Eight years ago in Eugene the men’s 800m final was the defining race of the U.S. Track and Field Trials. It’s stretch run showcased all that was right and electrifying about the sport as three Oregon locals stormed down the Hayward Field track to earn berths on the team heading to Beijing. No stadium in track had ever been as thunderous. Even the heart-broken fourth-place finisher Khadevis Robinson showed the heart and dignity of a true champion though he failed to make the team.
Today, two days of rest loom in Eugene after the opening four days of competition at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, giving the rabid Hayward Field fans a chance to rest their weary throats and salve their pounded palms. But it also allows two more days to analyze the What-Ifs of what surely promises to be the defining race of these 2016 Trials, the women’s 800m final.
Anyone who has ever run the 800 knows that it’s like walking a tight rope. You’re high on your stride, vulnerable to any break in rhythm, no margin for error especially in the last 150 when lactic acid is coagulating like tar, space is limited and hearts are at full gallop. In the panic, frenzy and fatigue of a closely contested final racers jostle, feet get clipped, and entire bodies and dreams can come crashing down. It is part of what makes trials’ racing so utterly compelling.
Yesterday in the women’s 800 Trials’ final Alysia Montano put on a Golden Raspberry Award worthy performance down the homestretch. Unfortunately for the Cal grad her over-the-top performance wasn’t athletic as she had tripped and fallen on the Bowerman curve in the last 150 meters of a highly competitive race and had to watch helplessly as her chances to make a second Olympic team disappeared down the track.
In the devastating immediacy of her crash, her reaction – shrieking and crying and collapsing multiple times along the track – came across as more than a little petulant, like she had been the odds-on favorite who got robbed, which she wasn’t. The other victim of the incident, Brenda Martinez, was also heart-broken, but she handled her disappointment with class, saying afterwards to the media, ‘that’s racing. It happens”, which is true.
Of course, Martinez still has the 1500 to run, though her chances there are not nearly as good as they were in the 8.
But after reading all the reactions to Montano’s tear-fest meltdown, and then seeing her own explanation as to why she was so histrionic, I can appreciate her frustration a lot better, though I still think her homestretch performance had a little too much James Brown in it for my taste.
See, that wasn’t just one race lost, one last opportunity to earn an Olympic medal. That fall represented all that has violated this sport over the last generation, all the corruption and mendacity that, like the body parts washing ashore on the Rio de Janeiro beaches, has tainted what was once a grand sport of worthy men and women, many of whom could be seen walking the grounds of the University of Oregon this week with Legacy Athlete passes around their necks.
“I’m missing three medals, and eight years of my life as a professional runner…has been a farce, basically,” Montano said in the aftermath. “And now everyone’s talking about how the Russians aren’t running in the Olympics but they’re missing the whole point that the IAAF is a corrupt institution that’s still running the game for us professional athletes.
“I’m trying not to take that anger with me to today…and still trying to be in this sport, basically, with knowing who’s running the show has been using us all along and doesn’t really care about our well-being. That’s why it’s been an emotional struggle for me. And I’m here because of the fans of the sport and they care about us as individuals and don’t really care at the end of the day if you do win a medal or not.”
From my reading of the 800 final, it looked like Brenda Martinez was poised to win with eventual winner Kate Grace and runner up Ajee Wilson joining her on the Olympic team. But who really knows? We have watched Alysia Montano race for many a year. She is the ultimate front-runner, and was again yesterday.
But once Alysia gets caught and swallowed up, as she was both in the semi-final and yesterday’s final (and any number of international competitions), she has never proven to be a fast closer. She’s a hold-on type. And after a 57.45 opening 400, holding on was what it looked like she would have had left yesterday. But at least it would have been hers to win or lose with an unfettered stretch run – though the fettering was due, in part, to her own doing.
So yes, her emotions may have been over-wrought and her reaction over-indulged, but she had been rubbed raw for years in the face of all the lies and corruption allowed and fostered by the false powers that run this now-filthy game. And when considered alongside the sacrifices made by Alysia and other athletes who mortgage their futures for the Olympic promise so few can fully attain, you just wonder when someone, anyone, will finally DQ all the frauds who continue control the sport as it continues to stumble and fall from what was once a lofty height. But that might take more than two rest days to figure out.