The Olympics are the best time for Track & Field and, in some ways, the worst. For once, our wonderful sport is on the world stage for everybody to see. The problem, however, is that most fans only pay attention every four years and therefore know very little about what is really not that complicated of a sport (especially the running events). I really have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when I see what I deem to be ignorance, especially about the sport I love. So here is my clearing the air on some “controversial” stories surrounding our sport at the greatest competition in the world.
Diving to win a race
How many times have you seen an athlete at a track meet either dive to try to win a race or fall while trying to lean? Dozens? Hundreds? It happens all the time in our sport, and I do not know a single coach who has ever had a problem with it unless the athlete diving impedes another athlete. Somehow, common sense escaped a great deal of the viewing public, who deemed Shaunae Miller’s lunge to win the 400m Dash over Allyson Felix as “cheap,” “low,” “shady,” “lame,” “unfair,” or, most ridiculously, “unsportsmanlike.” Many people even made comments like, “This is a running competition, not a diving competition!” or “You should finish on your feet!” Unbelievable.
There seemed to be a pretty even split. The people who only watch track during the Olympics did not like the dive, while true track fans appreciated it as a competitor doing whatever it took to win. Were there some hurt feelings among Americans? Sure. I am wondering if the same people who were upset that a Bahamian leaned out an American for the gold medal were just as outraged in 2008 when an American leaned out a Bahamian for a bronze medal in the same event. Track nuts like me certainly remember Jenna Prandini and Jeff Porter falling at the finish line to earn their spots on the 2016 US Olympic team, similar to the ways Christian Smith and Marshevet Hooker dove for their spots on the 2008 US Olympic team. Earlier in the same day as the Miller “controversy,” Brazil’s Joao Vitor De Oliveira dove in the 110m Hurdle preliminaries to earn a spot in the semifinals.
Diving at the line is, of course, completely legal. Everybody has the option to do it. Most do not unless they are very close to a competitor and it is a very important race. In just as many instances, athletes who are finishing an incredibly taxing event like the 400m Dash start leaning a bit, their fatigued legs start collapsing, and in desperation they make one final lunge, hoping to get their torso across the line before crashing into the track. That was almost certainly the case with Miller. Oftentimes athletes make a big lean at the line, and are running so fast they can’t keep their balance while leaning. Every track coach has seen this hundreds of times.
Somehow there was a big confusion, again among non-track fans, about what part of the body crossing the line marks the end of the race. The torso, of course, is the answer. Not the hand, not the foot, not the head. That is why athletes are taught to lean at the end of the race if they are close to another competitor. Everybody reading this article has probably either been leaned out or leaned somebody else out at least a few times in their life. Get that torso across the line any way you can.
Diving is a huge part of sports. Volleyball players dive to save a ball about to hit the court. Football players wow the audience with diving catches, diving tackles, and dives into the endzone. Soccer goalies dive dozens of times a game. Baseball players dive to catch a ball, dive to keep a ball from getting out of the infield, dive into a base, etc. Basketball players like Dennis Rodman and Larry Bird consistently dove into the crowd to save one possession.
Another misconception is that Miller’s height (6’1″) somehow made a difference in her beating the shorter Felix (5’6″). But Miller beat Felix by 0.07 seconds, which, at the speed they were running, equates to about half a meter. Even if Miller was Felix’s height, or a foot shorter, she still would have won (all else being equal).
Just for fun, here are a bunch of pictures of athletes giving it their all in order to win a race.
Disqualifications, trips, and re-runs
Have you ever been to an Olympics with more controversy surrounding infractions and rules? Kenya’s Ezekiel Kemboi (the most accomplished steeplechaser in history) won the bronze medal in the 3000m Steeplechase, then was disqualified for stepping over the line near the water jump. American Robbie Andrews qualified for the 1500m Run final, but was then disqualified for stepping onto the infield and “improving” his position. Americans Jarrion Lawson and Joe Kovacs both believe they were potentially denied a chance at gold in their events due to eagle-eyed officials (Lawson’s hand scraped the sand well behind his mark in the Long Jump; Kovacs barely touched the top of the toe board in the Shot Put). Several athletes were disqualified for false starts, most notably Puerto Rico’s Javier Culson (the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist) in the 400m Hurdle final. Great Britain’s 4x400m Relay men were disqualified because their anchor, Martyn Rooney, apparently stepped on the wrong side of the exchange zone (an infraction I have only seen called once in my life, though coaches and officials are constantly telling athletes to get on the correct side of the zone). Three of the top five finishers in the men’s 5000m Run final were originally disqualified for ridiculous reasons before all three were thankfully reinstated.
A popular way for distance runners to advance to the final seemed to be by getting tripped in the prelims. While putting all those athletes affected by a trip into the next round seems to be the diplomatic thing to do, some people justifiably wondered if that is going to become a “strategy” for runners in the future. I highly doubt that any Olympic athletes go into a race hoping to advance by tripping. My main beef is that the cameras spend too much time on the fallen athletes. If you want air time, tripping is the way to do it (again, with very few exceptions, most athletes are not looking for air time by tripping; some of you know people who count as those exceptions). During the men’s 3000m Steeplechase final, US’s Evan Jager was in second place when an athlete behind him tripped and smacked his head on a barrier. The cameras lingered on him for a while, even showing several replays of his crash. When they returned to the race, Jager was in the lead. Call me heartless, but while the average viewer was fascinated by the replays of the crash and concerned if the athlete was okay, I was wondering how and when Jager got the lead. In the men’s 1500m Run final, NBC cut away from the race for over 20 seconds to show several replays of a fall on the second lap. The NFL, NBA and MLB do not show replays of anything when the ball is in play. Next time maybe I will just watch the race on the online feed, which I heard did not cut away from the races.
And then we had the most controversial ruling of the entire festival. During their preliminary heat, the US women’s 4x100m Relay team was clearly impeded by the third leg from Brazil swinging her arm into the US’s lane and knocking into Allyson Felix. This caused Felix to lose enough balance to make catching her outgoing runner, English Gardner, almost impossible. In a panic, Felix dropped the baton. After she and Gardner stopped and fretted for a moment, Felix wisely knew to pick the baton up and finish the race. Her coach, fortunately, had told her that a protest can only happen if their team finishes the race. They finished, protested, won the protest, and were given an opportunity to perform a “re-run” later in the day. If they beat the eighth-place team (China, 42.70), the US would be placed in the final.
Of course the US team beat 42.70 in the re-run. In the first race in Olympic Track & Field history that featured just one team, the US foursome scorched the track in 41.77 seconds. Though that was the fastest time of any country in the prelims, they were placed in lane 1 in the final. Despite this handicap, they dominated the field in 41.01 seconds, the second-fastest time in history behind their World Record run from the 2012 Olympics.
While the US team was clearly impeded, some people still had a problem with them getting a re-run and replacing a different team in the final. Unlike in the distance events (3000m Steeplechase, 1500m Run, 5000m Run) where impeded athletes who advanced to the next round did not bump anybody else out, the 4x100m Relay is run in lanes, and there are only so many lanes on the track. If you add a team, you have to take one out. People actually accused the Olympic Committee of “making up rules as they went along” to get the Americans in the finals. The rules, for the record, were in place long before the Olympics started.
Some knowledgeable track fans did note that the US outgoing runner, English Gardner, was running in the middle of the lane instead of the inside of the lane, which may have caused Felix to have to run farther outside in the lane, which may have led to her being impeded by the Brazilian athlete. That is a wonderful theory, but Felix was already on the outside of her lane, which is where she should be if the exchange is to be given comfortably in the middle of the zone. Bottom line, the Brazilian athlete clearly put her arm into the US’s lane, clearly impeded Felix, and all the rules were followed to allow the US to run in the final.
Side note, the US women were well coached, the US men were not. Allyson Felix’s coach told her before the relay to be sure to finish the race even if there was a problem, otherwise they would not be able to protest. Good thing her coach told her that, because Felix remembered it after their prelim disaster and had them finish the race. The US men, to the contrary, made a high school mistake and then showed during the interview they did not even understand the rules. Justin Gatlin on second leg not only started out too late (videos of their practices showed extremely “safe” handoffs), but put his hand back before he got to the exchange zone. All relay coaches should instruct their athletes not to reach their hand back until they are in the zone. The incoming run should be instructed not to make the exchange until the baton is in the zone. My teams have been DQed for passing before the zone. Mistakes are made. But during the post-race interview, while watching a video of the race, Mike Rodgers said, “I see that when he has possession of the stick, he’s inside the zone.” The video continues, showing Gatlin touching the baton before the zone, and Rodgers releasing the baton inside the zone. Upon seeing the baton being touched before the zone, Gatlin says, “It hasn’t left his hand yet.” Rodgers echoes that point, saying, “It hadn’t left my hand yet.” That does not matter though. The exchange is started when the outgoing runner touches the baton. That took place when the baton was not yet in the zone, so the US was rightfully disqualified. Mike Rodgers and Justin Gatlin apparently did not even know that rule, even though the US 4x100m Relay team was disqualified for that exact same reason in the 2009 World Championships! You would figured their coach, Dennis Mitchell, a former World Record holder and Olympic gold medalist in the event, would have let them know that rule. As it is, the US men have been disqualified in the 4x100m Relay in six of the last seven major championships.
Athletes running for different countries
The US women scored a historic 1-2-3 sweep in the 100m Hurdles, the first time in women’s Olympic history that the United States swept a Track & Field event. The US team was so hard to make in the 100m Hurdles that the World Record holder, Keni Harrison, placed sixth in the US Olympic Trials. Perhaps that is why athletes such as Cindy Ofili and her older sister Tiffany Porter, both born in Michigan, decided to compete for Great Britain (where their mother was born). Ofili and Porter finished 4-7, respectively, in the Olympic final. This meant that American-born athletes finished 1-2-3-4-7 in the Olympic 100m Hurdle final, even while the World Record holder (born in Tennessee) watched from home.
In the 5000m Run, 10,000m Run, 3000m Steeplechase and Marathon for the US men, only four of the eleven Olympic qualifiers were born in the United States. One was born in Somalia, one was born in Eritrea and five were born in Kenya. The divide on this issue is not necessarily between casual track fans and diehard track fans. But there is definitely a divide. Some believe it is wonderful that athletes get to compete in the Olympics for whatever country they choose (based on certain eligibility and citizenship requirements, of course). Others abhor the fact that athletes from another country are taking away spots that “should” be going to athletes born in that country. Basically, those people would rather see American-born athletes representing America in the Olympics. The message boards on letsrun.com are filled with such discussions.
But this issue has many factors. Hassan Mead, for example, moved to the United State in 2000 when he was just 11. Certainly his parents did not move to the US from Somalia thinking that their son would make the US Olympic team in the 5000m Run in 2016. Meb Keflezighi’s family came to the US as refugees from Eritrea in 1987, when Meb was 12. The Olympics were probably the last thing on the mind of the Keflezighi family as they escaped from their war-torn country. I cannot imagine anybody believing that athletes like Mead and Keflezighi have not earned the right to represent the United States (though some obviously do). The issue with the Kenyan athletes, however, is a little different.
I am not sure if you have heard, but Kenyans are pretty good at distance running (even though they somehow did not get any men into the Olympic 5000m Run final). Just this year, Kenya had 427 men run under the Olympic Marathon standard of 2:19:00. They had seven athletes with personal bests under 2:06 who were not selected to their 2016 Olympic Marathon team (no American-born athlete has ever run 2:06 on a ratified course). You can look up the rest of their history, if you have a few hours to spare. Obviously, making the Kenyan Olympic team is incredibly difficult. Bernard Lagat was born in Kenya, and even won Olympic medals for Kenya in the 1500m Run in both 2000 (bronze) and 2004 (silver). Since then, he has represented the United States. Amazingly, he made the US Olympic team in the 5000m Run this year at age 41. Perhaps switching citizenship to an “easier” country has prolonged his career. Some people may throw shade at Lagat, but he seems to truly love America, has lived in this country for 20 years, and is incredibly proud to represent the US.
Hillary Bor, Paul Chelimo, Shadrack Kipchirchir and Leonard Korir all followed similar paths to the US Olympic team. They were all born in Kenya, all came to the US on college running scholarships, and all gained US citizenship by joining the US Army. They each run for the US Army’s World Class Athlete Program. But make no doubt, they are soldiers. I am guessing that if most people knew the background of the “foreign” athletes representing the United States in the Olympics, they would be on the athletes’ side. Chelimo ended up getting second in the 5000m Run, was disqualified, but appealed and was quickly reinstated. To have a member of our Armed Forces on the Olympic medal stand should be a tremendous source of American pride.
If you have time, read these articles on African-born athletes representing other countries in the Olympics. Around 20 Kenyan-born athletes will represent other countries in these Olympics, just in Track & Field. Seven Ethiopian-born athletes will run for Bahrain. Many Nigerian-born athletes are choosing to represent other countries. Some countries literally pay athletes to represent them. Some athletes are turned away from their own countries not because the competition is too steep, but because their countries are extremely disorganized or corrupt, do not even pay for their travel to the Olympics, or will not allow them to compete in the Olympics if the higher-ups do not feel they will make the finals. Believe it or not, Canada‘s emphasis is on medals, not participation. Every four years, they have dozens of Olympic qualifiers who are simply kept home.
Unfortunately, Mo Farah, who with wins in the 10,000m Run and 5000m Run at two straight Olympics is making a solid case to be considered the greatest distance runner of all time, has “faced claims that he is not truly a British athlete” from his competitors and even his own countrymen. Though almost certainly not his intent, historic wins by an immigrant have plenty of political undertones for a country that recently exited the European Union.
Do not worry, I am not going to talk about whether you like Usain Bolt or not. Okay, I will just a little, but that is not the main issue here. Yes, Usain Bolt has a high opinion of himself. He dances, he showboats, he toys with competitors. Above all, he has supreme confidence. Wouldn’t you? The man has not lost a major championship since 2007, his only blemish being a false-start in the 2011 World Championships 100m Dash final. He holds World Records in the 100m Dash, 200m Dash and 4x100m Relay. He is the biggest track star in the world, and for a week or so every four years he is perhaps the most famous athlete on the planet. He has elevated our sport, and for that we should all be thankful. If I could meet one athlete, I would want to meet Usain Bolt. I am a bit of a fanboy, I will admit.
The news that Usain Bolt has apparently never run a full mile made the rounds this month. The reaction from sprinters and sprint coaches was a collective, “Well, duh.” I am generalizing here, but it seemed like non-track fans and distance runners thought that made Usain “lazy.” What would running a mile to do help an athlete who never runs a race longer than 20 seconds? Many people do not care. Those who do not like Bolt generally have an image of him being lazy, and the “he’s never even run a mile” narrative helps that perception of him. Yeah, Bolt begged his coach to let him run the 100m Dash because he did not like the 400m Dash training. Seems like that worked out pretty well for him.
Our last “argument” for this article is easily the silliest. Somehow, a lot of the general public (and even some of us hardcore track fans) seems to believe Usain Bolt has a bad start. A bad start? Are you kidding me? Using statistics and logic, one could make the case that Usain Bolt has the best start in the history of the world. At the very least, he is better out of the blocks than 99.9999999% of the people on the planet.
Other than the fact that he is 6’5″ and people just cannot believe a man that tall could accelerate well, the “bad start” stereotype has lingered because Bolt has come from behind in the 100m Dash to win his last few major championships. Is he stronger at the end of the race? Of course, but that does not mean his start is inadequate. No, Usain Bolt was not leading early in the 2016 Olympic 100m Dash final. But at the 30m mark (generally considered the end of the drive phase for world class sprinters), Bolt was in second place behind one of the greatest starters in track history, Justin Gatlin. If you were second in the world at something, would somebody consider you “bad” at it? Of course not.
Please consider the fact that nobody has covered ground from the gun to 20 meters faster than Usain Bolt. Ever. Ben Johnson was seen as an amazing starter (steroids probably helped). In the 1988 Olympic 100m Dash final, he bolted from the blocks and immediately grabbed a commanding lead he would never relinquish. His split through 20 meters was 2.87 seconds. Bolt’s split in the 2008 Olympic 100m Dash final? 2.87 seconds. Discounting reaction time, Bolt was actually faster than Johnson through 10 meters (1.69 to 1.70). In Bolt’s still-standing World Record race from the 2009 World Championships, he was a little slower for the first 10 meters of the race (1.89 to 1.87, including reaction time), but covered the second 10 meters in under a second, splitting 0.99. As far as I know, that has never been done before. Nobody has ever run from the gun to 30 meters in 3.78 seconds before either. Bolt has done it twice (2008 and 2009).
True, the “worst” part of Bolt’s 100m Dash is his start. But he is the best in world history at the top speed phase and the deceleration phase. Usain Bolt has an absolutely incredible start. Please do not let anybody tell you differently.
I would like to thank the rest of the world for sharing our wonderful sport with us this past week. Please do not forget about us for the next four years.
You can follow Lake Forest Track & Field on Twitter at @LFHStrack.