Can U.S. Olympic Trials salvage the miserable state of track and field?
EUGENE, Ore. — Every four years, America’s track and field stars come to the U.S. Olympic Trials in search of renewal. Whatever ails the sport—and right now the sport is Europe in 1350, with Black Death marching inexorably northward—is temporarily salved by the trials. For two weekends and four weekdays (split by a two-day break that remains a TV-driven annoyance), track and field is simply the pure joy of faster, higher and stronger, and the indescribable pain of finishing fourth.
It is four years of waiting and dreaming distilled into a single race that leaves no recourse. It is athletes with shoe company logos on their clothing who are technically professionals, but whose support is so minimal that they are more kin with the amateurs from decades ago than with the stars of the major American sports. It is passion and desperation blended together, day after day, night after night, starting late Friday afternoon at Hayward Field.
That this takes place in Eugene is all more the appropriate, a deeper strain of antibiotic, to push the medical metaphor close to its breaking point. Eugene, in its renaissance of the last decade, has become not just the place where Steve Prefontaine ran—and died tragically—but the one place in the United States where track is embraced and understood and supported. There’s a good bit of genuine track-nut fanaticism here, and some very smart and solid branding, too. For a long time, Eugene has been track town. Now it’s @GoTrackTownUSA. These are the third consecutive trials here, and the previous two have been sensational. The 2021 World Championships will take place here. In the insular world of track and field, Eugene is the home and Hayward Field is the cathedral on the hill.
All of this goodness has never been needed more. Track and field is in a battle for its life on the world stage, and there is a palpable trickle-down to the U.S. version. Currently, the Russian team has been banned from the Rio Olympics by the IAAF—track’s international governing body—for running an anti-doping program that was basically a PED dispensary. The IAAF was willing to allow certain Russian athletes to participate, but not under he Russian flag, if they had been regularly drug-tested outside of the corrupt Russian system. Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee suggested that perhaps some Russian athletes will indeed be allowed to compete under the national flag. That stalemate only makes a bad situation worse.
Of course, this comes on the heels of the last year’s news that IAAF President Lamine Diack was taking bribes and running one of the biggest sports on earth like Al Capone ran Chicago, except for the part about killing people.
Additionally, Russia’s not the only country that’s has been proven to be less than diligent in growing clean track athletes. Kenya, with all its decades of graceful distance runners, has been held in non-compliance by the World Anti-Doping Agency; Ethiopia, with its own share of graceful distance runners, and Jamaica, with its great sprinters, have also had drug-testing problems. Two weeks ago, Jama Aden, who coaches Ethiopian world record holder Genzebe Dibaba, was arrested after a raid of his Barcelona hotel turned up a small pharmacy of illegal drugs. Dibaba subsequently withdrew from her race due to “injury.”
Meanwhile, it was found that WADA, the overseer of all things doping-related, ignored reports of widespread doping in Russia and turned its back on whistle-blowers.
Here at home, the rest of the world vigorously taunts U.S. sprinters Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay for having once served doping bans, even though both have done their time, including four years for Gatlin. Both men are likely to make the U.S. team. And for the last month, the inside-running community was captivated by the battle between indoor 800-meter world champion Boris Berian—who worked at a McDonald’s just a few years ago before blossoming as a middle-distance runner—and shoe and apparel titan Nike. The swoosh sued Berian for breach of contract after he began racing in New Balance attire, but dropped the lawsuit after several weeks of stinging bad publicity. (Not that Nike dislikes all bad publicity).
Friday night in the first men’s final, the 10,000 meters, U.S. record holder and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Galen Rupp will try to secure his second Olympic berth of the year, having won the marathon trials in February. He is one of the best U.S. distance runners in history. Yet his entire year has been run in the shadow of a ProPublica/BBC report last summer that strongly suggested his coach, legendary U.S. distance runner Alberto Salazar, was, at best, skirting doping rules and at worst, outright doping. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has been investigating Salazar for that entire year. News had dried up to the point where Salazar’s defenders began asking that his name be publicly cleared. Instead, a report this week in the New York Times says that a Houston-based endocrinologist is being investigated in conjunction with Salazar. Clearly, the investigation is not over.
Is that enough controversy for you?
“It’s been a tough five years to be a fan of track and field,” said two-time U.S. Olympian and athletes’ rights activist Nick Symmonds here yesterday, on the day when he announced that an injured left ankle would keep from defending his trials title in the 800 meters.
Likewise, two weeks ago, Michael Johnson, who won gold medals in the 200 and 400 meters at the 1996 Olympics, told me, “Every time I think things can’t get worse with track and field, they get worse. It’s not going away, it’s going to continue to trudge along like this. But there has always been a sense of entitlement by the people who run sport. It’s not going anywhere, but it’s not going to get better without some major changes.”
There was a time when track and field was the centerpiece of the Olympic television show that Americans watched in their living rooms, but that has changed. Over the past week, NBC—which owns the Olympics by every definition—has presented the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials. NBC’s nightly shows from Omaha play out like scripted drama, with occasional surprises. Eight swimmers (who often look every much alike) line up and race, two of them earn spots on the team, they talk briefly with Michele Tafoya on the pool deck and then sign a giant, Rio-themed flip-flop with a Sharpie. Yay USA!
Some of the winners are brand names, like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin, and some of them are new and NBC embraces both. The nightly shows are clean and controversy-free. There is no talk of doping or corruption or corporate courtroom battles that leave athletes with no source of income. There are some nice back stories of perseverance and courage and the occasional prodigy like Phelps once was and Ledecky is now. It’s beautifully packaged and sold, and it all goes down like a glass of warm milk before bedtime. More of the same for a week in Rio.
Track and field, lately, is a gallon of bad whiskey swallowed in one gulp, controversy piled upon controversy until the sport itself becomes just a sidebar to the mess.
And you know what? That’s a shame. Because the Olympic track and field trials are the coolest thing ever. Yes, 10 days of commitment for eight days of action, including some very light nights, is not ideal scheduling. But if you’re willing to lose yourself in the event—and in the sport—you will see a collection of athletes that looks very much like America itself. You will see black athletes and white athletes. Slender distance runners and enormous throwers. Runners from small towns in the middle of the country and hurdlers from the inner cities on the coasts. You will see a 17-year rising high school senior like Candace Hill, who in her first professional meet this spring, found herself next to Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross on the starting line and almost hyperventilated from the excitement. And Hill could make the Olympic team. You will see 40-year-old, three-time Olympic shot-putter Adam Nelson, who tearfully retired from the sport after failing to make the 2012 Olympic teams, and now is back for another try. Hill was one year old when Nelson made his first team in ’00.
You will see Allyson Felix, 30, defending gold medalist in the 200 meters and reigning world champion in the 400 meters, trying to make the U.S. team in both events despite a severe ankle injury that stunted her training for the trials. You will see the newest sprint rivalry in the sport, when 26-year-old Tori Bowie and 25-year-old English Gardner square off in the women’s 100 meters. And if you’re lucky, you’ll hear Gardner say something like what she said Thursday in a press conference: “I just want guys to see the rain. I’m Noah. This is my ark. When you see the rain, y’all come on board.”
All due respect to swimmers, but seriously, have you ever heard one talk like that?
You can see 18-year-old Vashti Cunningham, the daughter of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, compete in the high jump against American record holder Chaunte Lowe, who won her first world championships medal—a silver in Helsinki in 2005—when Cunningham was seven years old. You can watch Keni Harrison, one of nine adopted children in a family with 11 kids, challenge the 28-year-old world record in the 100-meter hurdles, but with no guarantee of making the team in the toughest of all events for Americans.
You will see, on Monday, night, a battle between Berian, now free to run in a New Balance kit, and Donavan Brazier, a 19-year-old who ran a sensational 1:43.55 to break Jim Ryun’s 50-year-old collegiate record and win the NCAA title, and has since signed a professional contract with Nike. Both run from the front, like world record holder David Rudisha, promising a sensational race. Next weekend you will see Aries Merritt try to earn the right to defend his gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles...10 months after receiving a kidney from his sister.
Night after night, you will see athletes exult in reaching the top of a tiny pyramid while others melt in tears at coming so close. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in American sports.
Is it enough to make us forget the rest?