Symmonds, Wheating and Smith (diving) make 2008 800m team.
Symmonds, Wheating and Smith (diving) make 2008 800m team.

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.

Montano in meltdown
Montano in meltdown

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.

James Brown, "Please Don't Go!"
James Brown, “Please, Please, Please!”

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.”

Kate Grace, Ajee Wilson and Chrishuna Williams, 2016 Olympians at 800m
Kate Grace, Chrishuna Williams, and Ajee Wilson – 2016 Olympians at 800m

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.


14 thoughts on “IN THE WAKE OF THE WOMEN’S 800

  1. Toni,
    I agree with you 100%. Alysia was fading. She has ALWAYS been a front runner who runs until she gets caught, she usually doesn’t get caught in US races, in international races, she usually holds on for 700-750 meters. It became obvious in the semi’s her fitness was not equal to her competitors. She is an unskilled pack runner, she freaked before the final curve once she was swallowed up and lost all of her form. She was done before the contact ever happened and was too spent emotionally and physically to maintain even without the contact. It reminded me of Suzy Favor’s collapse at the Olympics when she realized her dream slipping away. My heart goes out to her because she has been robbed so often in this sport. But I am equally dissapointed in her behavior-her breakdown and subsequent tumble, costing 2 very deserving women spots on the team. Molly and Brenda are the true victims of this 800m final. Poor Molly, probably the most fit and ready of all of the ladies in that final. Heartbreaking. And Brenda, the most inspirational one of the group. While Alysia gets all the press-Brenda has quietly given more back to sport than anyone at the Trials. While the Lauren Fleshmans, Nick Symmonds and Alysia’s of the track World are constantly pointing out whats wrong with the sport, Brenda is actually creating opportunities for athletes with Big Bear TC and her Free Summer camp for girls that she pays for with her own money.

  2. Please cut Alysia some slack because non of us are in her position. Obviously she has been going through a lot lately and with the added pressure of trying to make the Olympic team and watching all the sacrifices and hard work evaporate into thin air in one terrible moment, her last defenses cracked.
    What we saw, over the top or not, was an athlete, a woman who has given everything she had to a sport that has categorically failed her, leaving her at this point in her chosen career to question if any of it was worth it.
    None of us knows for sure how the race would have turned out and whether she would have made the team or not. None of us lives within her heart knowing the bitterness she must be fighting to keep at bay from consuming her and poisoning what little remaining joy she gets from the job she tries to do honorably.
    Before we judge, maybe we need as is said often said “to walk a mile in her shoes” to truly understand what we witnessed in the moment when Montano realized that maybe her last chance to try for an Olympic medal was gone.

    1. Ben,

      I agree with your sentiment completely. The Powers that be in this sport are vile characters who have broken the hearts and crushed the dreams of untold numbers of athletes around the world. That 800 final was brutal for Alysia, sure, but also for Brenda and Molly. There was no clear favorite (which is why they were all bunched up on the turn). I think how we as individuals reacted to Alysia’s meltdown just reflects our own expressive natures. Some folks give their emotions free rein, while others are stiff-upper-lip types who cringe at such overt displays. And that’s how it played out.

      But that’s also middle distance racing, and if you don’t anticipate the possibility of contact, especially in the final, you’re kidding yourself. Ask Morgan Ucenny how disappointing it can be.

  3. I feel that it’s time for a more “intensive” selection process for Olympic track teams. These endeavors are four year processes that should require more than one opportune (or inopportune) finish to make the team. What if Ajee Wilson was caught up in that fiasco? What if Gil Roberts’ disqualification was upheld after he fidgeted in the 400m semis? Dan O’Brien? With the exception of Wilson, these young ladies won’t make the semis…

  4. Toni: The melodrama/histrionics were outlandish, and to use what happened in the race, which tends to happen fairly frequently on the track, to trash the IAAF (not that they don’t need trashing) was inappropriate and showed poor sportsmanship. Shades of Mary Slaney, who unfortunately for her I suppose, didn’t have an NGO that she could project blame onto.

  5. Great post, Toni! I give credit to Montano for calling out the IAAF, but the platform for which she built to stand on (given her apparent clip of Martinez) is what bothers me. What boggles my mind is that I have yet to see a slow-motion replay of the contact and fall. NBC spent too much time following Montano’s theatrics that we didn’t see Kate Grace’s move, nor did we get a clear glimpse know who caused the contact and the aftermath. Like most people, I’m of the belief that Montano caused it because that’s what it looks like in real time on NBC’s broadcast (which I’ve rewatched online). If track and field is to be taken seriously as a sport, then the broadcasters need to start treating it like one. If this were any other sport, we’d see multiple angles, so motion replays, in-depth analysis, and hard-hitting questions with the competitors (although one dude did ask Montano in her post-race interview if she caused the contact). Instead we’re stuck with no replay, no evidence of what happened, and an impromptu fluff piece as NBC decided to focus on Montano’s last 100m.

  6. Toni:

    I am here in person at the Trials watching closely…as is my custom. The women’s 800 has been the most intensely tragic event so far in these Trials although the men’s 800 prelims with the big name non-qualifiers is not far behind.

    Montano ran a bit too hard from 150-500 meters and the pack started to swallow her up going down the final stage of the backstretch right in front of us. Martinez may have even been in last place in the first 200 of the event but marshalled her energy well and was charging like a mad bull down the backstretch of the 2nd lap as her momentum carried her all the way up into 2nd by 650 meters into the race. She was starting to move wide to position herself for an unfettered stretch run sprint when she was clipped once… then twice… from behind by a wobbling Montano who was trying to save herself as she was being jostled by racers from both sides.

    I watched replays several times on the large screen of the Wild Duck Café post-meet party and I am of the opinion that poor Brenda survived the first clip from behind but that the 2nd clip… by Alysia actually caught and stuck into Brenda’s shoe’s heel cup and pulled it partially down off her heel… which is what tripped up Alysia and caused her to do a total somersault. It threw Brenda way out to the 3rd lane and she started to then hobble due to the shoe that was partially off her foot and never could regain sprinting form to make up any ground in the final 100 meters.

    I believe that the officials ruled it as “incidental” (ie accidental). contact and no one was DQed but the big screen replays told me that Montano was the actual perpetrator here while Martinez was the real victim. It would be my humble opinion that Martinez was moving forward to a qualifying Top 3 spot while Montano was fading to a 4th-7th place finishing position if the contact had not happened. Had it been a semi-final then an appeal could have been lodged for placement into the final… maybe for both ladies….but since it was the actual final…well, everyone was just out of luck!

    I agree with you that Montano’s histrionics might have been a bit “over the top” but I have seen emotions get the best of athletes before. Couldn’t help but think back to Mary Decker Slaney in that ill-fated 3000 m. race at the 84 LA Olympics…. except Mary made no attempt to get back on her feet to run or jog. As Brenda said… “that’s racing!”….and especially in the 800 and 1500 m. events. If you want up-and-down drama and unceasing excitement… come take in an Olympic T & F Trials with us …. best track meet in the USA … every 4 years!

    1. You got it backwards: Martinez, through nobody’s fault, lost her balance and slowed down, and her slowing down is why Montano wound up running into her from behind.

      1. I have watched it time and again and not sure I can agree with you…. but just like on MLB instant replay…2 people can have different outlook on same play. More camera angles from NBC might have clarified it somewhat…. but surprisingly… they did not provide it. Maybe they didn’t have it. But, I know that this happened right in front of one camera on that curve….either way it is over with a sad and tragic ending that cannot be changed since it was the final not a semi-final. Good luck to Brenda in her 1500 attempt.

  7. This analysis rings true to me, Toni. I don’t think Montano was on her way to a team spot, either; had she not stumbled I think she still was not running one of her best races. But as an athlete she has been better than what we saw yesterday, and she has achieved more than her resume of medals shows. One hopes the ghost of Emil Zatopek shows up at her door sometime and gives her a small package, “because you deserved it.”

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