U.S. Track Stars Vie for Spots on Olympic Team This weekend, on historic Hayward Field in Oregon, the country's best sprinters, runners and field athletes complete for a slot in the Beijing games. Runner's World editor Amby Burfoot previews the action.
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U.S. Track Stars Vie for Spots on Olympic Team

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U.S. Track Stars Vie for Spots on Olympic Team

U.S. Track Stars Vie for Spots on Olympic Team

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

This weekend, in Eugene, Oregon, the fastest, highest jumping and farthest metal-ball throwing Americans gather for the U.S. Olympic track & field team trials. The athletes that come out on top win the right to compete in the clean Beijing air in August. Friend of the BPP, Amby Burfoot of Runner's World Magazine, joins us now to preview all of the action in Eugene. Amby.

Mr. AMBY BURFOOT (Executive Director, Runner's World Magazine): Hey, how are you?

MARTIN: We are well. Hayward Field is where these trials are taking place. This is a city with a long running history. Explain why they call it Track Town U.S.A.

Mr. BURFOOT: It does have a long running history. A history that really burned brightest in the 1960s, when Bill Bowerman produced some great running teams there, and shortly thereafter, a pair of running shoes that he made on his waffle iron...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURFOOT: Now known as Nike. And of course, Steve Prefontaine was running at Hayward in the 1970s, and he was half runner/half man/half God-legend of track.

MARTIN: And people, I mean, they still go bonkers for running as a result of Prefontaine. I mean, that city - you can't go there and not see someone running through even abysmal weather.

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, it's really true. And this time of year, the weather is quite outstanding, actually, and we're all looking forward to go there and run on Prefontaine's trail during the day, perhaps visit the site where he unfortunately died, and then go to just a track meet in the evening, which I'm quite confident will be the greatest track meet ever held on American soil, bar the Olympics, I guess.

MARTIN: Big words, Amby. Big words.

Mr. BURFOOT: Yeah.

MARTIN: Explain why these are supposed to be so exciting, so competitive.

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, they're so competitive because it's the Olympic trials, and they - many people around the world think that the U.S. Olympic track trials is in some ways more spectacular even than the Olympic, because of the fact that there is so much talent in this country. Everybody trains for four years to get to the big game, and yet you can't go unless you pass through the trials, and only three will make it. So, there's three people feeling the joy of victory, and more than that, feeling a lot of emotional loss for all the effort they've put in.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the American potential here. American runners still aren't winning major races, but they're coming closer than they've been since East African runners came to dominance in the '80s, right? Is this an authentic resurgence that we're seeing?

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, it is, of course, and we're talking now about the distance running, because the U.S. sprinters are better than anybody in the world, frankly, with a few exceptions. But it's the distance runners that are most at home in Hayward Field, the ones who will be understood and applauded the loudest, and they are making up ground, and they are getting closer, and we can hope for some medals when we get to that nice, clean-air Olympics in Beijing...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So the first final, I understand, is the women's 10,000 meters, and for years, there's been one name in women's distance running in the U.S. Deena Kastor is her name. Now, there are a couple of new names on the horizon, I understand, Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher?

Mr. BURFOOT: Both of them are world-class, and that leaves all the other women running for the crucial third spot. Shalene Flanagan set an American record earlier this year, and interestingly enough, in the early '70s, her mother was the first woman on Earth to run under two hours and 50 minutes in a marathon. So she's got real pedigree.

MARTIN: OK, let's go over to the men's side now. The race watch has got to be the 1500. Bernard Lagat, formerly of Kenya, now of the United States, won gold at the World Championships last year. This is his first trials as an American. What can we expect for him?

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, we expect him to make the team in the 1500 meters, and perhaps also in the 5000 meters, and he actually won both events last year in the World Championships. But the big story is of course, the meteoric, up-and-down career of Alan Webb, who has been a miling sensation in this country it seems like a long time. He's actually only 25, I believe. But he has good years and bad years, and so far this year, he hasn't been on his game yet, so there's a lot of tension whether Alan Webb will come through at the trials.

MARTIN: Are there other races that we should be keeping an eye out for this weekend?

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, everybody is going to be looking at the sprints because that is where we will get the most medals when it gets to Beijing. So we're talking about Jeremy Wariner, in the 400 meters, and he's got some strong competition this year. And of course, the male 100 and 200 meter runner Tyson Gay. Lot of people were counting on him to get two or more gold medals in Beijing this summer, but now suddenly some young Jamaicans are running very, very fast, so he's going to have to put some good marks on the track in Oregon to let everyone know he's on top of his game.

MARTIN: Now, two of the biggest stars that will be participating in these trials, are immigrants. We mentioned Lagat from Kenya. Also Abdi Abdirahman, he's a favorite in the 10,000 meter, the man they call the Black Cactus, which is a pretty awesome nickname.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURFOOT: It is.

MARTIN: He's from Somalia. Does everyone embrace them as part of the American team? Or is there some inside resentment, maybe that they're outsiders in some way?

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, I certainly hope that we all embrace them because, you know, we are the melting-pot nation, and nobody gets instant citizenship. These guys had to wait in line like everybody else for many years. Most of them have lived in this country for 10 years or longer, if not since childhood, and you know, they're as fully-fledged Americans as the Irish or Italian family on the block next door. They are a new phenomenon in American distance running. Some of them do come with a background of the East African nations, and whatever that is, it does seem to give them a leg up, shall we say, in the distance-running events.

MARTIN: Amby, can you just quickly - I understand it's kind of confusing, but explain the selection process a little bit. It's different, I understand, from how other countries select their teams.

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, the major difference is that the U.S. has long believed in a trial by fire, which is you have to go Eugene, you have to finish in the top three or you don't go to the Olympics. And that's true even if everyone knows you're the fastest man in the world, if you're the reigning Olympic champion, if you hold the world record - nothing gets you a free pass to Beijing.

Most of the other countries, not all of them but most, will say, hey listen, if you are the fastest guy in the world, we want you in the Olympics. We don't want you to trip in a trial, so we're just going to put you on the team and too bad for everybody else that they're not as fast as you. This just serves to make the trials the incredibly dramatic event that it is. Everybody, no matter what their qualifications, they've got to reprove themselves at the trials.

MARTIN: Amby Burfoot of Runner's World Magazine, walking us through the details of this weekend's U.S. Olympic team, track & field Olympic team trials. Thanks as always, Amby.

Mr. BURFOOT: Thank you very much, Rachel.

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