Much said, yet much still desired at the midway point of IAAF worlds
Runners in the men's 10k race and the women's 400 meters created photo finishes
Videos show that Yohan Blake twitched in the 100m finals, maybe affecting Bolt
Team USA anticipates close finishes in the relays, if runners don't drop the stick
DAEGU, South Korea -- Four days of track and field world championships in the books, four days to go. (No disrespect to the women's 20K race walk, a road event, and the only competition on humpday in Daegu). Here's a look back and a look ahead.
Best event -- Classic waffle here, but a three-way tie, among the men's 10,000 meters on Sunday night, the women's 400 on Monday and the men's 400 Tuesday night.
In the men's 10K, Mo Farah, the Briton who trains in Oregon with Alberto Salazar and has been the best long-distance track runner in the world this year, turned loose a sensational finishing kick with 500 meters to go. According to the smart guys at letsrun.com, he covered the half-lap from 400 meters to go through 200 remaining in 26.4 seconds. That opened a 10-meter lead on the field. But high-level kicking requires precise timing and Farah was run down in the final 15 meters by 22-year-old former world junior cross-country champion Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia, who torched his final 400 in less than 53 seconds.
Roughly 24 hours later, Allyson Felix of the U.S. pushed out of the blocks in the 400 meters, trying to add gold in that event to her three world 200-meter golds and complete the first piece of a very tough 400m-200m double. She was passed on the backstretch by Amantle Montsho of Botswana. "She always makes her move there,'' said Felix after the race. Felix made hers in the final 150 meters, unlike Jeilan, it was inches too late, as Montsho held her off in a bloody stretch duel. Both PR'ed, Montsho in a national record of 49.56 and Felix in 49.59.
What connected these races was the intensity of the final meters. Farah's face was distorted with effort as he tried hold off Jeilan, and even after he had been passed. Felix, clearly with nothing left, clawed at the air with her arms, trying to will herself past Montsho. It's a reminder of competitive running's fundamental quality: It hurts.
Then came Tuesday night's men's 400-meter race, in which Kirani James of Grenada, who won two NCAA titles at Alabama and doesn't turn 19 years old until Thursday, wore down defending champion LaShawn Merritt in the final five meters of a punishing stretch battle to become the youngest world 400-meter champion in the 13 renewals of the event and third-youngest male gold medalist in any event.
Merritt, who beat '05 and '07 world champion and countryman Jeremy Wariner in both the '08 Olympics and '09 worlds, returned to competition only in July after serving a 21-month suspension for a banned substance that Merritt says was contained in a male enhancement product. But he shook the field here with a year's best 44.35 in the first round in Daegu, faster than any other man in the field had ever run. He followed that up with a solid, shutting-down 44.76 in the second round and was clearly the favorite to give the U.S. its fifth gold medal.
He attacked James the same way he began finally beating Wariner in 2008--by seizing control on the turn. In the final 80 meters, James chewed inches off Merritt's lead with every stride until heaving himself across the line for the victory. ``I was just trying to stay as relaxed as possible [in the stretch],'' said James, echoing the manta of every 400-meter race winner in history. On the clock, the winning margin was just .03 seconds (44.60 to 44.63, a margin complicated by the fact that Merritt's reaction time to the starting gun was a glacial .263 seconds, whereas James' was .137. Start times are not usually significant in a 400, but that difference is startling).
James, who turned professional in June but plans to continue attending classes at Alabama, is a likable gold medalist, sheathed in the appeal of potential and the first-ever world championships medalist from Grenada (yet another Caribbean Island producing great sprinters).
But gone in the embrace of James was the lost opportunity by fading U.S. quartermilers. James' winning time of 44.60 was the slowest worlds gold medal time since 2003 and he is the first non-U.S. winner since Avard Moncur of the Bahamas (Caribbean, again) in 2001. Either Merritt or Wariner at their best would have crushed James. There are excuses: Wariner missed the worlds with an injury (although he never ran faster than 44.88 this year and even his manager, two-time 400-meter Olympic champion Michael Johnson, expressed concern that he might not return to his highest levels) and Merritt was coming off a long and embarrassing suspension. "Forty-four six, silver medal, I'll take it,'' said Merritt. "I had some mechanical issues.''
Now he has bureaucratic issues: Currently the International Olympic Committee bans any runner who has served more than a six-month suspension. Merritt is appealing his Olympic ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Americans haven't failed to win the Olympic 400-meter gold in a non-boycotted Olympics since the great Alberto Juantorena of Cuba won the '76 400 (and the 800) in Montreal, a streak of seven consecutive Olympics. It's very much in danger, even a year out from London.
The Bolt DQ and the Blake Twitch -- In the hours after Usain Bolt's false-start disqualification, both NBC Sports' Ato Boldon and letsrun.com's Robert Johnson discovered on videotape that gold medalist Yohan Blake's left leg twitched slightly before Bolt moved. Johnson argued that Blake's twitch "subconsciously'' caused Bolt's false start. Boldon agreed, sort of. In a text message to me, Boldon said, "It's all feel. U don't see anything.'' Boldon's theory is that Blake, Bolt's training partner, had been pushing -- and sometimes beating -- a struggling Bolt in practice all year and that Bolt was hyper-aware of Blake in the final. "He knew Blake could be a problem and was tuned to him," Boldon texted. "Which is why [Blake's] movement caused Bolt to. The truth is that Blake could easily have been thrown out, too.''
I have great respect for Johnson, the men's distance coach at Cornell; and especially for Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist whom I've quoted so often I should send him royalties. But I'm still not sure. Watch Bolt's reaction after the false start. He throws his shirt to the track and shouts, "You idiot!'' If he had seen -- or sensed -- that Blake caused him to jump, would he have shown even a millisecond of anger toward Blake or the officials? Afterward I talked to Bolt's coach, Glen Mills, and he didn't blame Blake, either.
Boldon says there's a reason for this. "It's his lil brother almost and his training partner,'' Boldon texted. "Would u throw him under the bus?''
Still not convinced.
As for Blake's twitch, there's no doubt. But it didn't trigger the electronic sensors that register if an athlete moves early. That's why he wasn't tossed, apparently.
And as for the popular theory that the Bolt Affair produced controversy that put made these worlds more relevant, OK, sure. But that's a short-term hit. A healthy, butt-kicking Bolt is still what's best for track, and someone like Blake or the injured Tyson Gay is pushing him? Even better.
False start subplot -- Veteran Olympic and track writer Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune notes that one day after Bolt's DQ, the three Jamaican women in the 100-meter final, won by Carmelita Jeter of the U.S., had the three slowest reaction times in the race: Silver medalist Veronica Campbell-Brown (. 234 seconds), fourth-place finisher Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (. 194 seconds) and sixth-place finisher Kerron Stewart (. 212 seconds). It's perilous to just call the difference between VCB's and Jeter's times the difference in the race, because racers respond based on their position on the field, often by running faster to atone for a poor start (watch Tyson Gay here). But, it's fair to wonder if Jamaican sprinters post-Bolt were on notice to sit in the blocks, a result of the Bolt Affair.
Drug testing -- Any NFL players who find themselves indignant about giving a little blood for HGH testing should consider: As part of the World Championships, every athlete who comes to Daegu surrenders blood for the purpose of creating a drug testing profile. Edna Kiplagat of Kenya was standing in line to give blood at the athletes' village in Daegu 42 hours before starting a marathon. She gave up three full vials of blood and then went out and won the marathon. There was a long line of athletes getting tested and, according to Kiplagat's manager, Brendan Reilly, "Such is the desire among track and field athletes for a clean sport that we heard few complaints.'' Remember: 42 hours before running a marathon.
Travelogue No. 1 -- When covering a meet like this 13 time zones ahead of U.S. East Coast time, U.S.A. journalists generally watch the events, interview the participants and then write deep into the night. There are not a lot of us here. (Hola to my friend and fellow Williams College alumnus Chris Clarey of The New York Times and International Herald-Tribune, the only other writer, besides me, here representing a mainstream U.S. news outlet; although there another dozen or so compadres from wire services like AP and Reuters and sport- or Olympic-specific outlets like Track and Field News, letsrun.com and FloTrack, the latter three of which do sensational work for hard-core devotees of the sport).
Working late means you leave an abandoned track on the outskirts of a foreign city (where everyone I've encountered is very nice and only a few have asked to take my picture, presumably because I look different from them; it happened far more often in Beijing). It means often you have to hail a cab. No problem. Part of the job.
After Monday night's flood of stories, I wrote an Inside Track Column for Sports Illustrated and then left the building to look for a cab so that I could go back to my hotel and write this piece for SI.com.
After 10 minutes at the curb, a taxi pulled up. I stuck my head into the window and, since I know zero Korean, spoke the name of my hotel in English. "Novotel?''
The driver, a young guy in a yellow golf shirt, shot his right fist in to the air and shouted: "Novotel! OK!''
I jumped into the back seat and the cab squealed away from the curb. For the next 14 minutes, the driver tore through the mostly empty streets of Daegu at speeds approaching 120 kilometers per hour (74 miles an hour). Every minute or so, he would again thrust his right fist skyward, tip his head back and scream "Novotel! OK!''
At last we pulled up in front of said hotel. As I fumbled for Korean won with shaking hands, the driver fell back in his seat, dropped his hands to his side and quietly spoke. "Novotel,'' he said, just above a whisper. "OK.''
Travelogue No. 2 -- I ate lunch Tuesday at Outback Steakhouse. Not proud of this. But sometimes you just gotta fill the tank with something familiar.
Team USA -- Lacking a true global superstar and thin on gold medal locks, Americans seemed poised to threaten their world championships low water mark of five golds and 13 total medals from 2001. That ugly thought was dismissed quickly, when Trey Hardee (decathlon) and Brittney Reese (long jump) defended their 2009 titles and then Jason Richardson won the 110-meter hurdles after Dayron Robles of Cuba was disqualified and Jeter took down the Jamaican women in the 100. (Merritt's silver, however, was a surprise).
Cutting to the 'look ahead' section of this column, the top end for American gold medals would look to be in the 14 range. Low end: Maybe 10. The U.S.A.'s alltime high is 14, which is reachable, but only if a bunch of things break perfectly. For instance, a sweep of the 400-meter hurdles by Lashinda Demus and Bershawn Jackson, a win in the 5,000 by Bernard Lagat, three relay golds, a gold in the men's shot by any of the tree ex-champions in USA units, 200-meter gold by Felix or Jeter, gold in the 100-meter hurdles by Kelli Wells, Danielle Carruthers or Dawn Harper, an upset win by Morgan Uceny (look for my feature story on her Wednesday on SI.com) or Jenny Barringer Simpson in the women's 1,500). That would be 14, but it would also be a perfect storm of come-through performances. Still, what looked to be a potentially grim worlds could in truth range from acceptable to triumphant.
Two Great Decathletes, Marketing Opportunity? -- One of the most memorable Olympic-related ad campaigns was Reebok's 1992 "Dan & Dave'' push. It was torpedoed when Dan O'Brien failed to make the '92 Olympic Team by no-heighting in the pole vault. Now the U.S.A. has the 1-2 finishers in the vault the year before the Olympics, Hardee and Eaton. "I don't want to say 'Dan and Dave,' because then it sounds like we're copying,'' says John Capriotti, Global Athletics Sports Marketing Director for Nike, which employs both athletes. "But you could say there is a strong chance that we'll have them together in commercials going into London.'' Complicating the issue is that 2008 Olympic gold medalist Bryan Clay expects to bid for a U.S. team spot in 2012, but while he has been with Nike in the past, he is not currently under contract with the Swoosh.
Crowds -- It was always presumed that Daegu won the right to host these world championships by putting up so much money that a profit for the IAAF was guaranteed regardless of how poorly the competition was attended by apathetic Koreans. And they have been attended very poorly. Most of the upper deck in 66,000-seat Daegu Stadium is closed off with tarps covering the seats, but the middle and lower decks are filled. However, at least a quarter of the crowd left before Bolt's race on Saturday night.
The thrilling 400-meter final Tuesday was contested before a less than half-full stadium. It's not fair to call this a measure of track and field's waning popularity, but it is fair that it's robbed these championships, which have been terrific, of their live, emotional gravitas.
A scene to remember -- How about two? The track world will remember Bolt ripping off his jersey after his false start. I'll remember him walking to the warmup track, declining interviews, angry as hell ... but then doing his cool down sprints as if he had run the race, a solitary figure in a unitard and t-shirt, loping through 50-meter strides.
But also, for pure joy, no one can top shot-putter Valerie Adams of New Zealand, who punctuated her victory by dancing around the throwing area, a 26-year-old, 6-foot-4, 295 pound ballerina now in possession of three world titles and an Olympic gold medal.
Bolt's revenge -- Can Bolt's anger overcome modest fitness and carry him below 19.50 and within hailing distance of his world record 19.19 seconds in the 200? The question alone made me feel a little faint with anticipation. (Not really, but it's going to be a spectacle; there's nothing quite like a motivated Bolt). The final is on Saturday night.
Felix vs. Jeter vs. VCB in the women's 200 meters -- As an athletic event alone, this would be huge. The three-time world champion (Felix) who was barely beaten in the 400 against the 100-meter gold medalist (Jeter) who looks like the strongest sprinter in the world against the two-time Olympic champion at 200.
But the longer view is even more intriguing. By doubling here, Felix set herself up to emerge from Daegu as the marquee women's track athlete moving forward toward London. (It was a position she was expected to have by default as a three-time Olympian and one of the most decorated female track athletes in U.S. history). But now? Now Jeter is knocking on the door. If she comes away with a successful 100-200 double, she is the U.S. track queen for 2012. Not Felix. It will be a remarkable turn of events.
VCB? One of the best big-race sprinters in history. Don't go to sleep on her. This final is on Friday.
Wi-Fi -- It is my intention to continue my search for any place in the city of Daegu that does not have blindingly fast Internet service. Haven't found one, yet.
Lagat -- Bernard Lagat, who turns 37 years old in December, will run the 5,000 meters on Sunday evening, the final race of the meet. He has had a remarkable career, dating all the way back to an Olympic bronze medal in the 1,500 meters in 2,000 for his native Kenya. The winner of that race was Noah Ngeny of Kenya, who is four years younger than Lagat, but hasn't run a race since 2005. The silver medalist was HIcham El Guerrouj of Morocco, who is just three months older than Lagat, but who has been retired for seven years.
Lagat became a U.S. citizen in 2005 and currently holds the U.S. records at 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters, and, even more importantly, has given resurgent U.D. distance runners a role model and a target. His retirement, probably after London, will leave a giant void. In Daegu he will be boxed, shoved and surged on by the Kenyans who were once his teammates (actually the current Kenyans are all younger than Lagat, some by many years). But championship races are tactical and Lagat is a brilliant kicker, even at 36.
The relays -- Just one, really. If Jamaica doesn't drop the stick, it wins the men's 4X100 with Bolt. Same for the U.S. on both 4X400s, although the women's 4X400 could be tight with Jamaica and Russia, as always. The women's 4X100 should be a slick race between Jamaica and the U.S.
The Cover Jinx -- Not ours. Theirs. Each day the IAAF prints a program with the day's event schedule and past results. It's a glossy, magazine with a top athlete on the cover.
- Day One the athlete was defending world and Olympic champion pole vaulter Steve Hooker Australia. He went didn't get through qualifying.
- Day Two it was Bolt. You know what happened to him.
- Day Three, Dayron Robles. DQed from the 110-meter hurdles.
- Day Four Yelena Isinbayeva, the world record holder, two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion in he pole vault. Failed to medal.
Now it's a morbid parlor game of who's next?