Rio 2016: American Distance Revival

Rio Olympics Athletics

United States’ Matthew Centrowitz celebrates as he crosses the finish line ahead of Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, left, and New Zealand’s Nicholas Willis, right, to win the men’s 1500-meter final during the athletics event during the Summer Olympics at Olympic stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)


“Are you f***ing kidding me?!!”
                                          – Matt Centrowitz Sr.

It’s the first day of Life After the Rio Olympics and so far, my withdrawal symptoms aren’t too bad. It’s true that when I sat down at the computer this morning, my first instinct was to bring up the IAAF web site and check the daily schedule of events, but I was able to stifle that impulse, as well as the impulse to visit LetsRun to see what hundreds of message board posters had to say about Galen Rupp’s hat changes during the marathon.

I also realized that in spite of having low expectations for the Track and Field program, I had been drawn in completely and in the end had thoroughly enjoyed the events I was able to watch live. There were probably many reasons for this, and certainly the excitement of world records was one of them. But another reason I was glued to the screen was unexpected performance of American distance runners. Of course, it would have been an extraordinary ten days with or without the U.S. team, but the American distance revival was a huge emerging story, with result after surprising result in events where the U.S. hasn’t ever been a factor before.

Whatever you think about individual runners (and coaches), and whatever cynicism you harbor for NOP, USATF, or the sport in general, the collective performance of the U.S. men and women was a shock. Twenty years ago in Atlanta, the U.S. failed to win a medal in any distance event. That lack of success was repeated four years later in Sydney. It wasn’t until 2004 that Deena Kastor and a young man named Meb Keflezighi broke through, earning bronze and silver medal, respectively, in the marathon in Athens, that a glimmer of light appeared on the U.S. distance running horizon.

In 2016, the U.S. won seven medals in distance events, equaling the number of medals won in the previous SIX Olympiads (see table).

Medal Table

Olympic medals won by U.S. distance runners, 1992-2016.

While Matt Centrowitz’ gold medal in the 1500m was perhaps the most glittering of the bunch, the other podium performances were all noteworthy in their own way. Emma Coburn earned the first-ever U.S. medal in the women’s steeplechase with her bronze medal performance, and with his silver, Evan Jager earned the first U.S. medal in the steeple in 32 years. Clayton Murphy’s bronze in the 800 capped a remarkable season for the 21-year-old, who began the year as a 1:45 runner and ended it as the third fastest American in history. Jenny Simpson became the first American woman ever to medal at the Olympics in the 1500m, and Paul Chelimo’s silver in the 5000m (challenging Mo Farah down the stretch!) was the first medal for the U.S. in that event since Bob Schul won gold in 1964.

And then there was the men’s marathon.

I watched the final twenty minutes of race on my phone, while pretending to stretch in the parking lot of the Battle Road Visitor’s Center.

And in spite of the tiny screen and the strange looks from the tourists, it was great. There were no commercials to interrupt and trivialize the struggles of the competitors, just a continuous video stream using multiple cameras and cuts to show the relative positions of the top six or seven runners. The BBC commentary was wonderful, full of well-informed praise for each of the runners, as well as lively speculation about the chances one or another athlete would overtake or be overtaken.

Whatever I felt about Alberto Salazar and the controversy around the Nike Oregon Project, I had no reservations about cheering for Galen Rupp, as he fought through the fatigue brought on by a cracking 14:25 5K from 30 to 35K to hold on to third place.

But the final image from the marathon, and indeed, from the Olympics themselves, was that of Meb Keflezhigi slipping at the finish line – oh, no! – and then instinctively saving the moment and turning the gasps to cheers by doing three quick, if somewhat soggy push-ups, and then getting to his feet.

Rio Olympics Athletics Men

U.S. Mebrahtom Keflezighi exercises after completing the marathon men’s marathon at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

I decided that Meb’s final memorable show of strength was the perfect allegory for the long trek out of the wilderness for U.S. distance running. After all, it had been Meb’s silver in 2004 (and Kastor’s bronze) that broke the twelve-year medal drought. Although he had just missed another medal in London, he had been the one to claim wins in New York and Boston, becoming the first American in a generation to break through in those races.

So even though Meb had the lowest finish of the six American competitors in the marathon, he still seemed to represent the return to legitimacy and relevance of the US. squad. Perhaps the final surprise for me was to realize that when measured by the performance of their top three, both the and women won the unofficial Olympic Marathon team competition.  The U.S. women — Shalane Flanagan, Desi Linden, and Amy Cragg — had all finished in the top ten. On Sunday, Rupp (3rd), Jared Ward (s surprising 6th), and Meb (33rd) were nearly as good.

And I would remiss not to heap praise on Rupp, who earned that bronze medal and in so doing, joined a very exclusive club of runners who earned Olympic medals in both the 10K and marathon (see table). But even though he had the lowest finish, Meb was there, slipping but then recovering and doing that quintessential gym class show of strength, the push-up to show he was alright after all.

Runners with Olympic medals from both the 10K and Marathon

Albin Stenroos   Finland
Emil Zatopek     Czechoslovakia
Alain Mimoun     France
Mamo Wolde       Ethiopia
Carlos Lopes     Portugal
Galen Rupp       United States


So, good for Rupp and good for the U.S. But in the end, the medal count is a superficial measure of the success of U.S. distance running. What’s really exciting is the feeling that it’s possible to compete again, and that is, or ought to be, a universal feeling. If the U.S. with its softness and its privelege, can find meaning in the type of training required to be good at the marathon, then surely anyone from any country can do the same.

I think it’s the great paradox of the Olympics that it both encourages nationalistic fervor and seems always to reveal even more forcefully a common bond among athletes and nations. Cheering for YOUR country and for the effort required to compete for the medals somehow makes it easier to cheer for runners from all countries because it increases one’s awareness of how much sacrifice is required to even be in the conversation.

I try not to be too romantic about it, because there’s plenty about the Olympics that seems bloated and corrupt. But maybe Monsieur de Coubertin was on to something when he expressed this wish:

“May joy and good fellowship reign, and in this manner, may the Olympic Torch pursue its way through ages, increasing friendly understanding among nations, for the good of a humanity always more enthusiastic, more courageous and more pure.”

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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