Some humans only get one chance to make the Olympics.
For Shaquille Walker, the fastest 800-meter runner in America this year, his first chance, a big chance, crashed and burned last week in a matter of fragmented seconds in the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
It is a travesty and a tragedy. Almost daily this week, track and field observers from around the country called it unfair.
But it is what it is. Shaquille Walker, a storied All-American, is hurt, his heart ripped out, his run of luck and fortune side-whacked, all in a second or two on that track after a collision caused him to stumble, then get disqualified.
Walker has a lot of words to describe it: politics, cheated, fishy, frustrating and wrong. The U.S. will be represented by Boris Berian, Clayton Murphy and Charles Jock.
For the record, Walker isn’t a complainer. He’s an upbeat, driven, positive, rise-above-adversity type of guy. Been that way all his life. A Mormon convert and former missionary who grew up in the deep South, his approach to life is simple, his faith pure.
But in this race, he had the right to question.
My take is that this might be an Olympics to miss. There’s the threat of inadequate police security, malfeasance by Brazilian officials, possible bankruptcy, a super bacteria has been found in Brazilian water and there’s the Zika virus. Some say these games could be a disaster, a mess of monumental proportions.
That day Walker says he ran a textbook-perfect 800 race. He needed to finish in the top three in his heat to automatically advance to Monday’s finals and he was in second place for almost 80 percent of it, all by design, race strategy.
The race leader, Brandon Johnson, moved to the edge of lane 1, creating an inside path near the rail. Walker, who had run in lane 1 for nearly every step of the race behind Johnson, made a slight move in the same lane towards the inside, never changing lanes. But University of Mississippi runner Craig Engels, a close Walker friend, moved to try to pass Walker, and when he realized he couldn’t, he darted outside after clipping Walker and causing him to stumble.
This is the video of my semi-final race. Protested to no avail. Heartbroken to have my Olympic Dreams dashed. https://t.co/Wm6PYLDGDJ— Shaquille Walker (@ShaqWalker880) July 3, 2016
By the time Walker regained his stride, he was passed by two other runners. Engels fell. In protests filed immediately afterward, BYU head coach Ed Eyestone claimed Walker was jostled and obstructed by Engels in the final 90 meters, causing him to lose momentum.
Engles’ coach Ryan Vanhoy protested that Walker impeded Engels, causing Engels to fall.
Judges ruled Walker did impede Engels and advanced Engels to the finals. Eyestone appealed. “Shaquille was in lane 1 coming off the turn and never left lane 1,” said Eyestone. “There is not room in lane 1 for two athletes to fairly compete. Shaquille was in front the entire time and was impeded by the other athlete who attempted to pass Shaquille on the inside where there was not enough room. At the very least, both athletes could be advanced to the final. These are exceptional circumstances.”
Did no good. Walker was out.
The fishing and political aspect of this ruling is this. Against post race guidelines and protocol, neither Walker nor Eyestone or a Walker advocate was allowed to be present to view the video and hear the discussion by judges.
The Ole Miss head coach, who is the boss of Engels’ coach who wrote the appeal, was earlier named the U.S. Olympic Women’s track coach.
I supposed people could look at the tape of the race and make a case for either side. Walker says 90 percent of people who’ve seen it and know track rules would say he was tripped.
A more fair ruling would have been to advance both Walker and Engels. But that wasn’t the case. Even Engels told Walker that would be the fair thing to do.
In Monday’s women’s 800-meter finals, a colossal bang-up mess after several collisions and a fall around the final turn left some of America’s best talent with a loss of momentum. They failed to qualify while lesser talent whizzed by and made the team. Nobody was disqualified, nobody penalized. It was just ruled a race and the finish stood.
Meanwhile, Walker will turn professional and plans to race in Europe, including the World Championships in London. And if he is the top American on that circuit, he’ll feel some semblance of justice in wake of the robbery he claims happened in Eugene.
In an interview on ESPN 960 earlier this week, I think he stated the best lesson learned in Eugene.
Walker said he now knows the best way he could have avoided this disaster, the ultimate way not to have placed his Olympic dream in the hands of others would’ve been to sprint to the lead, get ahead of everyone and run with nothing but the wind in front of his face.
Just a little late.
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