The showdowns that captured our attention—and that are going to shape next season—as the biggest track meet in the world approaches
With the close the IAAF’s final Diamond League meet last Friday in Brussels, the summer track and field season has officially come to an end. For American athletes, there were highs—Aston Eaton improving his own decathlon world record (45.00 for the 400!!!) to win his second world championship title—and there were lows—we’re looking at you, men’s 4X100 relay team. Before turning our attention to the fall marathon season, we offer a few Team USA takeaways for from this summer’s action on the track, and what to expect at next year’s Olympic games in Rio.
Nick Symmonds vs. USATF: The final showdown?
In the lead up to the world championships in Beijing, the story was all about Nick Symmonds. By refusing to sign USATF’s “Statement of Conditions,” which he alleged was unfair to athletes who had sponsorship deals with non-USATF affiliated companies (i.e. companies that are not Nike) the American 800-meter champion forfeited his spot on the U.S. national team. The question is: what happens next year? Assuming Symmonds earns another spot on the U.S. team, will he go so far as to boycott the Olympics if USATF produces another, as he put it, “dog turd of a contract”? Of course, the International Olympic Committee has its regulations on how athletes are allowed to promote their sponsors during the games (although the strictest rule, Rule 40, has been relaxed), so Mr. Symmonds will likely have his hands full, both on and off the track.
Jennifer Simpson vs. Shannon Rowbury
Finally! Two stellar American middle distance runners who don’t even pretend to like each other. As we’ve said before, nothing benefits a sport like a proper rivalry, and Jennifer Simpson vs. Shannon Rowbury is one of the best in track at the moment. The top two American 1500-meter runners have already had a number of epic duels, like that race in Zurich last year which culminated in both of them diving over the line (Simpson won by .001 seconds). In 2015, Simpson took the U.S. title, while Rowbury broke Mary Decker’s 31-year-old American record when she ran 3:56.29 in Monaco. After the latter race, Simpson, who finished forth behind her fellow American, said, “This is a major disappointment . . . Shannon hasn’t beaten me in years.” (Rowbury’s subsequent response: “We went back and forth in 2012. I made the Olympic final and placed sixth there and she didn’t even make the final.”) Last weekend, Simpson and Rowbury competed twice to close out their respective seasons; in the Diamond League finale in Brussels on Friday Rowbury was 3rd and Simpson 4th, while in the NYRR Fifth Avenue Mile on Sunday in New York, Simpson won and Rowbury was the runner up. Barring injury, the 2016 Olympics should see these two runners at the height of their athletic careers and battling for a spot on the podium.
Can Evan Jager Do the Impossible?
Kenya, as everyone knows, is a distance running powerhouse, but there is only one track event that the East African nation has truly dominated in recent decades: the men’s steeplechase. They have won gold in the event at eight consecutive Olympics. Of the last 24 Olympic medals awarded, 17 have gone to Kenya. And yet, the second fastest steeplechase time of 2015 was run by none other than Evan Jager, the flaxen-haired, occasional “man bun”-sporting American who competes for Bowerman Track Club. At the July 4 Diamond League meet in Paris, Jager ran 8:00.45, setting a U.S. record and running the 13th fastest time ever. And he could have run several seconds faster. Carrying a good 10-meter lead into the home straight, and having left the entire world-class field in his wake, Jager’s legs buckled as he came down off the final hurdle. After he crashed to the ground, Jarius Kipchoge Birech passed him with less than one forth of a lap to go to record the year’s only sub-8 effort. For Jager, it was a disastrous finish to an otherwise impeccable race but, at age 26, he is still getting better.
USA 4X100: Room for Improvement
“This Used To Be My Playground” may be a maudlin Madonna hit single from the ‘90s, but it could just as easily be the theme song to the U.S. men’s 4X100 relay team. All the way up until the 1992 Olympics, i.e. the end of the Carl Lewis era, the U.S. was always the team to beat. Then things started to go wrong. From botched handoffs to subsequent doping DQs, the American men have repeatedly failed to deliver in an event they once owned, with only one Olympic gold medal since that “Fantastic Four” set a world record in Barcelona in 1992. The rise of the Jamaican sprint machine surely has something to do with that, but you can’t blame Usain Bolt and co. for the fact that the latest handoff debacle in Beijing was the seventh time in the last eleven world championships that the U.S. was either eventually disqualified or failed to finish in the 4X100. Unless Bolt is once again mowed down by a rogue Segway, Jamaica will be the relay favorite next year in Rio. For the Team USA, however, the main competitor to be concerned about will be itself.