Track team's inexperience could be curse or blessing
Posted: Saturday August 21, 2004 4:40AM; Updated: Saturday August 21, 2004 4:40AM
The U.S. Olympic track and field team is full of them; more than a dozen who competed in college this past year or would have competed, had they gone to college at all. It is a statistical anomaly that can be twisted to demonstrate vast promise or dangerous inexperience.
On Friday night at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, it was both. For Alan Webb, the result was a painful lesson in championship racing tactics; for Lauryn Williams, it was another day in paradise.
Webb is the gifted 21-year-old miler who three years ago crushed Jim Ryun's longstanding high school mile record, went to Michigan for a year before turning pro and suffered through two long, unfulfilling seasons before breaking through this summer. He ran 3:32.73 for 1,500 meters (the equivalent of a sub-3:50 mile) at a July meet in the Czech Republic and then made a joke of the U.S. Trials 1,500 with a monster mid-race move. He came to Athens with very realistic hopes of making the final and as a longshot for a medal.
Those hopes are now gone, as he finished ninth in his qualifying heat and missed advancing by just .11 seconds. He is back at the mouth of the long, four-year tunnel that separates Olympic Games.
His first round race was run in haze and gathering twilight. Five runners in the race had posted times this season faster than Webb's best; eight had not. Four starters were younger than Webb. The general public, having heard of Webb's potential, might have assumed that he would easily make the final and contend for a medal, but tracknuts were aware that 1,500-meter rounds are the most dangerous in the sport. Tactics are cutthroat and races are remorselessly physical.
Webb's heat was a nightmare combination of both. He tried to position himself outside, where collisions were less likely (U.S. teammate Grant Robison had been knocked down in the heat before Webb's, and was advanced to semifinals via protest). But instead of holding a position and responding to moves in front, Webb drifted forward and back and was bounced inside and out. "It seemed like every 50 meters something was happening,'' Webb told reporters afterward. "It's never been that bad.''
Approaching the bell lap, Webb was clearly laboring, losing ground, yet trying to gather himself for one last move. With 300 meters left, he clipped heels with 2000 bronze medalist Bernard Lagat of Kenya.
"I don't know who did that,'' Lagat said after the race.
"That was me,'' said Webb, standing nearby. Everybody laughed. Gallows humor.
Wasted from so many little moves and so much bumping, Webb had nothing left for a stretch run. He finished in 3:41:25. After the third heat was run and the times were sorted, he came surprisingly close to qualifying for the semifinals, but his first Olympics are over. "Stupid race,'' said Webb. "Stupid.'' He stood sweating, talking with U.S. reporters. "Not one of my better races,'' he said. "Learning experience, I guess.''
He was unconvincing. Webb is a confident, talented runner. He wanted more from his first Games than a sudden trip home. Said Lagat, "I'm disappointed, I like the guy. He's going to be hurting for a long time.'' (There was a bit of symmetry on the night; Dathan Ritzenhein, who was a high school star in the same year as Webb, dropped out the 10,000 later in the evening with a lingering foot injury and watched as the remarkable Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia won in 27:05.10 with a last mile in 4:02 and a last 400 meters in 53.02. "Hopefully we'll both be back in 2008,'' Ritzenhein said.)
Youth was expected to shackle Williams, 20, in the 100 meters, especially after a long winter, spring and summer of running for the University of Miami and then, for herself, since turning pro after finishing third at the U.S. Trials. Being fair to Webb in this comparison, there are far fewer tactical pitfalls in the 100 meters than in the 1,500. However, Williams ran dozens and dozens of races this season and conventional wisdom holds that she must burn out.
While she showed signs of tiring at the U.S. Trials when she faded to third in the 100 final, she has looked positively spry in Athens. On Friday morning, she started slowly, accelerated and then geared back to win her first-round heat, in 11.16 seconds. In the evening quarterfinals, she nailed her start and floated away to a win in 11.03 seconds, the second-fastest time in qualifying and comfortably in front of Bulgarian star Ivet Lalova. In all, her performances were, ahem, professional, and she heads into the semifinals with serious medal possibilities.
(The same can't be said of 37-year-old Gail Devers, who struggled to slip into the semis by grabbing the 16th position as a time qualifier. Devers looks highly unlikely to make the final, a shameful performance after she snapped up the open spot left by Torri Edwards's doping suspension. If Devers isn't fit or isn't healthy, she should have said so, and the spot should have been given to Marion Jones, regardless of her diminished skills, vis a vis Sydney).
Meanwhile, Williams says she shows no signs of Olympic nerves. When a writer suggested to her that she wasn't in Miami anymore, she shot back, "And I can't click my heels together and get back, either.''
No need for that. She's doing just fine in Oz. Athens. So far, same place.