Track and Field preview
BEIJING -- The track meet starts Friday morning at the Bird's Nest. Ten things I'm most intrigued by at the beginning:
The 100-meter showdown (Saturday). Shocking, right? Many track nuts -- and mainstream fans -- are juiced about this race because it could be the first time in history that three sub-9.8-second sprinters contest the same race. Fair point.
Here's another take: All of three of the studs -- Tyson Gay of the United States and Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell of Jamaica -- have potential holes in their game. Gay is coming off a hamstring injury and the 100 final comes exactly six weeks after he went down in the U.S. Olympic Trials. Bolt has never run the 100 meters at a global championship. Powell has been a head case.
Maybe they will all run great and it will take 9.65 to win the gold medal and 9.70 to get on the podium. But it doesn't usually work that way. Somebody makes a mistake in the race. Somebody tweaks a muscle in the semifinals. The four rounds of the Olympic 100 comprise a race of strategy, attrition and survival. Form often does not hold. The unusual is commonplace.
Liu Xiang in the 110-meter hurdles (Thurs., Aug. 21). A summary of Liu's baggage: Defending Olympic champion. Facing the world record holder (Dayron Robles of Cuba). Coming back from a hamstring injury. Hasn't raced in three months. Highest-profile gold medal hope for nation of 1.3 billion people. Other than that, no problem.
Little has been written about Liu Xiang outside China since he withdrew from the Reebok Classic in New York on May 31 and false-started (intentionally?) out of the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene a week later. Since then he has stayed in China and did not race on the European circuit. "I haven't had any special preparation,'' he told Chinese media this week. "I have been feeling very relaxed for the past few months. Nobody is bothering me and I don't have anything to worry about. Everything is very peaceful and quiet."
His coach, Sun Haiping, said that Liu is very near his top level of fitness. Yet it will be a mystery until he steps on the track.
Bernard Lagat's double (Tues., Aug. 19 and Sat., Aug. 23). The Kenyan expatriate who became a U.S. citizen in 2004 doubled in the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters at the 2007 world championships in Osaka, Japan. There, however, he didn't have to face world record holder Keninisa Bekele in the 5,000. Lagat already has bronze (2000) and silver (2004) medals in the 1,500. If he wins a gold here, and also wins the 5K, he moves to the short list of great middle and distance runners in Olympic history. Warm weather could help encourage a slow pace in the five, which is to Lagat's advantage. But the double is a lot to ask.
Atmosphere (Every night). Audience-wise, things have been a little funky here. Few competition venues have been full (despite declarations of a "sold-out'' Olympics). Where they are full, or nearly full, audiences have been strangely muted. This is not entirely shocking in a country where spectators were given instructional manuals on how to cheer. Point being: It ain't Australia.
Track and field will be a serious test. The Bird's Nest is visually arresting, and like so many other things in Beijing, huge. It seats 91,000. The surrounding Olympic Green is a vast network of boulevards where large numbers of fans can congregate. They have been largely empty for the first week of the Games. Will the track stadium be filled every night? Will the atmosphere be electric?
And by extension, will NBC's ratings continue to set all-time Olympic records when the centerpiece event becomes tape-delayed track and field instead of live swimming (with rock star Michael Phelps)? None of these questions is centered directly on the health of track and field, but all of them touch it.
Drugs (Every day). Every major track and field competition unfolds shaded by the drug cloud. Sometimes the cloud is darker than others (think 2004, Sacramento, Olympic Trials). Asafa Powell put the doping card in play here on Tuesday when he complained at a press conference that he -- and his countrymen -- have been tested too frequently. Next door to the Bird's Nest at the Water Cube, world records have fallen in daily batches with little suggestion of banned substances (although Chinese 200-meter butterfly gold medalist Liu Zige faced some questions Thursday in light of a precipitous drop in her personal best). It seems clear that athletes from Jamaica, which does not have a national testing program, have been targeted by the International Olympic Committee for vigorous testing. In the larger picture, there will be a performance on the track that invites suspicion. Will there be a positive test?