An American record fell, runners put up quality performances in California and the first Diamond League meet in Africa took place over the weekend. However, the biggest track and field story of the weekend comes from a speedy spectator with no intention of racing over the weekend.
Here are the weekend’s biggest stories in track and field as the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. (July 1–10) and the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro (Aug. 12–21) near.
An off-track battle eclipses any weekend race
Boris Berian, the 800-meter indoor world champion who was working at McDonald’s less than two years ago, attended Saturday’s HOKA One One Middle Distance Classic in Eagle Rock, Cali. to cheer on his teammates. Much to his surprise, the 23-year-old was served with a lawsuit by Nike, his former sponsor.
Last June, Berian ran 1:43.81 in the 800 meters at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York City and promptly inked a professional sponsorship contract with Nike in June. He improved upon that mark at the Monaco Diamond League meet in July, running 1:43.34 and making him the fifth-fastest American 800-meter runner, before his contract expired on Dec. 31, 2015.
Upon the expiration of his contract, Nike held the exclusive right to try to extend the agreement, and Berian could not negotiate with any other shoe companies in the last 60 days of 2015. If there was no new agreement, Berian could explore his options elsewhere, but Nike could match any offer within the first 180 days of 2016.
On Jan. 20, Berian received an offer from New Balance and while Nike matched it, Berian and his agent, Merhawi Keflezighi, didn’t think it matched the level of the New Balance contract.
On Feb. 15, Keflezighi informed Nike that his client “expressed an interest not to resume a relationship with Nike” and passed along a revised offer from New Balance. Nike claims that Berian and Keflezighi did not have the right to negotiate with New Balance after Nike matched the original offer.
“Nike has filed a lawsuit for declaratory relief and for injunctive relief regarding an expired contract,” Keflezighi said in a statement. “The dispute regards interpretation of contract language.”
According to the lawsuit, Nike claims that Berian wearing competitor apparel “will cause irreparable harm” to the brand.
Berian is currently not sponsored, but he’s been spotted wearing New Balance apparel with his training group, the Big Bear Track Club. Most recently, he competed during the indoor season with New Balance footwear and won a gold medal for the United States in the 800 meters at the world indoor championships wearing USA Track and Field’s Nike uniforms. On Sunday, he has changed his Twitter avatar to a photo of a New Balance spike.
This is just the tip of an iceberg in the many that involve track and field’s sponsorship limitations on athletes. As of Monday morning, Berian is still listed on the entries for next weekend’s Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore.—a Diamond League meet sponsored by Nike.
Caster Semenya continues her dominance
Any race with South Africa’s Caster Semenya will draw criticism and her win in 1:56.64—the third fastest time of her career and best since 2011—at the Rabat (Morocco) Diamond League meet is no different. In the final 100 meters, Semenya turned on the jets and obliterated the competition, beating second-place Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi by over a second. Niyonsaba’s 1:57.74 is the only one of the top four times on the year that has not been run by Semenya.
Semenya’s career has been surrounded by controversy since she won her first world title in 2009 and was subsequently subject to gender testing. Last year the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided to suspend the “female hyperandrogenism” policy, which was adopted in 2011 by the International Association of Athletics Federations (track and field’s governing body) deeming high levels of natural testosterone as a competitive advantage.
Semenya has struggled over the last two years but is hands-down the gold medal favorite in Rio.
Some Americans not in top form yet
While it was great to see stars of American distance running going head-to-head, there were not many impressive performances at Saturday’s HOKA meet.
The men’s 1,500-meter field included 2012 Olympians Leonel Manzano and Andrew Wheating, along with several runners chasing Olympic Trials and Olympic qualifying times. However, the race turned tactical and Hassan Mead won in 3:37.65—the lone American under the 3:38 Trials standard (no one met the Olympic standard). The most disappointing performance was from Manzano, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist and winner of this event in 2015, who finished dead last on Saturday in 3:43.86. But keep in mind, Manzano seems to peak just in time to make the U.S. national team, so this sets up that narrative well.
Kicks and giggles
Several top runners whipped out a serious kick to close out their races at the HOKA meet. Robby Andrews (800 meters), Evan Jager (3,0000-meter steeplechase) and Eric Jenkins (5,000 meters) all dominated in the final lap and took the gold.
At the moment, Andrews may be one of the favorites to make his first Olympic team in the 1,500 meters, since the four-lap race is often decided in the last lap. On Saturday Andrews was in last place at the bell but unleashed his lethal kick with 150 meters to go and won in 1:47.22—nt the fastest of times but a clear indication that he can win late.
Jager, the American record holder in the steeplechase who finished sixth in the world championships last summer, threw down an impresive 57-second last lap in his steeple debut this season. He will no doubt need a kick to contend with the Kenyans for a medal at the Olympics.
Eric Jenkins, a former Oregon Duck and member of Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project, may just be 24 years old, but could be a young contender in the Olympic picture. He closed faster than Jager and ran a 55-second last lap for the 13:24.67 win in the 5,000 meters.
Consistency by top women
Former NCAA champion Laura Roesler continues her strong 800-meter campaign with a win in 2:00.15 over world championship bronze medalist Brenda Martinez. The former Duck has not lost in her three races at 800 meters and continues to get faster each time out. Roesler and Martinez look to make their first Olympic teams in July.
Jenny Simpson, a two-time world championship medalist, and American record holder Shannon Rowbury appear to be the two favorites for the women’s 1,500 meters. That leaves one open spot for someone at the trials. Kate Grace, a former Ivy League standout at Yale, has emerged as the top contender for that spot.
Grace has lowered her personal best from 4:07.35 to 4:05.65 this year. She won a low-key 800 last weekend and then took the win at HOKA against a very deep U.S. field. Remember Grace’s name come July.
Almaz Ayana in world record shape
At the Rabat Diamond League meet, Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana was on pace to set a world record in the 5,000 meters, but her 14:16.31 victory is fifth-fastest of all-time. The defending 5,000-meter world champion could be fellow Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba’s biggest foe, if her compatriot elects to run the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters in Rio.
A new American record!
Gwen Berry set a new women’s hammer throw record of 76.31m/250-4 on her third throw of the day at the Tucson Elite Classic at the University of Arizona.She broke Amanda Bingson’s previous record of 75.73m/248-5, which was set at the 2013 U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
What year is it?
Ethiopian and Olympic legends Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba won their 10K road races in Manchester, U.K.
Bekele was not selected for the Ethiopian Olympic marathon team and was very disappointed as he told British journalist Steven Mills, “I’m not happy about that... there is no one better than me in the marathon in Ethiopia.”
It was a solid showing for Dibaba as she made her first return to racing in two years after focusing on the marathon in 2014 and gave birth to her son in ’15.
What comes next?
As previously mentioned, next weekend’s big meet will be the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., on Friday and Saturday.