Monday Morning Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

Getting old is a bitch.
At first glance, there were many shocking upsets and other surprises at the USATF Championships this week. Jeremy Wariner, Bernard Lagat, Bershawn Jackson, Hyleas Fountain and Jen Suhr all got beaten. Neither Jenny Simpson nor Shannon Rowbury could come up with a win in the 1500 meters. Tyson Gay came up lame and withdrew from the 100 meters semis, and Sanya Richards-Ross tried to make the team in the 200 and couldn’t. Bryan Clay fell in the hurdles and was a DNF in the decathlon. Dwight Phillips was relegated to tenth in the long jump.

This is not some shocking failure of the U.S. system as a whole, or our system of selecting a national team. It means that all of those names I listed off are known because of what they have done in past seasons, sometimes very far in the past. The athletes who made the US team for the World Championships did so off the strength of what they did this year, and this year alone. The big names are often yesterday’s stars, not today’s.

Generations ago, track and field was a young man’s sport and most athletes were out of it by their mid-20s if not sooner. This was particularly true for the glamour events, the sprints and middle distances. The advent of open professionalism in the early 80s definitely had an effect on this, allowing athletes to stay in longer than they otherwise would have been able to. I also suspect that various performance-enhancing drugs kept athletes younger than their years, but it’s much harder these days to use them without discovery, especially in the United States and anywhere else law enforcement is part of anti-doping efforts.

At UniversalSports.com, Joe Battaglia asked the question Has Tyson Gay’s prime vanished amid injuries? I think the answer is pretty clearly yes. His first big-time season was four years ago, and it’s the historic norm for all but the very greatest to sprinters in history to be at their best for five years or less. I think Battaglia’s question could also be asked of Wariner, Richards-Ross, Clay, and several others.

So we’re having a big turnover of talent. This always happens, and it’s best if it happens a year or two before the next Olympics. Not only do the next generation of stars get a chance at international competition before the big show comes around, but also the press and the public came become more familiar with them.

Considering the significant price of Olympics rights fees, it is in NBC/Comcast’s best interest that track and field get wider (and better) coverage at all times, not just at the Olympics. New names pop up all over the place. Remember when Wariner came out of the woodwork as a 20-year-old Baylor sophomore to win the 2004 Olympic gold medal? Or when Usain Bolt was a name that only true track nerds knew, but then set the world on fire in 2008? There will always be new stars. Always.

Larry Rawson deserves his very own wing in the Awful Announcing Hall of Fame.
Considering the existence of such websites as awfulannouncing.com and firejoemorgan.com, I can’t really say that track and field is alone in having atrocious people in the booth. One of the best things Doug Logan did as USATF CEO was to fire Rawson from the VISA Championship Series broadcasts (and I suspect it pissed off some powerful people who don’t give a rat’s ass how awful those broadcasts are).

But he’s not totally gone. He still does various TV non-USATF TV gigs, such as the NCAA Championships. And he was brought in to do parts of this week’s USATF webcasts on Runnerspace.com. And boy, was he in fine Rawson form. You could say he was Rawesome.

He endlessly told stories, often only tangentially related to track if at all, instead of talking about the race in front of him. He could not do the most basic tasks such as get splits or say how many laps remained. He misidentified athletes. He didn’t know the qualifying rules for the World Championships. He either simply didn’t care enough to properly prepare or is losing it in his old age, and he has been this way for a significant amount of time. Even the normally staid Track and Field News message boards has a thread titled Vote Rawson off the island, please!

I’ve done lots of stadium announcing, and some webcast work and been on local TV a tiny bit. I know just enough to know that broadcasting is not as easy a task as it appears. I also know that there are at least a thousand people who could do a better job, because they would have one thing that the rest of our domestic TV track announcers lack, which is the self-awareness to critically examine their own performances and always try to get better.

Shocking as it may be, there are a lot of people out there who defend Rawson. They never actually say he’s a good announcer, but they say he’s an awfully nice guy and that he busted his butt thirty years ago to get track and road running on ESPN. I sense that most if not all of these people have power within USATF, as political bodies operate on long memories and trading favors. Moreover, while he’s been replaced on the USATF television broadcasts, some nitwit brought him in to do the USATF webcast. And he doesn’t work for free.

In fact, the entirety of the USATF webcasts has been remarkably poor. At other times, Joanna Hayes was announcing. She does TV work and is passable there, but on the webcast was truly abominable. Based on comments she has made, it appears that all these announcers have been told that they need not take the webcast as seriously as their TV work. That exposes a total ignorance to the ascendancy of new media.

Then there’s the technology, or lack of it. Posted at Let’s Run:

It was frustrating to watch [USATF Championships] races on-line and not see the clock. This all changed, though, when the coverage went to Nike [High School] Track Nationals. That coverage began with the final two USATF races on Saturday, the junior 1500s, which began at 6:30 on Saturday. In the women’s 1500, there was suddenly a running clock on-screen that gave splits as they passed the finish line. The audio was by the Hayward Field announcer.

Yes, that’s right. The webcast of a high school meet was better produced than the professional national championship meet. And that’s everything you need to know about USATF in a nutshell.

The Kamloops thrower’s group had a good weekend.
Kamloops is a small city in British Columbia, and a few American and Canadian throwers have gathered there to train under Anatoliy Bondarchuk, a former Olympic hammer champion for the Soviet Union who is considered to be one of the best throws coaches in the world.

One star of the group is Kibwe Johnson. He set a PR in the hammer throw, 80.31m (263′ 6″), the best by an American in 11 years. More importantly, it’s the second-best in the world this year. It stamps him as a legitimate threat to win a medal at the World Championships, possibly even gold. In the last 50 years, the USA has won just one Olympic or Worlds medal in this event (Lance Deal, silver in 1996).

The center of the group, though, and the reason it is in Kamloops, is Canada’s Dylan Armstrong. He has been a member of the Kamloops club since first beginning in track and field. On Saturday he broke his own Canadian record three times in one competition, topping out at 22.21m (72′ 10½”), the world’s best by nearly five inches. He is now the odds-on favorite to win the Worlds. Canada has never won an Olympic or Worlds medal in the men’s shot put.

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3 Responses to Monday Morning Decathlete

  1. admin says:

    Note: when I wrote that “our domestic TV track announcers lack…the self-awareness to critically examine their own performances”, I should have made an exception for Ato Boldon. He is a true professional in every sense of the word.

  2. runbei says:

    Good for you. Without mentioning individuals, let’s wonder no more at “Why track isn’t more popular.” It’s not that track’s official bodies suck at technology – though of course they do. It’s that if they aren’t getting paid, they don’t seem to feel they have any obligations.

  3. Dale Harder says:

    I wouldn’t count Gay and Clay off the 2012 Olympics team just yet. One of the problems with the broadcasts is spending so much time on the 10,000m, 5000m and steeplechase. How about showing just the last two minutes of each and more of the field events? Most of us don’t care about the pre-meet interviews. Also the network showed the 800 of the heptathlon but didn’t stick around to show the times and the results. More of us need to write letters.