Monday Morning Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

Usain Bolt is beatable.
Or at least for right now. On Thursday in Rome, the most marketable sports star in the universe was behind for about 98 meters out of 100. Fortunately for him, he was running against possibly the greatest choke artist of our generation, Asafa Powell.
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Bolt has been suffering from back problems, as you might expect from a 6’5″ athlete who explodes out of a full crouch. It has no doubt affected his early-season preparation; a year ago he ran a stunning relay legs in March and April, followed by stunning individual races in May and June. But then his back acted up on him, he got trounced by Tyson Gay, and ended his season early. And this year we saw no early fireworks as in 2010. So he’s vulnerable.

Tyson Gay has had his own injury problems, backing out of April relay commitments and only recently opening his season at Manchester’s street races. Bolt and Gay are both at reduced capacity, and Powell is being his regular self—stunning when alone but tightening up when anyone is in his field of vision. The summer is wide open.

Bolt and Gay are famously avoiding each other before the Worlds. Many people assume it’s because they’re both prima donnas or afraid of each other. More seasoned observers point to the cost of appearance fees, which would exhaust the budget at any meet outside the Diamond League finals in Zurich and Brussels. But it might be because they both need as much time as possible to round into shape.

Trey Hardee is the man to watch in the decathlon.
The defending World Champion took 2010 off of multi-event competition and mostly trained and did individual events. On Saturday and Sunday he competed in the famed Hypo Meeting decathlon in the tiny Alpine town of Gotzis and scored 8689 points, a total no one else has surpassed in the last three years.

In Hardee’s absence last year, Ashton Eaton became the flavor of the month, due mostly to his stunning indoor World Records. It is true that the Oregon Duck has great potential in the event due to his prodigious running and jumping talents. But his throwing events are weak to say the least. The word “potential” means something is possible but has not yet been achieved. We wouldn’t say that Hardee or defending Olympic champion Bryan Clay are potential world beaters in the decathlon; we just say that they are world beaters in the decathlon.

On the other hand, Eaton’s improvement curve in the throwing events has been so rapid that he may be capable of scoring 8600 or 8700 points in the decathlon once the Worlds come around in September. The betting man, however, would take the guy who has already done that this year (Hardee) over the guys who might do it in the future (Clay, possibly over the hill, and Eaton, possibly not ready for prime time).

Almost no one likes college regionals.
From the inception of the NCAA Championships in 1921 to sometime in the 1970s, the meet was an all-comers affair; if your team was willing to pay your travel, you could compete. From then until 2002, qualifying to the NCAA Championships was via a national descending-order list of marks. In 2003, that system was abandoned in favor of four regions of qualifying, somewhat akin to the regional format of qualifying for most state high school championships. It was highly popular among coaches of teams in the mid-major and minor conferences, but the coaches of the power programs detested it with an all-consuming passion.

In 2010, to answer complaints about unequal geographic distribution of talent, the regional system was changed to a two-meet system where the top 12 in each event in each of the two regions qualified to the NCAA Championships. Some people were horrified at the difficulty for hosts to execute the format, some liked it, and some thought it was the secret plan to kill regionals. I, for one, thought there was no secret about it at all; Oregon’s Vin Lananna was quite open about saying that he was all for anything that reduced the lifespan of any form of the regional concept.

A year ago, the coaches’ association approved a different plan for qualifying to the NCAA Championships, one that eliminated regionals. But a funny thing happened…the NCAA Championships Cabinet didn’t agree and kept the current system. So the system was still in place for 2011, and God only knows what will happen in 2012.

Some opinions on the two-region setup have hardened, most notably among coaches. Coaches of the have-not programs like it, coaches of the have-more programs don’t. Opinions of sportswriters and fans, however, have all moved in one direction: anyone who has seen a regional meet in person would rather jab themselves in the eye with a sharp stick than sit through another one.

Ron Bellamy of the Eugene Register-Guard doesn’t like it. Ken Goe of The Oregonian doesn’t like it. Brett Hoover of HepsTrack.com doesn’t like it. Garry Hill of Track and Field News, who originally disliked it and then reversed himself to like it, now hates it after actually seeing it. When I asked other fans if I should travel to Bloomington to see the East regional, they responded with “a thousand times, no”.

The lone holdout, it seems, are the BroJos of LetsRun.com, who say that “the point of regionals isn’t to be fan-friendly but to be fair”. They make good points specific to distance races, noting that any previous system led to boring April time trial meets, and that with regionals only the best competitors qualify to the NCAA Championships. But these are the same guys who constantly complain about the lack of attention given to track and field, and to willingly reject the importance of fan interest at any time is not a good idea, let alone the penultimate step to the NCAA Championships.

There has to be a better way. The pre-2002 system didn’t work. The current system doesn’t work. The four-region system kinda worked. And the big problem is that almost no one involved in decision making cares if there is anyone in the stands beyond parents and girlfriends and other such people with social obligations to the competitors. And so those are the only people who watch college meets.

Why Oregon’s attendance numbers are so good.
Thursday’s announced attendance at the Regionals in Eugene was 6,381, the best attendance at any purely collegiate meet in 2011. For something that was considered duller than chartered accountancy, that’s a pretty good number. It went up in each of the two following days.

But in no way does it reflect the number of actual spectators in the stands. The announced numbers were not ticket sales but ticket distribution, which is more than a mere difference in semantics. It reflects the total number of people in the stadium, which includes not just spectators but athletes, coaches, officials, media, workers, and anyone else who happens to walk in with a pass.

This is how all other college sports work. When you hear an attendance of 113,090 at The Big House in Ann Arbor, it’s not that they crammed in an extra 4,090 spectators above and beyond the seating capacity, it’s that there are that many players and support personnel and media and workers and VIPs who get to stand on the sidelines. That’s about 3% of the total at a big football game, but this week at regionals it might have been 33% of the total.

When I compile attendance data, first I look to releases from SIDs. The only colleges that mention it are Oregon, Texas A&M, Penn and sometimes Drake. I have no idea whether the latter three operate on the same system as Oregon (I doubt it for Drake, whose final day at the Drake Relays is always a sellout but never stated as more than the seating capacity).

After than, I e-mail coaches, SIDs and ticket offices. When they have a hard number to send me, it’s always a number of tickets sold—just the number of people who paid to be there. Little wonder, then, that everyone else’s numbers are so significantly lower than Oregon’s. The Ducks do bring in a crowd, and do it better than any other program in the country, but we should take the numbers with a grain of salt.

Ryan Hall is actually racing again.
The peanut gallery at LetsRun.com loves to trash everyone. It’s the track version of sports talk radio and should be treated as such. The crowd does occasionally have some wisdom, though, one piece of which is that marathoners who abandon shorter races in their training will eventually pay a price for it.

So it’s with that in mind that I find Ryan Hall’s first full season as his own coach (or, as co-coach with God, if you wish) very different from the past. He ran the USATF road mile championships. He’s running the Bolder Boulder 10k. In the past, he rarely did these kinds of races between marathons. While he is racing them hard, he’s not so invested in the outcome of the race so much as the experience of racing. This matches what he needs in two ways: it’s how a charismatic Christian (as Hall famously is) seeks to be part of the world around him, and it’s how a marathoner should use races to help him train.

Most observers, myself included, thought Hall was making a mistake when he abandoned Terrence Mahon and the Mammoth Track Club to coach himself through prayer. I gave him some small benefit of the doubt, as I think that to him “prayer” includes things like time spent on introspection and self-awareness.

Now it seems that his move was the right one. No reasonable person can say that Hall’s performance at the Boston Marathon was disappointing. Even after taking the tailwind into account, it was either the best or second-best race of his life, losing only to the defending NYC Marathon champ (barely) and likely the two best marathoners on the planet.

So I’ll be interested to see what the result is at the Bolder Boulder 10k. Not so much for the result in itself, but in how he reacts to it. He’s taking himself out of his comfort zone all of his own accord, and that’s a good thing.

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6 Responses to Monday Morning Decathlete

  1. runbei says:

    Re regionals, Lordy Bess, yes – what a waste of athletes’ energy and the best schools’ money. And what a bore to watch Oregon’s runners loaf to a Q, directed by the sly Vin Lananna, while Stanford’s distance runners win the races and then poop-out at nationals. Bleh.

  2. I recently discovered first your Twitter feed and then this blog, and enjoy both. Thank you for the work you do and the information you provide! A favor, if I may: I don’t know what is possible with the software you use for your blog, but if possible, I (and perhaps also others) would appreciate it if you could insert an HTML hash tag to mark a section at the beginning of each section of your blog entries. This would make it easier to link to a specific section of in a blog entry. For example, I would like to link to the piece you wrote about Ryan Hall. Right now I can only link to the blog entry and tell people to either read the whole thing (and they might not care about the NCAA regionals) or have them scroll down to the relevant bit about Hall. A hash tag would let me link to http://tracksuperfan.com/monday-morning-decathlete-7#hall instead so the browser would automatically scroll down to the relevant section. Just a thought, no big deal. Thanks again!

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