12 final thoughts from the Games (cont.)
Ethiopian double gold medalists Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba are stunning athletes. No news there. But watching the strategy of their races was fascinating.
Bekele is a terrific finisher, but first and foremost the world record holder in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Four years ago in Athens, he let the 5K go down to the last 100 meters against Hicham El Guerrouj, which is a mighty arrogant move -- thinking that you can out-kick the greatest miler in history off a slow pace in the 5K. El Guerrouj dusted him. Not this time. With help on the front from his brother (shades of El Guerrouj), Bekele forced a brutal pace that left nothing to chance and crushed the Olympic record in 12:57.82.
Dibaba, meanwhile, ran comfortably in the middle of the women's 5K, secure in the knowledge that she, apparently, can out-kick anybody off any pace. And unless Pamela Jelimo moves way up, she's probably right.
Apparently NBC didn't present enough full-form track coverage in prime time to satisfy true track fans. I figured this would happen as soon as I heard, months ago, that unlike swimming and gymnastics, track finals had not been moved to the morning in China for live primetime presentation in the U.S.
I would watch a track meet, start to finish any time, but I get a little sleepy during the hammer throw and 10 heats in the first round of the 100 meters. Shoot me. And if I get sleepy, my neighbors are going to pass out.
NBC delivered record ratings by emphasizing Michael Phelps and household-wide sports like gymnastics and beach volleyball (although I watched plenty of beach volleyball in Beijing and after a certain point, it's a challenging spectator sport: Serve, dig, set, spike, point. Occasionally: Serve, dig, set, spike, dig, set, spike, point).
I would like to see the entire 5,000 meters for both genders. I would like to see a bunch of pole vaults. But NBC is trying to appeal to the widest audience possible and track, with its Jamaicans and Ethiopians and Russians, might not be the sport that delivers mom, dad, and two kids to the television set in the U.S.
I do wish that NBC had shown full track events live in the morning on one of its obscure networks or streamed them live on its Web site. Track fans can decide to watch live or wait for prime time. (Or DVR live and watch in prime time). Maybe in London.
What if Tyson Gay was healthy? The guy who ran 9.77 in Eugene, Ore., at the U.S. Trials would have pushed Bolt longer in the 100, possibly long enough that Bolt wouldn't have celebrated at all. The guy who ran 19.62 into a headwind at the U.S. championships in Indianapolis in '07 would have gotten into Bolt's peripheral vision at some point in the 200, and maybe runs 19.50. But the end result? Two silver medals.
Behind Bolt, the men's 200 was one bizarre race. Both Wallace Spearmon of the U.S. and Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles were DQed; Spearmon for stepping on the inside lane line (cutting the distance) and Martina -- after a protest by the U.S. -- for stepping on the inside lane line (impeding another runner).
Three days after the race, Michael Johnson told me, "Wallace I could understand, because even though he didn't gain much, you can't step on the inside line. Martina stepped on the outside line, but he didn't impede anybody.''
The U.S. bullying poor little Netherlands Antilles was a hot-button story for a day in China. I had no problem with that. Would it have been more acceptable to protest a sprinter from Russia? Should protests be made based on the population of the country? It all seemed contrived. But I agree with Johnson; you've got to toss Spearmon (very regrettable, because he's a solid guy), but some common sense should have been applied to Martina's case.
At the end of every Olympics (and some world championships), I run a lap on the track. This looked like a challenge in Beijing, where dozens of uniformed law enforcement officers walked onto the track, and stoically shooed trespassers away. Taking a shot, colleague Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune and I stepped onto the track and walked into the first turn. Nobody stopped us.
I went up to the media work room and grabbed another colleague, Jere Longman of The New York Times and we took a lap together. Hersh joined us for a second lap. The police simply stared at us and we waved genially at them.
I can only guess that nowhere in their crowd control manual was there a chapter on what to do with crazy Americans running the track, sweating profusely in the humidity, laughing giddily and moving out to Lane Five to commemorate Bolt's 200.