Let's get straight to the point: The Olympic track and field competition was a debacle for the United States.
From the botched relay handoffs to Tyson Gay's bum hamstring to Lolo Jones's stumble to Wallace Spearmon's disqualification and other misadventures in Beijing, it was ugly out there. Everything that U.S. swimming and gymnastics was, track wasn't.
Not that this football-basketball nation will lose any sleep over this at least until the next Olympics.
For the record, the men's 14 medals represent the second-worst total ever in 28 Olympic appearances that date back to 1896 (the worst being the 12 in the 2000 Sydney Games).
Eight of those medals came from just three events both hurdle races and the 400-meter dash. They won just four gold medals, America's worst showing ever. The women's nine medals and three golds are about average. The men's and women's combined total of 23 medals is their fewest since 1976 and third worst ever.
Five world champions failed to defend their titles Allyson Felix (200-meter dash), Tyson Gay (100, 200), Bernard Lagat (1500), Brad Walker (pole vault) and Reese Hoffa (shot put). Of that group, only Felix managed to win any medal at all. And Sanya Richards, a big pre-meet favorite, settled for bronze in the 400.
Here's what went wrong for Team USA:
• For decades, American sprinters were so superior that they could throw together 4x100 relays virtually at the last minute and still win. Not anymore. In Beijing, both the men's and women's teams botched handoffs and didn't even make the final. If you're tempted to dismiss this as a fluke, remember that American women blew handoffs in the last two Olympics to come away without a medal of any color, and the men did the same at the 1988 Olympics and the 1995 and 1997 world championships.
• American middle-distance and distance runners claimed one out of a possible 36 medals. Alan Webb, one of the rare Americans who can compete at this level, didn't even make the team. Perhaps it's contagious. Lagat, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was the silver medalist at 1,500 meters in the last Olympics while running for his native Kenya; running for the U.S. in Beijing, where he was favored to win based on his victory in last year's world championships, he didn't make the final.
All of the above continues a long slide for American distance running. Since 1976, American men have won one medal total in the 1,500, 5,000, 10,000, marathon and steeplechase a bronze during the Soviet boycott of 1984 (this discounts a silver medal won in the 2004 marathon by Meb Keflezighi, who became a naturalized citizen four years earlier). American women have claimed four medals at those distances.
• The U.S. won three out of a potential 24 medals in the eight field events. America even whiffed in the long jump, an event they have dominated.
• Americans have always been able to count on the sprints and relays. Not this time. Between the men and the women, Americans won one bronze in the 100-meter dash. In the 200, they collected two silvers and one bronze, but no gold. They struck out in both 4x100 relays.
American sprint hopes were doomed when Gay pulled his hamstring at the Olympic Trials. He is the one man who could've threatened Usain Bolt (he actually ran faster than Bolt in the trials, albeit with an illegal wind aid). But he simply did not have enough time to recover from the injury and return to race shape before the Olympics. He didn't qualify for the finals.
As usual, Americans delivered big in the 400-meter dash the men swept for the second straight Olympics but Jeremy Wariner failed to defend his title. Wariner's decision to dump his coach, after four years of steady improvement that included two world championships and an Olympic title, looked even worse after his performance in Beijing.
America has been supplanted by Jamaica, a nation of less than 3 million people, as the new sprint power. Jamaicans won the men's and women's 100 and 200, taking five of six medals on the women's side and setting world records in the men's 100, 200 and 4x100. When is the last time the U.S. didn't hold at least one of those records?
By some quirk of genetics, the Caribbean is a hotbed for sprinters. Besides Jamaica, sprinters from the tiny Caribbean nations of Antilles, Trinidad and Tobago, Ivory Coast, Barbados, Bahamas and Cuba have medaled in recent Olympics.
And this doesn't even include Canada's Ben Johnson and Donovan Bailey, and Great Britain's Linford Christie, who all won gold medals at 100 meters from 1988 to 1996 (Johnson was later disqualified) for their adopted countries but are native Jamaicans.
The U.S. has had the depth to rule the sprints despite the drain of talent caused by basketball and football, but that might not continue. Track is a glamour sport in Europe and the Caribbean, but an afterthought in the U.S., where colleges have been cutting track programs for years.It's not time for American track and field to panic. American men won eight of the nine medals in the individual sprints in Athens four years ago. With the injury to Gay, Beijing marked one of the rare times the U.S. has been left without a superstar a la Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, who could significantly boost the medal count. The Beijing performance was the result of just plain bad luck and timing, as much as anything else.
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