Three days in, The U.S. Olympic Track and Feld Trials is reminding us all why it’s the most exciting, dramatic, and poignant track event of the quadrennium. Unlike the Olympics and World Championships, which are all about medal counts and wrapping victorious athletes in body-sized national flags, the trials are about the realization – or the frustration — of a lifetime of dreaming. The emotions on display at the trials are so raw and real, that we almost have to turn away in embarrassment, except that we can’t turn away because the athletes and their stories are so compelling that we want to follow them to whatever bitter or sweet end is in store.
I’ve been watching and following the trials via the live stream on usatf.tv, and then grudgingly turning on the NBC coverage for the “prime time” events. The live streaming is great, if you have the time. Yesterday I watched almost all of the men’s decathlon pole vault competition. That might sound boring, but it was actually quite riveting, knowing the relative positions of the athletes in the overall standings, their personal bests in the event, and what they had to gain or lose with each attempt. It helped tremendously that the results web site was highly informative (for example, with each athlete’s stats), and updated in real time. It also helped that the announcers for the live stream knew what they were talking about most of the time.
The NBC broadcast was what it usually was. It’s a shame that NBC settles for a tired formula that irks its more passionate viewers, and it’s a shame that they still have not figured out that showing only short races in full, and covering distance races and field events with only the highlights is obnoxious. But even NBC’s casual bone-headedness and Tom Hammond’s unforced errors (he referred to Vashti Cunningham as Randall Cunningham’s “son,” and called Eugene’s iconic track facility “Hayward Stadium”…) failed to spoil the excitement for me.
One of the things I like best about the Trials is that it’s all about making the team, and the cruel reality that you must finish in the top three or go home makes for some harrowing and heartbreaking moments. For example, Allyson Felix, who is perhaps the most successful sprinter in U.S. history, entered the trials slightly lame from an ankle injury. If anyone ought to be given a few more weeks to heal and rehabilitate with a pass into the Olympics, it would be Felix, the 2015 World Champion at 400m. But of course, that’s not how we do it here in the U.S.A., and she had to earn her place on the team like anyone else.
And what did she do? After surviving a first round that left in her in what she described as “immense pain,” and a slightly better semi-final, she ran a technically and strategically perfect race in the final to win yet another U.S. title with a world-leading time of 49.67. “Anyone can run well when everything is going their way,” commented Bolden, “but how do you run when you’re tested?” In one of his few lucid moments, Hammond summed up the scene with a simple statement that captured the awe at watching Felix go from third to first in the final sixty meters: “It’s brilliant to watch a champion at work.” Amen.
At 30, Felix is still on top of the world, but the Trials are also a farewell meet for former champions who are almost certainly giving it their last shot, knowing their time on the big stage is likely past. Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross DNF’d in her heat of the 400m, and is retiring. Another Olympic champion, Jeremy Wariner didn’t make it out of the semis, although he hopes to continue running. Tyson Gay finished 5th in the 100m finals and failed to make the team. 41-year-old Bernard Lagat dropped out of the 10K, but has a shot in the 5000. 41-year-old Amy Acuff failed to qualify for the high jump final, and so will not make her 6th Olympic team.
And as the old generation departs, a new class of younger athletes arrives on the scene. Trayvon Bromell and Marvin Bracy, English Gardner, Phyllis Francis, Vashti Cunnigham, and on and on.
Over the years, I’ve become more and more disenchanted with the Olympics. But the one thing I can say for them is that if there were no Olympics, there would be no Olympic Trials, and if there were no trials, the track and field world would lose its most thrilling and agonizing meet.