U.S. 5,000-meter king Bob Kennedy is eyeing longer distances
Bob Kennedy has never been sentimental. As he developed through
the 1990s from an NCAA champion miler at Indiana into the only
U.S. distance runner to keep pace with the seminal strides in
training and performance made by African runners, he was
relentlessly pragmatic. If you want to beat Kenyans, he
explained many times, you have to train like a Kenyan, and
preferably with Kenyans. That is what he did, and he gently
chastised U.S. runners who didn't.
His performances have spoken far more forcefully than his words.
His personal best of 12:58.21 in the 5,000 meters, set in 1996,
is almost two seconds faster than that of the previous record
holder, naturalized American citizen Sydney Maree, who ran his
13:01.15 in 1985. (The next-fastest runner on the American list,
Alberto Salazar, is another 10 seconds back.) Kennedy has run 15
of the 20 fastest U.S. 5,000s and 12 of the 16 fastest 3,000s.
More to the point, he is the only American to have consistently
competed with the Africans and the only one to have gained their
At Sunday's silver anniversary Prefontaine Classic in Eugene,
Ore., Kennedy, 28, made a small, emotional statement that
underscores not only what he has done but also what lies ahead:
He finished third in the 5,000 behind Luke Kipkosgei of Kenya
and Pablo Olmedo of Mexico in a solid early-season time of
13:18.83--while wearing an old Athletics West club singlet
borrowed from Salazar. Salazar wore the jersey in many Hayward
Field races and in two of his three New York City Marathon
victories in the early 1980s. "It was a little piece of
nostalgia, in keeping with the spirit of the 25th Pre," Kennedy
said after his race. "I hope the crowd appreciated it."
June 6, 1999
There was deeper meaning in the shirt as well: Kennedy has begun
his withdrawal from the 5,000, the event he revolutionized for
Americans. Last month in the Cardinal Invitational at Stanford he
ran his first serious 10,000-meter race, winning in a very
comfortable 27:38.37, the 10th-fastest time ever by a U.S.
runner. "I owe it to myself to explore the 10,000 and even the
marathon," says Kennedy. "I need to find out how good I can be in
those races. With my training and my performances at 5,000, I
think I can be pretty good." There is little doubt that at his
leisure Kennedy can break Mark Nenow's 13-year-old U.S. 10K
record of 27:20.56 or that he will soon become to the 10,000 what
he has long been to the 5,000: the standard by which all other
American runners are measured.
It won't happen all at once. Kennedy will run the 5,000 at the
U.S. nationals in Eugene in late June and, provided he qualifies,
at the world championships in Seville in August. "I still believe
I can run 12:50," he says. (The world record is 12:39.36, run by
Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia.) Kennedy's plans for the Olympics
are unsettled; he might run the 10,000 in Sydney, and a marathon
could come within the next three years.
As superb as Kennedy's performances have been, his legacy may be
in educating a generation of U.S. distance runners about the
training necessary to compete with the rest of the world. Less
than a second behind him in the Prefontaine 5,000 was 24-year-old
Arkansas graduate Ryan Wilson, who sheared nine seconds off his
personal best with a time of 13:19.60. Like Kennedy, Wilson
trains with Kenyans. Like Kennedy, he trains harder than most
U.S. runners trained through the late '80s and early '90s.
Of course the Americans who run the 5,000 will be more than happy
to see Kennedy leave. "I run the five, so I think Bob's moving up
is a brilliant idea," says Wilson. "I hope he loves it up there."
New Track Series
JUMPING INTO THE RACE
In its desperation to retain an audience in the saturated sports
marketplace, track and field has begun to explore new concepts.
First there was the ill-fated Donovan Bailey-Michael Johnson
match race in 1997. Then came this year's USA Track and Field
indoor and outdoor Golden Spike series, which has shown signs of
success (television ratings have been respectable) and failure
(the May 22 meet in Edwardsville, Ill., drew a crowd of less than
This weekend brings another twist, with the Track and Field
Association (TFA) ProChampionship meet in Uniondale, N.Y. The
TFA, which plans to have a full schedule of five to eight meets
in 2000, is the brainchild of 37-year-old former sports agent
Brian Vandenberg. The TFA's innovations include assigning each
athlete a permanent number for the series, an idea that could
fly. One of track's inherent weaknesses is the inability to
sell, say, a Michael Johnson jersey like the ones fans have for
their favorite team-sport athletes. "Long-term, we hope this
creates marketing opportunities," says Vandenberg.
More dubious is the TFA's "jackpot" prize-money system. In each
meet one event will be randomly designated as a prize-money
race; the jackpot for the Uniondale meet will be $100,000. The
rest of the events will offer no prize money; athletes will
simply be paid appearance fees. The
prize-money-versus-appearance-fee debate rages on in track and
field. On one side of the argument is the theory that track
needs prize money to prompt top stars to compete against one
another and to give the public a sense that these are bona fide
professional athletes. On the other side is a genuine concern
that track athletes cannot make a living. It is an issue that
will not be resolved easily. In the meantime, though, jackpots
are low rent, a risky move in a sport that has already been
dangerously marginalized. TFA would be better off spreading that
prize money among all the events.
Double Olympic gold medalist Johnson has a simple take on the
TFA. "I'm not up on all their concepts, but I know it means more
meets," he said. "That's what track needs, more meets."
Johnson vs. Greene
HEAD-TO-HEAD IN THE 200
Rivalries are at the core of every sport, yet they are
exasperatingly rare in track and field, where top athletes too
often avoid each other. Not so in the next month when Michael
Johnson will twice run 200-meter races against reigning world
100-meter champion Maurice Greene. The first meeting is on
Saturday in the inaugural TFA meet, and the second will likely
come at the nationals. (Johnson will skip the 400 meters at the
nationals, which serve as the qualifier for the world
championships, because, as the defending world 400 champ, he has
an automatic berth in Seville. The same is true for Greene in
The two have faced each other only once at 200 meters since
Greene's ascent to world-class level. That was at the 1998
Prefontaine meet, and Greene beat Johnson. At Sunday's Pre, both
looked sharp. Greene won the 100 (in a wind-aided 9.84 seconds,
the same time as Donovan Bailey's world record) and the 200
(walking across the line in 20.07, also windy), while Johnson
took the 400 easily (44.51).
Their approach to the upcoming races mirrors their personalities.
The hyperkinetic Greene says, simply and playfully, "Rest in
peace, Michael," while the phlegmatic Johnson says, "I don't get
geeked to run against one particular person. I have to run. [A
matchup like that] is more enjoyable if you get to watch the
race." That, of course, is the point.
A GOLDEN AGE FOR JACOBS
It is no accident when a runner gets better with age. Regina
Jacobs, who will turn 36 on Aug. 28, ran personal bests last
summer for the mile (4:20.93), 3,000 meters (8:39.56) and 5,000
meters (14:52.49) and equaled her 11-year-old PR for the 800
(1:59.36). After winning Sunday's Pre Classic 1,500 in a '99
world best of 4:07.90, Jacobs will be the favorite in both the
1,500 and the 5,000 at the nationals and a medal threat in
whichever event she chooses to run at the worlds.
For Jacobs, who never won an NCAA title during her career at
Stanford, improvement has been the result of attention to detail.
Jacobs and Tom Craig, her husband and coach, monitor every aspect
of her training. After intense workouts they draw blood to
measure lactic acid buildup. They chart her heart rate every day
and test her oxygen uptake every few months. "It's to prevent me
from overtraining," says Jacobs. "If it were up to me, I would do
far too much." She still does plenty. In May she ran 400- and
800-meter races on a Friday night in Palo Alto and repeated the
double the next day in Modesto, Calif.
Jacobs's obsessiveness extends to her preparation for particular
opponents, especially 1996 800- and 1,500-meter Olympic champion
Svetlana Masterkova of Russia. Jacobs, who has never beaten
Masterkova, has a video library of top women milers, and she has
broken down Masterkova's form and strategies over the final
100-meter segments of races. "I do it," says Jacobs, "because I
believe I can beat her." If Jacobs keeps aging so gracefully, she
has a shot.
Brazilian Hero Dies
The man called Joao do Pulo--"Jumping John" in Portuguese--has come
to rest at last. Joao Carlos de Oliveira of Brazil, who held the
world triple jump record from 1975 to '85 and was one of his
country's most popular sports heroes, died last Saturday from
cirrhosis of the liver. He was 45. Oliveira's casket lay in state
in the Legislative Assemby in Sao Paulo before being returned for
burial in his hometown of Pindamonhangaba. Brazil's sports
minister, Rafael Greca, called for Oliveira to be remembered for
his glories, not for the years in which his life "fell down."
Oliveira, then an army corporal, set his record in Mexico City,
leaping 58' 8 1/4" to break the existing mark by nearly a foot
and a half. When he returned to Brazil, he received a trophy
from the mayor of Sao Paulo, and his footprints were cast in
cement outside his barracks. Oliveira went on to win bronze
medals at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. Then one night in 1981 the
car in which he was riding was hit head-on by a drunk driver
near Campinas, Brazil. Oliveira's right leg had to be amputated
below the knee. His athletic career was over. Though he twice
was elected a state deputy, Oliveira suffered financial setbacks
from failed business ventures. He was reportedly living on a
meager pension, debilitated by depression and heavy drinking.
Last year it seemed Jumping John might be bouncing back. He
announced plans to train for the long jump at the 2000 Paralympic
Games--"if not to win," he said, "to set an example." His health
problems cut short that dream, but many Brazilians would say
Oliveira had already set his example.
Twenty-four years after his death in a car crash, Steve
Prefontaine (right), the legendary Oregon distance runner after
whom the Prefontaine Classic was named, remains a hero to many
American distance runners--and for good reason. Were he running
today, he would be beating most of them. Here's a look at Pre's
best times (all but the 1,500 and the mile were U.S. records) and
how they would have ranked him among American runners in 1998.
PRE'S 1998 U.S.
DISTANCE BEST TIME RANKING
1,500 meters 3:38.1, 1973 6th
Mile 3:54.6, 1973 4th
2,000 meters 5:01.4, 1975 2nd
3,000 meters 7:42.6, 1974 2nd
2 miles 8:18.4, 1974 1st
5,000 meters 13:21.87, 1974 2nd
10,000 meters 27:43.6, 1974 1st