EUGENE, Oregon—Here are my lingering thoughts on three events from the first four days of the Olympic Track and Field Trials here at Hayward Field:
Event No. 1. Women’s 800 meters:
It’s not possible to forget the collective gasp from more than 20,000 spectators at Hayward Field Monday night when Brenda Martinez and Alysia Montano were part of a pileup on the final turn of the 800 meters that took both women out of contention for one of the three Olympic team berths. The U.S. qualifying system is unforgivingly harsh. Except in events where some athletes have not achieved Olympic qualifying standards (the women’s 800 meters is not one of those events), you must be one of the top three finishers in a single race on a single day. Period. It’s an overwritten truth that this is one of the most pressurized circumstances in all of American sports, but it’s a truth just the same.
With about 130 meters left in Monday night’s final, run under a brilliant late afternoon sun with a steady breeze from the north, nearly the entire field was still in contention for those three spots. Ajee Wilson was running on the rail and leading. Behind her was Raevyn Rogers, also on the inside. Martinez had swung to the outside and Montano was running up behind her, also on the outside. Molly Ludlow was behind Montano. Kate Grace was unwinding a strong kick behind Rogers on the rail, but would need an opening.
Before the field reached the straightaway, Martinez stumbled and flailed her arms, and then Montano stumbled and fell. Ludlow tiptoed around the carnage, while Martinez stayed upright but was hopelessly far behind with so little real estate remaining. Grace got through on the inside and won the race, with Wilson second and Chrishuna Williams third. Ludlow finished fourth and missed the Olympic team by .04 seconds.
Montano finished the race more than a minute behind the others, three times dropping to her knees and weeping. It was heartbreaking, especially to anyone familiar with Montano’s history. At age 32, she is a six-time national champion and from 2011 –13 she finished fourth at the world championships, fifth at the Olympic Games and fourth, again, at the world championships. Some of the women who finished in front of her are proven to have used PEDs, costing Montano multiple medals. (She might eventually be awarded some of those medals, although not in any Olympic stadium on any television broadcast). The ban of Russia from Rio seemed to possibly offer Montano her last chance at a medal on the Olympic stage, but first she had to make the U.S. team.
She was intensely emotional in speaking to the media afterward. “I’m missing three medals,” she said. “My entire professional career, eight years, has been a farce.” As to the collision, she said, “I didn’t touch anyone. I was in lane three, basically.” Pressed to identify the perpetrator, she said, “If this is going to be a blame game, I don’t want to play that.”
Martinez, who won the bronze medal, one place in front of Montano, at the 2013 Worlds, said, “I got clipped and lost my momentum. That’s track and field. I know I was good enough to make the team. But again, sometimes things are not going to go your way, and today that was me.” Martinez is entered in the 1,500 meters and is a threat to make the team. Montano is finished here.
I have watched the video of the pileup at least 50 times and I don’t know what happened. Before the mess, Montano, a career-long front-runner, took the field through a fast first 400 meters in 57.46 seconds and then allowed herself to fall back to fourth place at 600 meters. She said afterward that she was gathering herself for a run from 150 meters to finish and that she felt strong. She deserves to be taken at her word on this, but there’s no question that going from first to fourth and then attempting to kick back into the lead is a dangerous way to run an 800 meters, both tactically and physiologically.
In regards to the crash itself, Martinez clearly bobbled first. This could be a result of Montano running up behind and clipping her heels. It could be that Rogers, on the inside, clipped Martinez. Rogers appears to glide off the inside rail slightly, but it's hard to make a case that she impeded anyone. It could be that Martinez just tripped (unlikely, but possible). There’s little doubt that whatever caused Martinez’s stumble, that stumble led to Montano’s fall (which would be true even if Montano started the whole thing). I could watch the video 50 more times and discern nothing more.
Meet officials studied the video. By rule, they could have taken any one of several actions. They could have disqualified a runner or multiple runners. But none of the runners who might have been disqualified (Martinez, Montano or Rogers) made the team, so the composition of the team would not have been changed by disqualifying any of them. There was no scenario by which a disqualification would have elevated seventh-place finisher Martinez or eighth-place finisher Montano onto the team.
They could have mandated that the race be re-run, according to Rule 163.4, which states, “The Referee shall have the authority to order the race to be re-held, excluding the disqualified competitor or, in the case of a heat, to permit any competitor(s) seriously affected by jostling or obstruction (other than the disqualified competitor) to compete in a subsequent round of the race.” They did not choose this option, instead declaring that the problems had been caused by “incidental contact.”
Different eyes will see different things. There is considerable outrage on social media, but in reality none of us knows how a clean race would have turned out. Martinez was moving strongly and Montano, too. Grace was flying. Wilson usually holds up well on the front. Guesswork. I find myself unable to point a finger at one runner and say with certainty that she caused the crash, which seems to be the standard for re-running the race. Something unfortunate took place in a competitive footrace among desperate, tired athletes. It happens. It’s very sad that one of those athletes was Alysia Montano and just as sad—sorry, narrative—that one of them was Brenda Martinez. And what about Ludlow? She was definitely knocked off rhythm and missed the team by four one-hundredths of a second.
U.S. track fans will argue this race for a long time. But they are fortunate that there is no backroom “selection process” to select the team, which would overrule the events on the track. What took place Monday night was painful for at least two women, and maybe three. It was not painful for three others, who will represent the U.S.A. in Rio. But it’s final. And it’s fair.
Event No. 2: Men’s 800 meters
After the men’s 800 meters that followed the race above, I wrote a story about second-place finisher Boris Berian, one of the most promising long sprinters in recent U.S. track history. His supervising coach, the legendary Joe Vigil, likens him to former Cuban great Alberto Juantorena, who won the 400 and 800 meters at the 1976 Olympics and is the most accomplished combination 400-800 runner in history (the only man to double at the Games).
Berian is a pure runner. But there is another factor at the Trials, and that is racing. This might sound simplistic, but time and again the Trials (and any championship event) demonstrate that running and racing are two different skills. Berian likes to run on his breathtakingly fast rhythm at the front of an 800-meter race. On Monday night—in part because meet officials used a waterfall start for nine runners in eight lanes, instead of giving each runner his own lane and putting two runners in one of the lanes—Berian never found that rhythm. He found himself fighting in traffic and losing energy and was fortunate to hang on for second place.
The winner was NCAA 1,500-meter champion Clayton Murphy, who is clearly a racer. Murphy stayed back and outside the fight for pace (he is naturally not a front-runner), and then kicked home in first place, in a personal best time of 1:44.74 seconds. He said afterward, “I know it’s about who shows up and runs on the night of the final.’’
Berian might or might not become a better tactical runner. He might just need to get out in front. Murphy will always be dangerous, because he knows how to race. But they make a potentially dangerous pair.
Event No. 3. Women’s high jump:
On Sunday afternoon, the remarkable Chaunté Lowe, 32 years old and the mother of three children, made her fourth Olympic team by winning the high jump. In second place behind her was 18-year-old Vashti Cunningham, daughter of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham.
After the competition, Lowe was asked if it bothered her that much of the pre-event publicity centered on Cunningham. This is what she said: “It hurt a little bit to be forgotten so quickly. Some of the articles, they weren’t about how great [Cunningham] is, they were a bashing of me.”
OK. I am one of the writers who profiled Cunningham, in Sports Illustrated, in the run-up to the Olympics. We decided to write about Cunningham for two reasons, both of which are pretty fundamental to sports journalism (and in particular Olympic-year sports journalism). First, Cunningham was a new face and a young face. We love potential. Second, yes, she is daughter of a very famous NFL player. We love genetics and we love the NFL even more.
In reporting my story on Cunningham, one of the first people I contacted was Chaunte Lowe. In my story, I used two quotes from Lowe.
Quote 1: “I think of her as a young Usain Bolt,” says Chaunte Lowe, 32, the U.S. record holder in the high jump. “Everyone knew Bolt was going to be a superstar before he realized it. It's the same for Vashti. I'm talking about breaking records, doing things that nobody has ever done.”
Quote 2: Vashti sought advice from Lowe at a February meet in Albuquerque. Says Lowe, “I told her, ‘If you go to college, are you going to be jumping so high that you're jumping alone?’ I told her that two meters [6'6 3/4"] is pro height. Then at nationals she jumped 1.99 and I said, ‘You're got your answer.”
As for the bashing…in my story, I wrote that because several past champions, including Lowe, are getting older, the Olympic field “is wide open.” That could, I guess be construed as bashing, in the same way that nobody believes in [fill in the blank team/athlete here], when in reality, everybody believes in that team/athlete.
Lowe is a remarkable athlete. She cleared 6-7 to win the Trials, her best jump in four years. And while there is no definitive database, there is a strong possibility that she is the first U.S. female Olympian with three children. She is certainly the first in track and field.
But she also said one other thing about Cunningham on Sunday. “I think she’s tremendous. If reporters didn’t try to pit us against each other, there’s a lot of knowledge that I have that could help her in her career.”
By all means, it would be great if Lowe mentors Cunningham. But the idea that the media shouldn’t pit them against each other is, with all respect, absurd. They are elite-level competitors in an event where only three people go to the Olympics, one every four years. They are, by definition, pitted against each other. And rivalries are good for the sport. I hope Berian and Murphy try to beat each other’s brains out for a decade. It’s sports.
But this isn’t Lowe’s fault. There is a certain, subtle mandate that accompanies quadrennial Olympic journalism, that U.S. reporters should support the team, as it where, rather than emphasizing the remarkable competition between athletes to make that team. It is as if journalists are being admonished for pitting LeBron James against Steph Curry. Pitting is what they do, and being pitted is what Chaunte Lowe and Vashti Cunningham do, too, and spectacularly well.
Sports are all about the pitting. It’s the best part.