American Track Demise?

0

Yesterday, I blogged about America’s track performance in Beijing and whether it was really as bad as it seemed. I kinda steered towards an optimistic view yesterday. Today, I’m back to give the other side of the argument. The answer to whether Beijing was a complete meltdown isn’t real simple but I think it’s safe to say that something wasn’t wright in Beijing. First off, America has historically been very competitive in the jumps. In Beijing we had nothing except for Jen’s silver medal performance in the pole vault. Where are you Carl Lewis? Mike Conley? JJK? Dwight Phillips? Bob Beamon? And in the sprints- chuh. The U.S. men and women took home as many sprint medals in the 100m and 4×100 as Tuvalu. Barring the 1980 Games where we boycotted, the U.S. has never gone 0-fer in these races. And the relay performances…I’m getting chest pains just thinking about it. These are the events that should be our bread and butter. The events where our combination of talent pool, sport science, medical care, nutrition, and coaching are second to none in the world. To have only one medalist in the jumps and NONE in the short sprints or 4x100m is atrocious.

Now let’s take a more quantitative look. Check out the table below. In it you’ll find our most recent medal counts at the past 4 major championships. The second row represents a breakdown by color of the medals we won; the third row is our total number of medals won, and the fourth row is a cockeyed attempt to qualitatively assess our performances at those meets by assigning point values to each color medal (3 pts for gold, 2 for silver, and 1 for bronze).

2008 Beijing 2007 Osaka 2005 Helsinki 2004 Athens
7-9-7 14-4-8 14-8-3 8-12-5
23 Total 26 Total 25 Total 25 Total
46 Points 58 Points 61 Points 53 Points

One of the first things you notice is that Beijing was bad. Bad in almost every way. We had the lowest number of golds, the lowest total number of total medals and by far the lowest point total of any championship in recent history. Sure, there were many times when Lauren William’s Voodoo doll statement sounded appropriate…Tyson getting hurt, Adam Nelson getting hurt, Deena’s broken foot, bad conditions for 4 x 100m relay running that caused 1/3rd of all teams competing to DNF or DQ in the semis. These surely affected our medal, count but these types of things happen to every team at every championship (although I’ll admit it was very bad in Beijing). These voodoo curses alone don’t account for our performance meltdown though. It seemed we got off to a poor start and it affected the morale of the entire team. That’s not something to be ignored as the psychosomatic effects of feeling confident and ready are immense. So what to do to remedy this before 2009 World Championships in Berlin?

Here’s what I’d do:

  • In the next 3 National Championships I’d experiment with the timing and selection format to see what yields the best results. Take for example the effect that our trials format had on Tyson Gay. Sure, he runs like gangbusters in the 100m and takes home an American record. But he also leaves with a bum hamstring and bruised confidence. Why did the reigning world champion in the 100m and 200m even have to try out? Why did the man who had become the face of USATF and who had just weeks earlier run a 9.85 second 100m even have to step on the track and risk injury before the biggest meet of his life.
  • I’d find a way to get talent back in to the jumps. With a couple exceptions, we’re not seeing nearly as many guys with the same physical tools jump in to the sand as we did up until the mid 90s. It’s almost as if the total domination of Lewis and Powell over the world made wannabe U.S. jumpers give up on the event for fear of not being able to fill such giant shoes. Or maybe it was the draw of the sexier (and potentially more lucrative) sprint events?
  • I’d make relay team commitment a 4 year obligation much like Jerry Colangelo did with the Redeem team. If you want to have a chance to run at a major championship you better commit to relay camps that meet several times a year. We can win without our very best guys on the line so we shouldn’t have to play tiddlywinks with this. There will be more than enough guys willing to do this.

    Create a pool of 10-12 people starting this year. Then build the relay model in a modular fashion. If you need to shuffle people around make sure you create pairings. For example, even if you had 10 people in the pool, you could make Spearmon and Dix always hands of to Tyson or Padgett. That pairing might go lead off-to-second leg; or second leg to third, or third-to-anchor; but the exchanges and the order of the exchange would stay the same. Making pairings like that will create some continuity in the relay skill development while still allowing for ample personnel flexibility.

  • I’d reevaluate how we handle our pre-meet training camps. I know that this years’ in Dalian was amazing and offered everything you could possibly want in a resort style manner. Is that what we want? I don’t know.
  • I’d suggest changes to the high performance division to ensure that all big-time athletes received the sport science research that is being done on them. As it currently stands, many athletes or their coaches do not receive the research that has been done on them and 99% of this research is never published. I would also ensure that all sport scientists present their information in a manner that is consistent with the best practices of motor learning and skill acquisition theory so that the most optimal changes can be made. Finally, I’d encourage a tighter integration of the sport scientists and the athlete’s coaches.
  • Ensure that we have the best therapists in the world readily available at our national champs and pre-championship preparation. That probably would have helped Tyson return sooner (as opposed to traveling to Germany for therapy) and might have even helped Adam Nelson.
  • I’d reevaluate how National Team coaches are selected and what the criterion for selection is.

USATF has some very good plans in place. I can personally attest to this. In many cases I really think they just need some tweaking, a little less politics, and a lot more selfless commitment to excellence.
Discuss entry

Share.