Monday, August 18, 2008

The news from Beijing

Three days into the Olympics and I haven’t written a blog entry yet? Sounds like slacking, and there’s a pinch of truth to that. The bigger picture is that my time here is owned by the people who are paying me, Track & Field News. It’s all about the money, you see. And the track schedule combined with my deadlines has made blogging a very low priority, somewhere below sleep, which is also getting short shrift.

Let’s see if I can get caught up quickly.

The Chinese: Our perception of them is hugely important to them, and they have worked very hard to make this Games a success. I see their pride and concern in the eyes of everyone I meet here, from track officials to waitresses to street sweepers. As the photo attests, the country is so proud of their Olympics that the symbol is on their manhole covers.

The Food: Bring it on. I have had no problems going native. When I hear my U.S. compatriots saying things like, “Thank God they have McDonald’s” I cringe. My favorite restaurant is a place where the menus have no pictures or English, and the waitresses don’t know English. We order in a bizarre mix of Chinese/English and pantomime. We never know what we’re going to get, but it’s always good because they are so anxious to please. A giant meal with drinks for three people? About $7.

The U.S. Team: Sure everyone’s got a good excuse, but the bottom line is becoming apparent. There is something fundamentally wrong with our team’s preparation here. We’ll probably win some golds as the week goes on, but overall, our track athletes are choking. Consider events we used to “own” in recent years, the 110 hurdles and the men’s long jump. We have a slight chance to get on the podium in the hurdles but we don’t even have any finalists in the long jump. Ouch. And our 1500 team that looked so good in round one came to the semis with zero confidence, and ran like it. The solution? I don’t know. We’re all still in shock here.

Hail the Alternate! In at least three cases, U.S. athletes have competed on the track with preexisting injury conditions. Of course, they bombed out miserably. But they can call themselves “Olympians.” Whoopee. Let me take a strong stand here. They’re not here to represent themselves. They’re here to represent the United States. And when they come here injured and don’t give up their team spot to a healthy alternate, they have betrayed their implicit pledge to do the best thing for the United States. In all three of these cases, we had team alternates who have made the A standard who could have done a better job in the Games. It’s time that U.S. officials have the backbone to boot unhealthy people off the team. I find it maddening to see a runner step off the track after running a few steps when they knew they were injured weeks before. Perhaps they were hoping a miracle would happen as soon as they got inside the Birds Nest. The only miracle I’m looking for is one of our athletes to put their country before their self-interest.

Kickers Rule: I know one journalist who works himself into a frothy rage when the Ethiopians kick their way to gold medals in the distances. I know zillions of high school runners who have been brainwashed by the Steve Prefontaine myth and think the only honorable way to run is to lead from the front. Hogwash. One of these days I’m going to finish my book on running tactics and lead with the first rule: in a race with runners of equal ability, the kicker will win 98% of the time. A coach who doesn’t prepare his runners to win in a variety of ways is not doing a good job. The kick is something every runner should hone. At the highest levels, unless the leader is clearly a superior runner to the field, the leader will lose to a kicker. That’s how our sport works, that’s how the physics of running works. Embrace it. There are no bonuses for leading at the halfway point. The medals are decided only by the finish.

Drugs: Track has a “dirty” reputation because it has made a bigger effort than any other sport to catch the cheaters. Kind of a Catch-22, isn’t it? If you think sports like swimming are clean, you are probably deluded. Denial is a powerful force. I’m kind of extreme on drugs, in that I think that we should just take the offenders out back and shoot them. Bowing to legal reality, however, I accept that probably won’t happen until I’m king of the world. So for now, I say add these to the list of penalties: 1)when a country has a rash of positive tests and evidence of a large-scale doping program (ie. the Russian female runners this summer), we need to come up with significant penalties not just to the individuals but to the country’s federation. 2)when an athlete is found guilty of doping, that athlete’s entire career should be erased. Every record from middle school to the Olympics. Case in point. Marion Jones had her career erased from 2000-forward, in keeping with her admissions to prosecutors. Should she still have her blazing times and gold medals from the 1997 season? Do you really trust that she was clean? (Let’s beat a dead horse here. Do you really think a “clean” drug test means the athlete is clean? We know for a fact the entire story behind East Germany’s doping practices in the 70s and 80s. However, not one East German athlete failed a drug test.)

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