Now that the Games are over, Competitor’s editor-in-chief, Brian Metzler, weighs in on the distance events.
After four years of hard training, hope and hype since the Beijing Games in 2008, another Olympics has come and gone. Here are a few thoughts to consider on the road to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Usain Bolt might have been the track athlete of the meet, but Farah certainly should have enough votes for runner-up. Winning both the 5,000m and 10,000m in the same Olympics is extremely rare (he’s just the sixth runner to have done it) and yet history might not give Farah his due respect until 2016 when someone tries it again. (Somehow the Somali-born Brit doesn’t seem to be getting the same adoration outside the UK that was hailed upon Kenenisa Bekele four years ago, even though Farah beat Bekele in the 10,000m.) Farah was the fittest runner on the track, took command of each race at precisely the right moment, and used a perfectly timed kick to secure his spectacular double. The only remaining questions for now are: How was Alberto Salazar able to maximize the potential of Farah, who was a good but not great runner before he arrived in Beaverton, Ore., last year. And how long can Farah, who is 29, remain on top of the world?
Rupp has done nothing but live up to huge expectations since he burst on the scene as a record-setting junior in 2005. Yet, even after earning the silver medal in London, Rupp still has his detractors. Immediately after the Aug. 4 race, in which Rupp used his perfectly timed kick to finish second behind training partner Mo Farah, anonymous posters on message boards (and by that we obviously mean snarky dilatants at Letsrun.com) were suggesting the result was weak because it was so slow or that the race was somehow thrown by East African runners.
Given his consistency and wicked kick, it might have only been a matter of time before Manzano brought home a medal in a major championship race. The stars aligned for Manzano in London as he charged down the homestretch to a runner-up finish in 3:34.79. Surprisingly, the 27-year-old Mexican-born American got ripped for carrying both the U.S. and Mexican flags around the track after earning the silver medal. That seems misplaced and bizarre, given that the U.S. has always been a melting pot of immigrants. The bigger question might be why was he parading around the track on a victory lap after finishing second?
With his resurgent fourth-place effort in Sunday’s marathon, Keflezighi solidified his place as one of the top marathoners in American history. Certainly his silver medal in 2004 and his New York City Marathon win in 2009 already had him heading in that direction, but despite his late-career success, few considered Meb, at age 37, a realistic contender for a top-five finish. But, especially in lieu of the weak efforts and subsequent DNFs of U.S. teammates Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman, Keflezighi’s effort was outstanding. If that was his last major race (don’t rule out another NYC marathon in his future), it was a heck of a way to go out. Especially in the twilight of his career, Keflezighi has shown the heart of a champion. (And there’s a good bet his Skechers shoes are going to get some traction this week.)
Speaking of 37-year-olds and late-career success, Lagat came up just short in his quest to win a medal wearing a USA singlet. The Kenyan-born former world champion kicked hard down the stretch in the 5,000m, but his fourth-place effort was another indication that Lagat has finally started to lose a step on the track. That’s not meant to be a cheap shot, it’s just a realistic observation compared to where he was even a year ago (when he took second in the 5,000m at the world championships). “Kip” has had a great career and could still be a contender to make U.S. teams in the coming years, but the London Olympics probably marked his last chance to medal on the world stage.
Meseret Defar/ Tirunesh Dibaba
Just when Dibaba was about to be anointed the greatest women’s distance runner in recent history, fellow Ethiopian Meseret Defar outran her in the 5,000m final. Defar won the 5,000m gold in Athens eight years ago, but it was Dibaba who emerged in 2008 to win both the 5,000m and 10,000m. With the 10,000m win already under her belt in London, Dibaba was on the verge of repeating that Olympic double, only to have the resurgent Defar outkick her down the homestretch in the 5,000m. The dominance of Defar and Dibaba becomes especially apparent when you consider that Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot, who won the 5,000m at the 2009 world championships, won the 5,000m and 10,000m at last year’s world championships and also won last year’s world cross country championships, finally won her first two Olympic medals but had to settle for silver and bronze.
As much as the men’s marathon has changed since the 2008 Olympics, it’s still the marathon, which means it will always be difficult to predict the winners of major championships. Uganda’s Kiprotich, only a 2:07:20 guy coming into the Olympics, didn’t get any pre-race consideration and even appeared to be dropped at 35K by pre-race favorites Wilson Kipsang and Abel Kirui. But Kiprotich’s revival and eventual victory (even in a relatively slow 2:08:01) is the stuff of legends. If nothing else, it put to a rest (at least temporarily) the notion that Kenyan runners own the marathon. (OK, they pretty much have owned the marathon in recent years, but Kiprotich reminded the world that anything can happen during a race when preparation meets opportunity.)
Entering the Olympics, more U.S. women seemed to have more mid-distance and distance medal contenders than their male counterparts. Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher ran well in the marathon, but wound up 10th and 11th, respectively. Desi Davila, at least a dark horse possibility for a medal in the marathon, dropped out due to an injury. Meanwhile, Jenny Simpson, last year’s 1500m world champion, failed to make the final in that event, while Morgan Uceny, arguably the world’s best 1500m runner for the past two summers, tripped with a lap to go and saw her medal dreams dashed once again. Still, there was progress. In the 5,000m, Molly Huddle (11th) and Julie Culley (14th) were both in contention with two laps to go, while Amy Hastings, Janet Cherobon-Bawcom and Lisa Uhl all ran personal best times in their respectable 10-11-12 finish in the 10,000m. Despite not bringing home any medals, the U.S. women had two finalists in every race from the 1500m to the 10,000m and one of just four countries to place two runners in the top 15 of the marathon.
By far the single-most extraordinary track performance of the London Olympics was Rudisha’s world-record run in the men’s 800m. The 23-year-old Kenyan’s win was perhaps the most predictable of any event at the Games; he’s become increasingly more dominant as he has emerged over the past three seasons, routinely winning top-tier races with his wire-to-wire hammerfest tactics. But his Olympics race was even more special, given that he ran into uncharted territory and essentially rabbited the fastest 800m race in history in the process. His 1:40.91 clocking looks and sounds even more obscure and unfathomable than Sebastian Coe’s 1:41.71 in 1981, even though it was clear that Rudisha would soon dip into the once-unthinkable sub-1:41 territory. But now that he’s actually done it, it still doesn’t seem possible. In some ways, it seems akin to a Usain Bolt running an 18.99 in the 200m, but really it opens up the possibility of Rudisha eventually running a completely ridiculous sub-1:40 in the next few years.
The only negative aspect of the London Olympics was the dark cloud of drug allegations that hovered over a few of the races. It’s one thing when fans and followers of the sport start chirping about former and suspected dopers after a race, but it’s another when frustrated athletes complain that the playing field is anything but level. In any sport, the athletes always know what’s going on. Sadly, those suspicions create reactions that border on being xenophobic and downright racist. That’s not saying Turkish runners Asli Cakir Alptekin and Gamze Bulut, who went 1-2 in the women’s 1500m, are or are not guilty. But it doesn’t help that one is a former drug cheat at the other lowered her personal best from 4:18 to 4:01 over the past year. Fingers were also pointed at Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, who won gold in the men’s 1500m, especially after his intentional DNF in his 800m preliminary heat got him tossed (and later reinstated) from the Olympics. The bottom line is that the sport is dirtier than most people think, which means more testing and stiffer penalties are necessary immediately because the bio passport thing is apparently less than perfect. The IAAF should get a grip and test everyone repeatedly in the 21 days leading up to major championships and hand out irrevocable lifetime bans to those caught using anything on the banned substance list, including and especially known masking agents. (The USOC and USATF should put their money where their mouth is and start the process.) That there were so many “former” drug cheats competing in London (American sprinter Justin Gatlin included) borders on ridiculous.
The only thing as horrible as the prevalence of drug cheats in this year’s Olympics was NBC’s coverage. Sure, livestreaming was available for most distance running events during the morning hours here in the U.S., but even that left a lot to be desired. The execution was less than ideal (the livestream feed would inexplicably pause or get “stuck”) and, like NBC’s weak and scattered primetime coverage, there were too many commercials. (OK, admittedly, track fans are widely outnumbered in general viewing public and NBC is no different than any other corporate media entity when it comes to making money.) But this year’s disappointments are nothing new, given NBC’s weak track record with the Olympics dating back to the late 1980s. (Maybe NBC will bring by the circa-1992 Triplecast by the time 2016 rolls around.)
Speaking of the 2106 Games in Rio, they’re right around the corner, but a lot can (and will) happen in the next four years. Will Hastings, Huddle, Uceny and Simpson continue to emerge as Flanagan and Goucher reach the twilight of their careers? Or will a need breed of younger American women, perhaps led by Natosha Rogers, Jordan Hasay, Abbey D’Agostino and Neely Spence, rise up by 2016? Will Stanford standout Chris Derrick continue to develop and become a sub-13:00 5,000m runner? (Remember, four years ago everything assumed he and Oklahoma State’s German Fernandez were can’t-miss stars on the rise.) Will Jeremy Wariner consider running the 800m now that the wheels have started to fall off his 400m career? (He’s only 28 and the 800m is becoming more of a long sprint than a middle-distance event.) Will Galen Rupp, who will be 30 in 2016, be running the marathon in four years or will he return for a chance at another medal in the 10,000m? How much longer will Dathan Ritzenhein and Alan Webb continue to run amid setbacks and injuries? Will more runners born in other countries gain U.S. citizenship before 2016? Will the current upswing of American running continue, or is it possible that we’re near a peak?