As no doubt you already know, the U.S. Olympic track and field team took home 29 medals. This was only one medal short of the audacious goal set by former USA Track and Field CEO Doug Logan as part of “Project 30″, a major overhaul of the organization.
When that target was set, it was routinely ridiculed by longtime observers of the sport as impossible. Various news articles amd press releases in the last few days all point to 1992 as the last time the US hit the 30-medal mark, but that doesn’t really do the number justice. It makes it sound like 30 medals was the norm before that, and it most certainly was not.
The US won 40 medals in 1984, when most of the Eastern Block nations boycotted. In track and field parlance, you would call that total “wind aided” and ignore it. The total of 30 medals in 1992 total came in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of various Communist regimes. So if that one isn’t “wind aided”, it had a borderline reading of 2.0 m/s.
Besides those two, when was the last time the USA won 30 or more track and field medals at an Olympics?
Would you believe 1956? Yeah, it’s been that long.
You and I both know much has changed since then, not the least of which is that there were only nine events contested for women back then, whereas there are 23 now. But those extra fourteen events we have now only gave Team USA five of the 29 medals they just won. When the difference in women’s events are taken into account, this is still the best Team USA performance since 1968.
Things that didn’t go well
What’s even more remarkable about this total is that not everything went well. In fact, a whole lot of things went wrong.
*The men won just three gold medals, the lowest total ever at an Olympics or Worlds.
*There was just one medal, a bronze, in the traditional strengths of the men’s 100, 200 and 400.
*Three of the world’s best men’s shot putters combined for just one medal.
*Reigning World high jump champions Jesse Williams (outdoor) and Chaunte Lowe (indoor) both bombed out early and did not win medals.
*The men’s 4×400 relay got beaten (as opposed to conceding a win by not running or a doping DQ) for only the third time ever in Olympic and World Championships competition.
*Last year’s #1-ranked women’s 1500 runner fell and was a DNF, and the defending world champion didn’t qualify to the final.
*The women’s marathoners, all three of whom were considered medal threats, ended up 10th, 11th, and a DNF.
*Two different women’s shot putters won medals at the most recent indoor and outdoor Worlds, but were not close in London.
Depth of performance
If all these things went wrong, how in the heck was this the best U.S. team performance in forty-four years? It was depth of performance.
Just one example: when those two World champion high jumpers had bad days and were out of the medals, a pair of senior-to-be collegians came through and picked up the slack for two completely unexpected medals.
Despite their seeming omnipresence, distance runners won only two medals. Team USA has exceeded that six different times at the Olympics and Worlds, even after you ignore 1984. In terms of depth of performance, though, this was the best meet ever for US men’s distance runners. They had the most top-eight finishes in post-WWII games (ten, breaking the record of eight in 1964). As noted on the TFN message boards: the 2012 U.S. men’s team became the first U.S. Olympic men’s team since 1964 to place somebody in the top eight in all the middle distance and distance events, 800 through marathon.
Overall, Team USA had 56 top-eight finishes, an increase of 22% over the next-best result of recent years. Those top-eight finishes came in 31 out of the 47 events.
Where did the medals come from?
So Team USA bombed in the men’s long sprints, didn’t make up the total in the distances, and continued to struggle in the throwing events with just one medal. Where in the heck did the medals come from?
The field events were the biggest area. Two years ago, after Benita Fitzgerald Mosley was named USATF’s High Performance Director, she was quoted by TFN as calling “London field-event medals ‘low-hanging fruit, ready to be picked.” Here Team USA won ten medals (if you include the field-event heavy decathlon and heptathon), compared to four in Beijing.
Chief among these improvements was the women’s long jump, where the Americans won gold and bronze for their first-ever medals by someone not named Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Men brought one-two punches in the triple jump (duplicated only in the less-competitive years of 1992, 1984, 1908 and 1904) and the decathlon (duplicated only in 1956, 1952, 1936 and 1924).
The other area of remarkable improvement was the 4×100 relays. Four years ago in Beijing, the failure of both men’s and women’s teams to even complete the races punctuated an embarrassing Olympics for Team USA. Here they punctuated an impressive outing, with the women breaking a world record and the men tying it (while being beaten by a record-breaking Jamaican squad). Each ran at least as well as could be expected, especially given the atrocious record of the last few years.
Room for improvement
Despite the medal haul that is historically huge, there is still room for improvement, whether fueled by USATF investment or by other leadership independent of the organization.
One such criticism is leveled by Track and Field News Walks Editor Bob Bowman, described has having “long prowled the political halls of both the IAAF and USATF”. He points out the weak events on the US slate and pooh-poohs the achievement of 29 medals, in what feels to me like a broadside aimed at upping USATF funding for the racewalks. He does have a good point, though, which is for the national federation to look and see where it can and should do better.
The one area that sticks out for weakness is not the walks but the long throws. Between the discus, hammer and javelin, Team USA had just one top-eight finish between the men and the women (an eighth by Stephanie Brown Trafton, the defending Olympic discus champion). Despite what Fitzgerald Mosley said, these most certainly are not low-hanging fruit. Developing as a thrower takes a long time and that means athletes need the means to make a living and remain in the sport for that requisite length of time.
I think the way to make this happen is to take the same approach that various groups of distance runners did a decade ago: group training and pooling resources. Some of this is already happening with John Godina’s World Throws Center, which started in Pheonix and now has four locations in Arizona and California, or the group of throwers who train in Oregon with Mac Wilkins. The goals should be similar to what happened with Desi Davila and the Hansons-Brooks Project, which is to give enough athletes coming out of college enough time and enough resources to allow the unrealized talents to move from unremarkable to world-class.
Remember, a decade ago the USA produced zero top-eight finishes in the twelve distance races at two consecutive World Championships. Now the production is tremendous, and it’s due to a change in attitude and people working together. There’s no reason the throwing events cannot do the same in a decade.
A change in attitude?
The whole Project 30 approach appeared to be ignored by USATF leadership from their ouster of Doug Logan up until the end of this year’s Olympic Trials, the moment we all realized the team had a realistic chance at hitting the mark. From the AP:
Logan says he’s not surprised.
“I feel a certain sense of validation that the direction I took and the way I did it was correct,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday.
The Americans won 23 medals in Beijing, a performance that prompted Logan to call for a top-to-bottom review of the track program that resulted in a report called “Project 30.”
Logan’s in-your-face management style eventually led to his ouster in September 2010 after little more than two years on the job. He’s watching the games from his home in Florida this year with mixed emotions.
“When I challenged the federation to perform up to its potential, I knew it had an Olympics like this in it,” he said. “But a lot of people, including my own board members, thought I was arrogant and ill-informed.”
Among those on the “Project 30″ panel were 10-time Olympic medalist Carl Lewis, 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor and Steve Roush, the former chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Roush told the AP that putting a specific number out there was “counter to the culture that had been established within” USATF.
“There’s no doubt it frightened some people, now that there was actually a stated target they were shooting at,” Roush said. “Coming up short would mean they somehow failed.”
Logan, who says he’d someday love to find another underperforming national governing body to go fix, insists the ultimate credit goes to the athletes and coaches.
“But them improving like this is not an accident,” he said. “It’s not that we’re lucky today and we were unlucky before.”
While I personally don’t know a lot about USATF inner workings, some people I have communicated with agree strongly with Roush’s statement that accountability and goal setting are not part of the culture. And as athletes or coaches of athletes or fervent fans of athletes, we all know that goal-setting is absolutely essential for high performance. Let’s hope that at least some people in the organization learn something from this, which is that high expectations and accountability are good things to pursue.
In the big picture, how important is a big pile of Olympic medals? For USATF as an organization, it’s very important, because USOC funding is directly tied to medals won at the previous Olympics. So these 29 medals will allow USATF to expand its budget for the next quadrennium. For athletes, even non-Olympians, it’s important because it affects how sponsors view the payoff for investing in track and field as a whole. And for fans like us it’s important because it affects how broadcasters such as NBC view the relative importance of track and field in the sports landscape.