shirts again declaring that we are in Tracktown, USA. Beneath that warm-and-fuzzy, a few of the plotlines I'll be watching during the trials (June 22-July 1):
Sprinters Allyson Felix, Carmelita Jeter and Sanya Richards-Ross will each attempt to make the U.S. team and potentially win a medal at the Games in two individual events. This might be for the pure joy of competition, but it could also be to meet the qualifications for the stardom in our postmodern Phelps-centric world, where just one gold medal is, just, you know, Pffft. (I would not rule out that these decisions are possibly influenced in some manner by the Swoosh-embossed corporation that sponsors all three women). Anyway, the three come to their task from different places and face very different battles.
Felix, 26, famously attempted a 200/400-meter double at last year's world championships in Daegu, South Korea, and came home with silver and bronze and a deep uncertainty about trying it again. She kept two possible doubles in play until this week when her coach announced that she would run the 100 and 200 at the trials. (I wrote about her dilemma last month). Fearing the lack of sharpness and fatigue that cost her in Daegu, Felix ran mostly 100s in the trials run-up.
"Running the 100 helps my 200,'' Felix said here Thursday in a press conference. "And that's what it's all about.''
It's all about winning her first Olympic gold medal. Felix also said that if she qualifies in the 100, she will, indeed, contest that event full-on in London. This plan is a lesser risk than running the 400, followed by the 200, but it's a risk nonetheless. Felix has never run rounds of the 100, followed by the 200.
Jeter, 32, has been the fastest U.S. 100 runner since 2009. Her rise from relative mediocrity to the third-fastest woman in history (with her 10.67 in 2009) has been both inspirational and controversial. But she hasn't been exceptionally fast this spring; her 10.81 in Jamaica on May 5 is her only sub-11 100 in 2012. Her coach, John Smith, said Thursday, "She'll run fast here,'' but Smith has never lacked swag. The Jeter of the last three years is the gold-medal favorite for London; the Jeter of the last six weeks will struggle to make the U.S. team. For her, the 200 will be a bonus, especially if she runs well in the 100.
Richards-Ross, settled with her husband, NFL defensive back Aaron Ross, in their new home in Jacksonville, Fla. ("A little different from New York,'' she said Thursday), has shaken off illness and injuries dating back five years and looks like the best 400 runner in the world and a threat in the 200, as well. Dating to 2007, Richards-Ross was being treated for Behcet's Disease, but now has a new diagnosis (which she will not reveal) and a new treatment.
This year, Richards-Ross has run world-leading times of 49.39 for 400 meters (her best in three years) and 22.09 for 200 meters (a personal best). And she has the advantage, like Jeter and unlike Felix, of running her most important event first.
"I don't think I would have attempted it if the 200 was first,'' she said Thursday. "The 400 is the priority.''
Of the three, in a plot twist wholly unforeseen a year ago, it is Richards-Ross who looks to be in the best position to emerge from London as a major star.
The 100 final is on Saturday, the 400 final on Sunday and the 200 final on Saturday, June 30.
Can the U.S. trials produce any combination of sprinters that will prevent a Jamaican sweep of the 100 meters (Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell) and at least a gold-silver sweep in the 200 (Bolt and Blake, though not necessarily in that order)? The men's 100 final is Sunday, and the answer is: Not likely.
It has seemed for much of the last Olympiad that the most likely American to chase the yellow shirts was double 2008 bronze medalist Walter Dix. Yet Dix has battled hamstring issues this spring and has not broken 10 seconds or 20 seconds with a legal wind (although he ran 9.85 with a slightly illegal breeze in late April). He is a big-race runner, but it's not possible to know what he's ready to deliver here.
Then there are two others whose careers crossed in the middle of the last decade. Justin Gatlin, 30, was, well, as he said yesterday, somberly, ``Olympic gold medalist in 2004, double world champion in 2005, world record holder in 2006...'' and then suspended four years for a steroid violation that he denied at every asking. As soon as Gatlin was gone, Tyson Gay, 29, won double gold at the 2007 worlds, and he currently holds the U.S. record of 9.69 seconds, set in 2009 after Bolt took over the event. But Gay is just coming back to competition after hip surgery last summer, and while his 10-flat 100 at the adidas Grand Prix in New York on June 9 was shockingly good, it's another issue altogether to run three rounds. Especially, rounds in the rain, which brings us to:
Four years ago, the first U.S. Olympic Trials in Phil Knight's fair city since 1972 proved to be a stunning success. And there was not a day that passed when some volunteer, official or restaurant worker didn't say something to the effect of: "We're having such nice weather.'' As I understand it, Oregon's rain rep is overstated. I've spent dozens of summer days in the state and seldom gotten wet. However: The forecast calls for rain Friday and Saturday (when the men's and women's 100 meters will be unfolding). Sprinters train where it's usually ridiculously hot and their bodies (and minds) do not necessarily embrace cool, rainy weather. It can produce funky results.
(On the other hand, the men and women running the 10,000 on Friday night are just loving the forecast for temperatures in the high-50s with possible light drizzle. I talked with distance runner Dathan Ritzenhein on Wednesday and he said, "I saw that. Let's hope it holds.'')
Four years ago, Lolo Jones won the 100-meter hurdles at the trials, and she was the best in the world at the time. She nearly proved it in Beijing, leading the final until she crashed over the penultimate hurdle. The story of her drive for redemption at age 29 (old for a sprint hurdler in a contentious event) has been compelling since Jones took her loss with uncommon dignity. (I keep hearing her say, fighting tears, "The hurdles just started coming up fast.'') But in the Olympic year, Jones has become the most-publicized U.S. track athlete, not so much for her gold quest, but for her hyper-active Tweeting, her disclosure (on HBO) of her virginity and, most recently, for her videogame-style motion capture training tools. All of which is fine, and probably smart. But to this point, her hurdling has not matched the hype. Jones is just the ninth-ranked U.S. woman, entering the trials. The final is Saturday evening.
It's no longer news that U.S. middle- and long-distance runners -- both male and female -- have slowly, sometimes in fits and starts but always on an upward arc, become more competitive on the world stage. Kenyan expatriate Bernard Lagat has won five world championship medals in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters while running for the USA, and last summer Matthew Centrowitz won an epic bronze in the 1,500 at worlds. But still, no U.S. male has won an Olympic medal at 1,500 meters or longer (on the track, which excludes Meb Keflezighi's marathon silver from 2004) since Jim Ryun's silver in the 1,500 in 1968, and no American has medaled at 5,000 meters or 10,000 meters since 1964.
There is cautious optimism in the running community that 25-year-old Oregonian Galen Rupp, the U.S. record holder in the 10,000, is the man to end that long drought. Rupp trains in Oregon under coach Alberto Salazar with Briton Mo Farah (who will be under more pressure than any athlete at the Games: I wrote about Rupp and Farah in Sports Illustrated in February. Rupp should have no problem making the U.S. team in both the 5k (where Lagat remains a serious medal contender for London) and 10k. But he stalks bigger prey, and legitimacy on the world stage.
A subplot here concerns Rupp's and Farah's training partner, Ritzenhein, who has neither a spot on the Olympic team nor an Olympic "A'' standard in the 10,000. Speaking of standards:
There was always a purity to the track trials. Finish in the top three, and you go the Olympics wearing the same uniform that Jesse Owens wore. (Sort of. Owens did not wear a unitard, but his singlet said "USA" on the front). That is not the case. It has not been the case for a while, but many casual fans -- most casual fans, (if indeed, track and field has casual fans) do not understand this.
To qualify for the Olympic Games, an athlete must not only finish in the top three at the trials, but also achieve pre-established time, height and distance standards. This is not an issue in events where the U.S. is traditionally strong, such as the sprints, but it can be an issue in other events. (For instance, in 2008, javelin thrower Breaux Greer did not finish in the top three at the trials, but was the only athlete with the "A" standard, so he went to Beijing).
The popular running website, letsrun.com, with its merciless anonymous message boards, has made a collective project of scrutinizing the career of Webb, who a decade ago became the third American high school runner since Ryun to break four minutes in the mile. Since then, Webb's career has risen (he broke Steve Scott's American record in the mile in 2007) and fallen (he has never won a medal in a global championship and failed to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2008 after dominating the Trials in '04). Webb is among the first runners whose entire career has been subject to the rants of faceless electronic critics. I'll be writing more about this on Friday.
For now, from a strictly athletic perspective, Webb has chased and failed to attain the 1,500-meter 'A' standard throughout the spring. Because of the nature of championship 1,500-meter racing, it is unlikely that Webb can attain that standard in Eugene and finish in the top three of what will be a very competitive field, with the likes of Centrowitz, Andrew Wheating, Leo Manzano and Robby Andrews. But -- plot thickening, message boards humming -- Webb has also declared for the 5,000 meters, in which, because of the (slightly) less tactical nature of the event, he might be able to achieve the 'A' standard of 13:20 and finish in the top three (although it will not be easy). Webb is one of the most talented young runners in U.S. history, now 29 and middle-aged by running standards. It will be fascinating to witness his attempt. (UPDATE: I talked to Webb on Thursday evening as he was traveling from Virginia to Eugene. He assured me that this would not be his last chapter: "Oh my gosh, no,'' said Webb when I asked if he might be finished after this. "I've got two Olympics left. I'll be 37 in 2020. I don't know about 2024; 41 years old might be pushing it.'')
The Olympic Track and Field Trials are a quadrennial festival that is customarily a centerpiece on the Olympic sport calendar. It is not uncommon for track and swimming trials to overlap, and this year track gets a three-day run before the Phelps-Lochte-Franklin show kicks off in Omaha. Track is a niche sport that slightly expands its audience in the Olympic year and lacks a true American superstar. Phelps is an international athletic celebrity. Can't help but wonder if the water will swallow the land once the swimming trials begin.
Can the following U.S. athletes add an Olympic medal to world championship success: Jesse Williams (high jump, where a gold would be the first since Charles Austin in 1996); Brittney Reese (long jump, where a gold would be the first for an American woman since Jackie Joyner-Kersee in 1988); Jenny Simpson (1,500 meters, where a gold -- unlikely with the rise of Ethiopians Abeba Aregawi and Genzebe Dibaba -- would be the first of any kind for the U.S. in Olympic history; also true in the 5,000); and Christian Taylor (triple jump, where a gold would be the first since Kenny Harrison in 1996, and where teammate Will Claye is also a serious medal threat).
Other questions: Can Jenn Suhr challenge the resurgent Yelena Isinbayeva in the pole vault? Can Alysia Montano take the flower in her hair to London in the 800 and add an Olympic medal to her steadily dropping times (now in the low 1:57's)? Can Ashton Eaton dominate the decathlon and will Eaton, two-time world champion Trey Hardee and 2008 gold medalist Bryan Clay take the necessary step toward sweeping the podium in London?
Will any or all of the Kardashians come to Tracktown with Bruce Jenner? These things we need to know.