The Morning Run is back after a brief Olympic hiatus. As Jason said on this week’s podcast, with the end of competition in London, track and field now regains its usual position of obscurity. While I hope for some new interest, the reality is that the brief bump that niche sports like track enjoy after a major showcase will soon subside until the build up for Rio 2016 begins.
But it wasn’t for lack of effort. For nine days of competition in London, track and field threw everything it had at the general public. The big names performed, the great fields materialized and the theoretical storylines became actual storylines.
Not only did Usain Bolt defend his 100-meter title, but he did it against his upstart teammate and in the deepest 100-meter field of all-time. The three fastest men in history behind Bolt all made the final and they pushed him just enough to raise the race from an exhibition of his brilliance to a competition. He then returned twice more to set the crowd on fire. The narrative about the ubiquitous Sanya Richards-Ross and Allyson Felix going for their first individual gold medals was realized and they did so by beating their closest rivals.
There were even records. Records in unlikely places too. I don’t think the casual fan knows how hard it is to break a world record in a distance race in the Olympics, but David Rudisha did it effortlessly. Ditto with breaking a women’s world record of any kind. Yet, the American quartet in the 4 x 100 meter relay took one down. Sure, a couple tenths off of Bolt’s times and a couple more world records would have helped, but the Olympic competition checked off so many boxes, you would have thought it was scripted:
Hometown heroes that sent the crowd into a tizzy? Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis did that. Inspiring athlete that captivates the masses? Oscar Pistorius was all over it. Unbelievable story that is equal parts crazy and inspiring? Manteo Mitchell running the last 200 meters of his 400-meter relay leg with a broken fibula so his team could advance to the finals.
The disappointing and frustrating moments that bring home “the agony of defeat”? How about Liu Xiang hopping to the finish line after rupturing his Achilles tendon or Morgan Uceny slamming her hands on the track after she once again fell in a major competition. The cannibalization of an American hurdle darling? Well, maybe not this last one, but even the dust-up involving Lolo Jones, Kellie Wells and Dawn Harper enhanced rather than distracted the coverage of the meet. All of the disappointing and frustrating made for compelling viewing and the typical controversy or off-the-track headline-grabber never succeeded in moving the story away from the track.
In July, the buzz coming out the Olympic Trials centered around the dead heat between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh in the 100. Mainstream antagonism shifted from the USATF (when it became known that they did not have a policy to break ties) to Jeneba Tarmoh herself when she declined to take part in the primetime run off. Last year in the world championships, Bolt’s false start heard ‘round the world took the spotlight. Two years prior, it was the gender controversy around Caster Semenya at the world championships that drew the interest of sports talk radio. Recently, track could be counted on for waiting until the world is watching before shooting themselves squarely in the foot.
I waited for the same to happen in London, but nothing came.
Aside from the few cases of doping and suspected doping (I agree that few is still too many for track and field), there was nothing that overshadowed the athletes, the events and their performances. It was hard for even the most disinterested Olympic viewer to not become enthralled with track and field in London 2012.
But that was almost one week ago. Once the games ended, the conversations around track moved slowly away from the competition. First comparisons of Bolt to Michael Phelps, then Bolt to Carl Lewis and finally of Bolt to a college football player who claims he could run faster than the fastest man on earth. This last item signifies the final stop on the track and field popularity cycle. The strange sports purgatory of only being mentioned in relation to other sports or whenever something extraordinarily good (a Bolt world record) or extraordinarily bad happens (large-scale doping), is where it will rest for the next 3 ½ years. Until we pick it back up again.