So when I don’t go home for Spring Break, sports news happens literally less than an hour away from my house? Something is telling me to visit my family.
In an article dated Friday, the USA Track and Field Association breaks the news that, on Saturday, their CEO hand-delivered a letter to a Jamaican representative expressing interest in a home-and-home series of dual meets for the two countries in 2009. (Editor’s note: This happened at the NACAC Cross Country Championships, held Saturday at Chain of Lakes Park in Titusville, Florida, so you must excuse my excitement over news happening in my fairly sleepy home county.)
From the article:
The proposal comes on the heels of World Championship and Olympic competition in which American and Jamaican sprinters dominated. At the 2007 IAAF World Championships in Osaka, Americans won the men’s 100, 200 and 400 meters, sweeping the longer race, as well as the women’s 200, both relays, women’s 100 hurdles and men’s 400 hurdles. Jamaica won the women’s 100, as well as numerous silver and bronze medals. All told, an American or Jamaican won 10 of 12 medals in the men’s and women’s 100 and 200 meters and went 1-2 in three of the four relay events.
At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, it was Jamaica in the driver’s seat. Led by global athlete of the year Usain Bolt, Jamaicans won the men’s and women’s 100 and 200 meters, including a sweep in the women’s 100. Bolt broke the world record in the 100 and 200, and the 4×100 relay on which he ran third leg also broke the world record. Jamaica won the women’s 400 hurdles in Olympic record time with the United States second, while Americans swept the men’s 400m and 400 hurdles, won two medals in the men’s 110m hurdles and took gold in the women’s 100 hurdles. Collectively, USA and Jamaica won 11 of 12 medals in the 100 and 200; 16 of 18 in the 100 through 400; and five of six medals in the 400m hurdles.
All of this is well and good from a publicity standpoint; there’s certainly nothing bad about track and field using the likes of Usain Bolt to boost its flagging profile in a non-Olympic year. But USA Track and Field is taking an enormous risk with this proposal.
These two countries are unquestionably the two powerhouses in the sprinting events that this dual meet would feature, and though some of this is in the article, the facts deserve some repetition: In the men’s and women’s 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, 110/100 meter hurdles, 400 meter hurdles, and 4×100 meters and 4×400 meters sprint medley relays, only thrice (in the men’s 110m hurdles, women’s 400 meters, and women’s 4×100 meter relay) did a nation other than either Jamaica or the U.S. take the gold, and only in the women’t 4x100m relay did both nations get shut out of the medal podium. (The long jump, which was also a prospective event in USATF’s letter, did not produce any medals for either nation, but is not a typical “sprinting” event.)
And of the possible 14 golds in those events, Jamaica snagged six, just besting the Stars and Stripes’ five. But it’s the convincing manner in which the island country did so that shattered a long reign for the red, white, and blue.
Jamaica swept the golds in the high-profile men’s and women’s 100 and 200 meters behind Bolt’s two world records and an all-Jamaica podium in the women’s 100 meters and set a new world record in the men’s 4×100 relay after the U.S. team failed to finish their semifinal due to baton-passing problems, while the U.S. mustered the same number of U.S. podium sweeps as in Athens—two—but swapped the men’s 200 meters for the less prestigious men’s 400 meter hurdles.
Beijing was, in track and field, when Jamaica exploded onto the scene, and when the U.S. faded into the background. Though these are currently clearly the two best track nations in the world, Beijing established that Jamaica has taken the lead and put some ground between first and second.
So it makes sense for the U.S. to try to save some face by scheduling a tete-a-tete on the track so soon, but USTAF better have realistic reasons to expect better from their athletes. Jamaica’s already streaked by the lagging group in a hostile environment, and with less training than the U.S. team put in, so neither the setting or the possibly short turnaround (the meets are tentatively projected to take place in May or June, which would allow just months to train specifically for them in an otherwise quiet period before the 2009 World Championships in Berlin in August) should be a huge disadvantage for them. The U.S. visiting what will be a highly partisan stadium in Jamaica might be a disaster for a team undone at times by nerves and mental mistakes in 2008.
I see three possible outcomes here: The U.S. narrowly wins, largely on the strength of its longer-distance runners and a strong showing on their own soil; Jamaica narrowly wins, beating the U.S. at home and holding its own in America; or Jamaica trounces the U.S., winning the meet in the U.S. and romping in Jamaica.
Of those three, two are of negligible impact for the U.S. (really, a narrow victory will do very little to alter this balance, especially in an exhibition-style meet), and one is of serious negative impact. Falling further behind Jamaica would show that USTAF is just not delivering on its budget, and in a time of economic problems, it’s not that outlandish a conclusion that dwindling medal counts could lead to shrinking coffers.
And that’s not including the idea that just one person’s magic could wipe out a U.S. win. It’s already bad enough that the sprinter that has name-brand American sponsors like Nike and Gatorade lining up for him is Jamaican, but if Usain Bolt puts on a show like the breathtaking Beijing display on U.S. terrain, it’s safe to say that this group of male American short-distance sprinters is quite close to being a lost generation.
The U.S.’s highly touted Allyson Felix faces a similar “disappointment” tag if she loses once again on the world’s stage; though she’s a two-time reigning world champion in the 200 meters, her Olympic career features just one gold, in the 2008 4×400 relay. For someone who’s been a media wonder since her Olympic debut at 18 in Athens, another second place might prove toxic to her future aspirations.
There’s a lot for the Americans to lose, and virtually nothing at stake for Jamaica but pride. If the Jamaicans get stomped, well, Beijing was wonderful; if they win, the party continues. Meanwhile, the U.S. is searching for its soul as a track team, hunting for stars of Bolt and Veronica Campbell-Brown’s caliber.
I’m a firm believer in the concept in sports that holds that it’s always better to be the team playing with less pressure. The U.S. track and field squads should hope that it doesn’t prove to be the case in these meets, should they take place.
If their sprinters are weighed down by that pressure, I promise Jamaica will smoke them again.