What Went Wrong For The U.S. Track Team
JACKI LYDEN, host:
The U.S. track team has had a good day - at last - at the Beijing Olympics. Both the American men and women won the 4x400 relays today. The men set an Olympic record and the double victory restored at least a little pride among U.S. sprinters who've had a rough time in Beijing.
Rough enough that the new head of USA Track and Field to promise major changes before the next Summer Games.
NPR's Tom Goldman has the story from Beijing.
TOM GOLDMAN: Great expectations - there were plenty when the U.S. Track and Field team landed in China. Even average Beijingers knew about America's penchant for speed. People on the street would say to U.S. tourists and journalists just wait for the track competition; you guys will clean up.
But as the second week of the Games unfolded, it was obvious the Americans couldn't find their brooms.
Ms. SANYA RICHARDS (U.S. Track Runner): I am very disappointed.
GOLDMAN: Sanya Richards was the gold medal favorite in the women's 400 meters and finished third.
Ms. RICHARDS: Like someone told me, success is a journey. So, I'll just continue along my journey, keep working hard and hopefully get some gold medals in the future.
GOLDMAN: She got one today with a gritty final 400 meters in the women's relay. Richards caught and passed he Russian opponent down the stretch for a redemptive victory. Indeed, America has carved out a niche here in Beijing as a 400-meter nation. Before today's relay victories, the U.S. won eight of 12 possible medals in all of the races in Beijing covering 400 meters.
But on either side of that lucky number, not much. Above, the U.S. simply can't break the Ethiopians/Kenyan stranglehold on the longer distances. Below 400 is the real trouble spot.
Unidentified Man: And next on the track our final event of the evening, final of tonight's 4x100 meter.
GOLDMAN: Since 1920, American men had won a medal in the 4x100 relay in every Olympics but three. Thursday night made it four. The U.S. didn't even get to Thursday's final because two Americans botched the baton handoff in a preliminary heat. Incredibly, it happened to the U.S. women the same night.
Among those cringing in the stands was new USA Track and Field CEO Doug Logan.
Mr. DOUG LOGAN (CEO, USA Track and Field): I can imagine the number of groans of high school athletes and coaches when they saw those batons drop. For them, that's just verboten in their sport, and they're saying this is something simple, this is something we do all the time. Why can't they make a legal pass in this, the most important competition of their lives?
GOLDMAN: Logan also wants to know this: what happened in the American's signature events - the men's and women's 100 meters? The one-word answer: Jamaica.
(Soundbite of announcement over PA system)
GOLDMAN: That announcement was like a broken record at the Bird's Nest all week. Led by Usain Lightning Bolt, Jamaica won the men's and women's 100 meters - swept the medals in the women's race. And it prompted Doug Logan to ask a Jamaican track official yet another question: what are you guys doing right?
Mr. LOGAN: And he said, you know, it's been labor of 12 years. They had a 12-year plan.
GOLDMAN: Which is much longer than Logan wants to take. With an eye on the 2012 Olympics in London, he wants U.S. track back on the right track. It will start, he says, with an exhaustive exploration of what needs changing in U.S. elite track programs.
Mr. LOGAN: Could be training methods; it could be the systems that we developed these athletes in; it could be coaching.
GOLDMAN: And it could be a matter of making elite track and field a more appealing destination for the country's best young athletes. The sport's reputation has suffered mightily in recent years - from near-constant doping scandals. Also, critics say, from a lack of vision.
Logan wants track and field to have more of a yearly rhythm, like many other American sports.
Mr. LOGAN: We have a hodgepodge lodge of event - some of them ad hoc with irregular television. You never know quite where to find it. There's nothing episodic about it. There isn't one leading to another leading to another leading to a final.
GOLDMAN: So, while the Jamaican track stars dance out of Beijing, the Americans head home determined to change for the better. Round one, says Logan, went to the Jamaicans. If his master plan works, it could be the U.S. frolicking after the races in London.
Tom Goldman, NPR News, Beijing.