October 2003

HOW MANY MEMBERS OF THE U.S. TEAM got seasonal bests during the World Championships competition in Paris? For the biggest meet of the year you’d think the number would be high, but in reality, of the 92 American athletes who competed in individual events at the WC, a mere 14 (7 men, 7 women) reached high-water marks.

Just for the record, here’s the honor roll: Darvis Patton, Jerome Young, Steve Slattery, Chris Phillips, Terrence Trammell, Joey Woody, Kevin Eastler, Kelli White (twice), Torri Edwards, Gail Devers, Lauren Fleshman, Deena Drossin, Sandra Glover. (I omitted special case Anjanette Kirkland in these compilations.)

Did you notice what major characteristic each of those athletes has in common? They’re all track performers; not a field eventer to be found. How pathetic is that? Of course, given that the U.S. had one of its most feeble field-event showings ever—a grand total of 2 medals, the lowest ever—the effect-and-cause relationship isn’t too hard to figure out.

For those who might want to argue that the Paris conditions weren’t conducive to maximal performance in the jumps or throws, allow me to jump up and throw this gem at you: of the 46 out of 48 field-event medals that non-Americans won, no fewer than 21 of them (46%) came courtesy of the athlete producing a seasonal best.

Now it may be that the international coaching community has figured out peaking strategies—both on the track and in the field—better than their American counterparts, but I’ll bet U.S. coaches would vigorously dispute that. And I don’t think that’s the villain here either. If a finger needs to be pointed, allow me to stab it at the timing of the Nationals. The USATF Championships were held 9 weeks before Paris. It would be one thing if the U.S. selection meet were a romp; it’s not. Very few athletes can afford to come to town and put out anything less than 100%.

Can you still be at 100% more than two months down the road? Apparently not, particularly if you’re a typical U.S. team member, which means you’re either very good (so you spend the interim trying to make money on the Circuit and can’t tailor your training for the WC) or you’re just average (which means that you can’t find any competition, domestic or international, so even though you’re free to train at will, you can’t sharpen).

It’s not the Cold War all over again, but look who’s threatening to boot the U.S. off the top rung of the medals ladder: Russia. We had 20 Paris podium positions; they had 19. But look deeper: we had three 4th-placers; they had nine. A few minor changes in performance here and there and suddenly the U.S. is a poor 2nd.

Oh yes, and when were the Russian Championships? Two weeks before Paris. That in and of itself isn’t definitive proof of anything, but the empirical evidence certainly seems to suggest something to me. Of course, the Russians also had the advantage of some stars getting spots without a qualifying meet, but that’s another can of worms.

Next year the gap between the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games is a more manageable 5 weeks, but it’s still too long. We can’t do anything about that timeframe now, but when ’05 comes around and we’re selecting another WC team, I hope somebody in the corridors of power looks into moving the Nationals later in the schedule.

The way the system is currently working, USATF goes out and builds the best looking damned car on the block in June but when August rolls around there just isn’t much gas in the tank and the body definitely needs a polish-job.