Late Wednesday night I ran into Carl Lewis, who was eating dinner with family and friends at a pub near St. Pancras Station in London. I asked him about the men's 100 meters. His response: "I try to stay quiet," but he added this: "Too many variables."
He's got that right. The Beijing men's 100 turned into a superhero movie, with Bolt running 9.69 while pounding his chest over the final 10 meters, foretelling the possibilities that he fulfilled a year later by running 9.58 in Berlin, by which time he was among the biggest sports celebrities on the planet. Maybe Bolt will do that again, but he's done nothing for two months that indicates it's likely. Instead he has struggled with form and a dodgy back and lost to Yohan Blake in both the 100 and 200 at the Jamaican Olympic Trials.
So there are questions: Can Bolt recall his best from memory? Can Blake handle the pressure of the Olympic 100? Can the third Jamaican, the enigmatic Asafa Powell, hold a championship race together past 70 meters? Can the battered Tyson Gay of the U.S. squeeze another tenth of a second out of his withering body and run with the Jamaicans? Can Justin Gatlin deliver yet another perfect start and pressure Bolt and Blake so much that they break form and allow a blanket finish, like in the Olympic final that Gatlin won in 2004, two years before the four-year doping suspension that makes Gatlin so despised by some in the track world, and especially by the Britons?
In the women's 100, more questions: Can defending gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce duplicate the Matrix-level starts that made her untouchable in Beijing, a year later in Berlin and then in late June at the Jamaican Olympic Trials in Kingston, where she ran 10.70 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year? If so, she would become just the third woman to repeat, after Wyomia Tyus '64 and '68 and Gail Devers in '92 and '96. Can 32-year-old American Carmelita Jeter complete her unlikely rise from mediocrity in her mid-20s to a gold medal by staying patient early and then running down Fraser-Pryce? Will Allyson Felix of the U.S. (more on AF below) reach the final in the event where she dead-heated with Jeneba Tarmoh at the U.S. Trials?
Not "drama," as in Jim McKay's "human drama of athletic competition," but drama as in "drama queen ... and kings."
Best example is the women's 100-meter hurdles. Four years ago, Lolo Jones of the U.S. was the favorite in this event in Beijing, but lost rhythm, crashed into the ninth hurdle, finished seventh and then was developed into a Comeback Story Machine -- peaking with the announcement on HBO that she is a virgin -- by her marketing team. Jones is by the far the most-publicized U.S. track athlete, yet she needed a swift improvement in form to squeak onto the American team with a third-place finish at the trials. Now, however, her story has turned again; she is not expected to medal, so there is little pressure.
The favorite is Sally Pearson of Australia, a tiny, blonde former flat 100 runner who won the 2011 world title in a sublimely clean 12.28 seconds, the fourth-fastest time in history, fastest by any runner since 1992 and fastest by any runner not from an Eastern Bloc country. Lost in the wash is Dawn Harper of the U.S., who has not announced her virginity and is not a blazing pixie, but did win the 2008 gold medal (while unsponsored and wearing a teammate's spikes) and could win it again here.
No athlete has completed the 100/200-meter double in consecutive Olympics, and Bolt can do just that in London (although he's not close to a lock). He's not the only one who could make history. Only Lasse Viren (1972-'76) has won the 5,000 and 10,000 in consecutive Games, and in London, Kenenisa Bekele, who seemed finished as an elite competitor only a few months ago, could become the second (he's also not close to a lock). No woman in Olympic track and field history has won three consecutive gold medals (Jackie Joyner-Kersee of the U.S. went silver-gold-gold in the heptathlon from 1984-92) in the same event; Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia will be trying for her third consecutive gold in the pole vault (although her dominance has waned after sitting out the 2010 season). She will be the one sitting on the grass with a towel over her head while others vault.
For the American audience, LaShawn Merritt can become just the second man in history to repeat in the 400; world record holder Michael Johnson was the first, in 1996-2000. (Although Merritt's health is very much in question after he pulled up in the homestretch during a 400 in Monaco on July 20 with what he called a "hamstring cramp.")
Yet potentially the most significant piece of American track and field history could be achieved in the 10,000, where Galen Rupp, 26, could become the first U.S. runner to medal in the 10,000 since Billy Mills's iconic gold meal 48 years ago on a cinder track in Tokyo. Rupp, who finished 13th in the 10,000 in Beijing, ran an American record of 26:48 in the 10k last September in Beijing, a time that makes him competitive with the best of the East African runners, who traditionally dominate the distance races, and with his training partner, Mo Farah of Great Britain (who along with heptathlete Jessica Ennis and 400 hurdler Dai Greene, are the best British gold medal hopes).
Following the U.S. Trials, Rupp split his time training at altitude in Park City, Utah, and Font-Romeu, France, arriving in London three days after the opening ceremony. "There's so much oxygen down here," he said Wednesday. "And that's a great feeling." Olympic and world championship distance races have evolved into fast-and-faster competitions, where medals are decided in blazing sprints over the final 400, 300, 200 and even 100 meters. Rupp, under head coach Alberto Salazar (who also coaches Farah), has gradually improved his sprint finish to the point where he outkicked venerable closer Bernard Lagat in the 5,000 at the U.S. Trials in Eugene, Ore.
"With 300 to go, 200 to go, 150 to go, I'm very confident at this point," says Rupp. "We've done a lot of training for that kind of race."
U.S. men's distance running has steadily climbed back to respectability in the last decade and a half from the depths of the late 1980s and early 90s. Lagat, a Kenyan expatriate, won the 1,500 and 5,000 at the 2007 worlds (with Matt Tegenkamp, an Olympian here in the 10,000, a narrow fourth). Meb Keflezighi took a silver in the marathon at the 2004 Olympics. Matthew Centrowitz, a tactical savant at the age of 22, was the bronze medalist in the 1,500 last summer in Daegu. But a medal in the 10,000 would raise the bar for U.S. track and field yet again.
It's unlikely any A-list athletes will test positive at the Olympic Games; their suppliers are much too smart for that. But somebody will run too fast and red flags will be raised. It happened in the pool with 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen. It will happen on the track and cast a shadow over the competition.
Allyson Felix made her first senior national track and field team for the United States in the summer of 2003, when she was 17 and qualified for the 200 meters at the world championship in Paris. For Richards-Ross, that moment came a year later, at 19, when she made the Olympic team in the 400 meters. In the ensuing years, they have developed into two of the all-time best American long sprinters. Each has won world championships and Olympic relay gold medals. Richards-Ross holds the American record of 48.70 in the 400, set six years ago. Felix ran 21.69 in the 200 at this year's Olympic Trials, the sixth-fastest time in history and the third-fastest by a female American performer.
Yet neither has an Olympic gold medal. Both are favored here, though Felix more heavily in the 200, an event where no other woman in the world has broken 22 seconds in 2012. (Richards is also running the 200 in London, and has a longshot chance at a medal; Felix is in that position with the 100. Richards will also run the 4x400 relay, and Felix is expected to run both relays.)
Richards-Ross's primary individual race is much tougher. "I think we'll see all three medalists under 50 seconds," she said in London. Actually, the last time that didn't happen was 1976, but Richards-Ross' larger point is valid: It will be an extremely competitive event among SRR, reigning world champion Amantle Montsho of Botswana and Russians Antonina Krivoshapka and Yulia Gushchina, who sandwich SRR on the world list for 2012. Richards-Ross also has the memory of 2008, when she became impatient, moved too early and faded to the bronze medal.
There's Bolt, OK. Let's see if he's great this time. There's Isinbayeva. Ditto. Bekele. Ditto. Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia. Greatness established, seeking more greatness. But track at the Games always anoints new stars. Next Wednesday and Thursday (Aug. 8 and 9), Ashton Eaton of the U.S. is expected to thoroughly dominate the decathlon competition. Eaton, 24, has for a couple of ascendant years been considered the next great decathlete and likely challenger to the world record. He accelerated that process at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, where he scored 9,039 points (just the second man in history to score more than 9,000) to break Czech Roman Sebrle's 11-year-old world record. Since that meet, Eaton has established PRs in the javelin and shot put, and is nearly 500 points clear of the field in the year's -- and lifetime -- world rankings. No athlete is a more prohibitive favorite.
Yet it's a decathlon, where competitors routinely foul on all three long jumps (or discus throws), crash over hurdles or fail to clear a height in the pole vault. Eaton's cushion over the rest of the field isn't big enough to survive any of these calamities. And Eaton must prove to the world that he can deliver a surpassing performance outside Eugene, where he competed as a collegian and where three of his top four scores have happened.
The decathlon has fallen from wonder in the United States since Bill Toomey, Bruce Jenner and Dan O'Brien were gold medalists. Bryan Clay won the gold medal in Beijing and three years later was dropped by Nike, his principal sponsor at the time. Eaton is already the highest-scoring decathlete in history and a stunning athlete; he could medal in the long jump in London. He can make the decathlon relevant again.
The U.S. track and field team will ebb and flow throughout the Games. On some nights, medals will be won in bunches and athletes and coaches will rave about some community spirit built over Xbox Live in the Olympic Village. On other nights, Jamaicans and Russians will win the medals and media interlopers will gin up controversy over the failure of the U.S. "team" in a manifestly individual sport. There will be certain touchstones for Team USA: Felix should win the 200 meters. Eaton will almost certainly win the decathlon; he is the closest to thing to a red, white and blue lock. A healthy Merritt is heavily favored in the 400. There are two other events that Americans should win:
Brittney Reese, 25, whose family was briefly displaced into a FEMA trailer in Gulfport, Miss., during Hurricane Katrina, is the reigning world champion in the long jump and the third-longest American in history (behind Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Marion Jones). Her jump of 23 feet, 5 1/2 inches at the U.S. Olympic Trials is the best jump in the world in 2012, though only narrowly over Anna Nazarova of Russia (23-4).
Christian Taylor, who turned 22 in June, is the reigning world champion in the triple jump, the fifth-longest in history and the second-longest since England's Jonathan Edwards dominated the sport in the mid- and late-1990s. He leads the world this year with a jump of 57 feet, 10 1/4 inches, four inches more than Lyukman Adams of Russia. (The unpredictable Phillips Idowu of Great Britain has gone only 56-9 1/2.) If Taylor wins the gold medal, he will be the youngest triple jump gold medalist in 100 years, since Gustaf Lindblom of Sweden, who won the event at 20 in 1912.
"Because of my age, people think I'm here for the experience," says Taylor. "I'm here to win. I'm the young cat who's bringing something back."
U.S. women's 4x100 meters. As of this moment, Allyson Felix is running the backstretch second leg and passing to her partner in training and dead heats, Jeneba Tarmoh.
Evan Jager, 23, has run the steeplechase five times in his life, all since April 19 of this year. Since that first race, which he won at the Mount Sac Relays in Walnut, Calif., in 8:26.14, Jager has knocked 19.33 seconds off his PR, culminating in an American record of 8:06.81 when he finished third in a major international meet in Monaco on July 20.
It has been a remarkably swift climb that leaves Jager as the No. 4-ranked runner in the Olympic Games (six Kenyans have run faster times, but only three can run in the Olympic Games), with talk that he could contend for a medal, which would be equally as significant as a medal by Rupp in the 10,000. The last U.S. medal in the steeple was by Brian Diemer in 1984, a Games boycotted by Eastern bloc and some African nations. The last in a fully attended Games was by George Young in 1968 in Mexico City. Kenyans have won 14 of the 18 medals since 1984.
Jager isn't thinking so big.
"First of all, I have to make the final," said Jager (he did on Friday, clocking an 8:16.61, 61, a time that would have been a personal best barely a month ago). "And if that happens, I'm going to run the smartest race possible for me. I'm not going run around there in second or third place with those guys up front. And we'll just see what happens at the end of the race."
It's sound strategy; Kenyan steeplers will play miserable games with the pacing that are best avoided; some of those who contest the pace early will collapse.
Meanwhile, two facts on Jager, who trains with the Oregon Track Club Elite group in Portland under coach Jerry Schumacher, Jager's coach during his one year at Wisconsin:
1. He doesn't have a single "lead leg" around the track. Coaches Schumacher and Pascal Dobert, a former U.S. steeplechaser, have told him to lead with whatever leg comes up.
2. He wears distinctively long, shaggy hair and a white headband. He won't be changing that style anytime soon.
"I'm almost afraid to cut it at this point," says Jager. "It's a major identifier for people who try to find me in a race."
One other aside, I happened to take an elevator ride before Friday's qualifying race with Jager's father, Joel, who is in a wheelchair, having suffered from polio since he was a child. Joel Jager was wearing a white T-shirt with a huge photograph of his son.
One on the women's side: In the shot put, Valerie Adams of New Zealand has won the last three world titles and the 2008 Olympic gold medal. She is 6-foot-4, 265 pounds and moves through the shot put ring like a gifted offensive tackle. (Her little brother, Steven, is a 7-0 center who will play basketball at Pittsburgh this year.) But Valerie will receive major competition from Nadzeya Ostapchuk of Belarus, who has the three longest throws in the world this year, including a 70 foot, 9 3/4-inch effort that's the longest by any woman since 1998.
On the men's side: One of the most poignant moments of the 2008 Olympics was watching 2004 Olympic 110-meter hurdles gold medalist Liu Xiang unstick his hip tag and leave the stadium injured without contesting the first round of his event. Four years later, Xiang has gone under 13 seconds (12.97) for the first time in five years. But to get his second gold medal, he will have to beat American Aries Merritt, 27, who is the world leader at 12.93 seconds, a time which he has run three times. Lurking nearby are Cuban world record holder Dayron Robles, perhaps injured and perhaps healthy; and Jason Richardson of the U.S., who won last year's world championship when Robles was disqualified for interfering with Liu over the last hurdle. As always, it will be one of the best events of the Games.