Jamaicans dazzled us all
BEIJING—With a solid haul of 23 medals in track and field (seven gold, nine silver and seven bronze), it’s hard to consider what the U.S. team did here a failure. But contrasted with the stunning achievements of Usain Bolt and his countrymen, it’s obvious: These were the Jamaican Olympics.
While the United States lacked its usual confidence and turned in its lowest total of golds since 1992, Jamaica came out firing and never looked back, leaving the world slack-jawed at having witnessed speeds never before reached by man.
With those performances in mind, here’s how I score the winners and losers from the Beijing Games:
Usain Bolt: What he did at these Games is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen an athlete do. I don’t know what to say except “Wow!”
Everyone has been waiting for Bolt to ascend to this level since he was a 15-year-old phenom, and until last year he seemed satisfied with his own hype. But he got serious, got a new coach and got focused, and his dedication paid off with gold medals in the 100-meter sprint, the 200 and the 4x100 relay.
Bolt is a freak of nature, plain and simple. He’s already an all-time great, and he just turned 22. He has a long and bright future in track and field.
Jamaican sprinters: The Jamaicans were so good, they deserve to be mentioned twice. Bolt was scintillating, but his teammates were just as impressive. Only a botched handoff in the women’s 4x100 relay kept the Jamaicans from sweeping the six sprint events.
Jamaica’s pride is its sprinters. Half of them have gone through the U.S. system, have benefited from American coaching and know they can beat the U.S. athletes.
This is their time. It’s great for Jamaica and has given the U.S. sprinters a dose of humility. Maybe it will make us realize that success is not a given. Not unlike in basketball, the rest of the world is catching up and we have to bring our best to win.
The U.S. 4x400 relay teams: Merritt also teamed up with Wariner, David Neville and Angelo Taylor to get a gold medal in the 4x400 relay in Olympic-record time. Their female counterparts—Mary Wineberg, Monique Henderson, Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards—turned in the type of superb runs that were expected in their individual sprint events to give the United States a 1,600-meter relay sweep.
Brian Clay: The decathlon is still a true test of athletic greatness, and Clay dominated the field, even as he took it easy in the final event (the 1,500).
Stephanie Brown Trafton: For Team USA to medal in women’s discus is unheard of. Brown Trafton threw the same distance she normally throws and the other women were not throwing near their personal best. That shows the effect of drug testing.
U.S. sprinters: They leave Beijing having gone 0-for-6 in the sprints—the men’s and women’s 100s, 200s and 400 relays, including botched exchanges in both the men’s and women’s 400 relay heats, leaving Tyson Gay with nothing to show for the Games.
For Gay to recover from this will be a story in itself. All people will remember is that he did not do well here.
But it wasn’t just Gay. There is enough blame to go around, and changes will likely follow. It would help if personal coaches could be more involved. They know the athletes best, yet they have no access during the games.
This is a wake-up call for USA Track & Field. Their confidence is completely demoralized. They now realize they have to send their A-plus team with A-plus talent.
Jeremy Wariner: A gold in the 1,600 relay allowed a bit of redemption, but the 400 was his race to win, and he seemed to be affected by the pressure. His personal best of 43.49 is almost three-tenths of a second better than Merritt’s winning time of 43.75. Wariner did not run his race; he got distracted from his mission and it cost him. The Olympics is not a track meet; it’s an event, and handling the pressure of the spotlight is paramount.
Lolo Jones: She had the 100 hurdles won but took her eye off the goal to glance at herself on the National Stadium Jumbotron, and that’s all it took for her to hit the second-to-last hurdle and lose the gold medal. The helpless feeling of tumbling to the track will stick with her for the rest of her life.
Bernard Lagat: Lagat, a native Kenyan who’s the reigning world champion in the 1,500 and 5,000, left Beijing empty-handed in his first Olympics representing the United States. He finished ninth in the 5,000 after failing to make the 1,500 final.
U.S. men’s shot-putters: They have three of the top throwers in the world, and only Christian Cantwell could find the podium. Adam Nelson and Reese Hoffa should have been up there with him. There’s no reason they should not have gotten a medal, other than maybe the U.S. trials were too close to the Games. Ideally, they’d be about two months before the Olympics, and the trials allowed competitors only about five weeks to recover and retrain.
Liu Xiang: Liu’s injury at the start of the 110-meter hurdle semifinals disappointed a lot of people, 1.3 billion Chinese and major corporate sponsors among them. Liu might have been a fringe medal contender—he had little chance of dethroning world-record holder Dayron Robles of Cuba and would have been battling Americans David Payne and David Oliver for silver or bronze—but he deserved to be able to compete in front of his countrymen.