Let's face it, before the addition of synchronized skeet shooting and bikini volleyball, the Olympics was a track meet and, as far as some of us are concerned, it still is. Today, the track competition begins and not a minute too soon. Here are some of the things to watch for:
The man everyone will be watching of course is Jamaica's Usain Bolt, who stole the show in Beijing. In 2008 and 2009, he ran times that weren't expected for another century, if ever, and, at 6-foot-5, seemed to be precursor for the next evolutionary step in sprinting. But in the past year he has proved beatable. Yohan Blake beat Bolt in the 100 and 200 in the Jamaican Trials, and Tyson Gay beat him last year. In London, he'll be part of a field that will include five of the seven fastest men in history.
The best hopes to break the Jamaican stranglehold on the sprints are Justin Gatlin and Gay, a pair of 30-year-old sprinters who are running out of time. Only one sprinter over the age of 28 has ever won the Olympic 100-meters dash: 32-year-old Linford Christie in 1992.
Gay is cursed with a sluggish start, but his top-end speed approaches that of Bolt's, and he is a polished technician. He is also fragile. A triple gold medalist at the 2007 world championships, he was waylaid by injuries in the 2008 Olympics and failed to even medal. A year ago he underwent hip surgery. He hasn't won a world championship race since 2009. Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic champ, has made a remarkable comeback since serving a four-year drug suspension. He won the U.S. Olympic Trials.
History's fastest white man
Christophe Lemaitre of France is known as the only white man ever to run under 10 seconds in the 100-meter dash, first achieving the feat in 2010, 42 years after the barrier was broken by Jim Hines. Like Gay, he is a poor starter with great cruising speed. It's just a question of how much he spots his rivals in the first few strides of the race. Lamaitre announced last week that he will contest only the 200 in London — he has a best of 19.82 and won the 200 bronze in last year's world championships. That might be a sound idea when you consider how fast 100-meter times are these days. The winning times in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics might not even medal in today's world when 9.7s have become almost commonplace.
Your heart is pulling for Lolo Jones, the star-crossed American who was meters away from winning the 100 hurdles in the Beijing Games when she hit the penultimate hurdle and staggered to seventh place. Her grace in defeat and her often-recited childhood story — grew up poor, living in a church basement with her single mother — plus her looks, have made her a media and fan favorite. It has also made her wealthier, since she is bombarded with endorsements. Since Beijing, she has struggled with injuries. It was almost miraculous that she even made the U.S. team, given her poor performances this year. Medaling in London would take another miracle.
No one has been the source of as much controversy as a pair of South Africans, starting with Oscar Pistorius. Born without fibulas, he had both legs amputated several inches below the knee before his first birthday. He is able to run by wearing carbon fiber artificial limbs — hence, the nickname "Blade Runner." The debate has raged for years — do the prosthetics, which spring him down the track with each foot strike, give him an unfair advantage in the 400-meter dash, or are they merely an equalizer given the absence of calves and feet. A team of scientists gave Pistorius a battery of tests in 2007 and, based on those results, track's governing body disqualified him from competing in the Beijing Olympics, only to be reversed upon appeal and a court. However, Pistorius failed to meet the Olympic qualifying standard and was unable to compete anyway. Scientists still disagree about what, if any, advantages the prosthetics provide, as Pistorious continues to compete in both paralympic and able-bodied competitions.
Since 2008, he has surpassed the Olympic qualifying standard, and at last year's world championships he advanced to the semifinals of the 400-meter dash and earned a silver medal in the 4x400 relay. This year Pistorius has run 45.20. That isn't good enough to rank among the top 30 in the world, but that doesn't mean he won't be the source of much interest in London.
Olympic Gold At Last?
American sprinter Allyson Felix has been an international star since winning an Olympic silver medal in the 200-meter dash at the age of 18. Her improvement has been steady, and earlier this summer, at the age of 26, she produced one of the greatest performances ever by a sprinter by winning the Olympic Trials 200 in 21.69. At 5-foot-6, 125 pounds, she has a slender build yet she reportedly can leg press 700 pounds and sprints with the long graceful strides of a thoroughbred.
A three-time world champion at 200 meters, she has won silver in her two Olympic appearances, losing to Jamaican Veronica Campbell. She looks ready to reverse the trend this time.
Too Tall and Now Too Good
Two-time Russian Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva is one of the most dominant athletes of her time, but few Americans know it. A gymnast from age 5 to 15, she switched sports because, at 5-8½, she was considered too tall. She has set 27 world records indoors and outdoors and won gold medals in 2004 and 2008, before slipping into a slump that saw her no-height in the 2009 world championships and place sixth in the 2011 world championships. She returned to her youth coach and broke her own indoor world record.
Isinbayeva is so good that she doesn't even enter the competition until the bar reaches heights (15 feet sometimes) few of her rivals can clear. She wraps herself up in towels and a sleeping bag and waits it out. She took only two jumps to win the gold in Beijing. She owns the 14 best jumps in history, including the world record of 16-7½. She's so dominant that Track and Field News includes a list of "non-Isinbayeva performances" to get some other names on its top-40 list.
In London, she will try to become the first woman to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals in the same event.
World's Greatest Athlete
Imagine an athlete who jumps 27 feet — a mark good enough for a bronze medal in the last Olympics — runs 100 meters in 10.21 and 400 meters in 45.68, throws the shot put 48 feet and the javelin 202 feet, leaps 6-foot-8¾ in the high jump and 17-4½ in the pole vault, and covers the 110 hurdles in 13.34 seconds — a time that would have placed fifth in the Beijing Olympics. There are athletes who can produce one of those marks, but only one athlete can produce all of them — 24-year-old American decathlete Ashton Eaton. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, he set a world record in the decathlon at the Olympic Trials. A gold medal in London would continue an American tradition in the event, following the likes of Jim Thorpe, Bob Mathias, Milt Campbell, Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey, Bruce Jenner, Dan O'Brien, Bryan Clay and others.
Too Fast for the Hurdles
Although it isn't getting the attention of the 100-meter dash, the 110-meter high hurdles offers another great showdown, matching the last two Olympic champions and world record holders — China's Liu Xiang (2004, 12.88) and Cuba's Dayron Robles (2008, 12.87), as well as last year's world champion, Jason Richardson. And they might not even be the favorite. American Aries Merritt has the fastest time in the world (12.93) and has had the good fortune to hit peak form in the Olympic year.
Curiously, while the 100-meter record has fallen an average of every other year for two decades and improved .34 of a second, the world record in the hurdles has been broken only five times and improved a mere .06 of a second in 31 years — from Renaldo Nehemiah's 12.93 to Robles's 12.87. My theory: Today's athletes have simply outgrown the high hurdles. They're too big, powerful and fast for 10 42-inch hurdles spaced 9.14 meters (10 yards) apart. Watch the race and note how many of the hurdlers have to chop their strides between the hurdles to keep from overrunning the next hurdle.
Athletes in the Zone
Never mind Bolt. The most dominating athletes heading into the track and field portions of the Games are David Rudisha and Sally Pearson.
Ridisha is the 6-foot-3 Kenyan world record holder at 800 meters who routinely runs the distance in the 1:41-1:42 range. It is unlikely that world records will be set on the track in London, given the city's cool, wet weather and the reluctance that middle-distance and distance runners have of running from the front and pushing the pace. The one exception is Rudisha. He can run from the front and still win — and run fast. He has run 1:41.54 this year — just off his world record of 1:41.01. At 23, he has six of the 10 fastest times ever.
Pearson, the Australian hurdler, combines 11.14 speed in the 100-meter dash with superb hurdle technique. In the 2011 world championships she ran away from the field, finishing with a time of 12.28, just .07 off the 24-year-old world record. At 5-foot-5, she routinely beats her rivals to the first hurdle and then pulls away, skimming over the hurdles in a frenzied sprint to the finish. She has won 32 of her last 34 races dating back to 2010.
The U.S. is the home of the running boom and Nike and the Boston Marathon and Runner's World Magazine and Bill Bowerman, but you wouldn't know it to watch Americans in the Olympics. Here is a look at their record in the middle-distance and distance events in recent decades:
800 meters — 3 medals since 1972 (all bronze), the last one 20 years ago
1,500 meters — One medal since 1952 (silver), 24 years ago
3,000-meter steeplechase — One medal since 1968 (bronze), 28 years ago
5,000 meters — No medals since 1964
10,000 meters — No medals since 1964
Marathon — One medal since 1972 — a silver for Meb Keflezighi, an African refugee and naturalized U.S. citizen.
800 meters — 3 medals since 1928, the last one 24 years ago
1,500 meters — 0 medals since the race was added to the Olympics in 1972
5,000 meters — 0 medals since the race was added to the Olympics in 1996
10,000 meters — 2 medals since the race was added to the Olympics in1988
Marathon — 2 medals since the race was added to the Olympics in 1984