What Happened to the American Sprinter?

On June 1, 1997, track and field went all in. A few weeks before the infamous Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson boxing rematch, sprinting had it’s own heavyweight bout. After months full of drama and trash talk, the main event was here: Donovan Bailey (Team Canada) vs. Michael Johnson (Team USA).

In most years, the 100m champion is the “World’s Fastest Man”, but that was up for debate after the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta. Bailey set a world record in the 100 meters. Johnson also set world records in the 200m and 400m. Bob Costas, NBC's Olympics host, noted that Johnson’s 19.32 second 200m was “faster” when split in half (9.66) than Bailey’s 9.84 in the 100m.

These were they days before Sports Science could swiftly debunk this ludicrous thought. Splitting a 200m time in half is not comparable to running 100m, but the the media ran with it. The runners agreed to run an unsanctioned, and unorthodox, 150m race.

The race was underwhelming. Johnson pulled his quad halfway through and did not finish. The buzz surrounding the race was still impressive. Ratings were strong, especially for an event that was the same day as Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. Bailey and Johnson split $2 million in prize money.

Several sportswriters called the race an attempt to “revive a dying sport”. This was 1997; the twilight years for Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the athletic primes for Johnson and Gail Devers, and the arrivals of Marion Jones and Maurice Greene. If track was “dying” then, it’s currently buried alive, severely wounded and ravaged. Sprinting needs to crawl out of its grave like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.

The comeback will be an uphill battle. Today, our fastest male sprinter is Justin Gatlin, a 34-year-old with a tarnished legacy. He was banned from competition from 2006–2010 (reduced from what would have been an eight-year ban) and was also part of the London '12 relay team whose silver medals were stripped due to Tyson Gay's doping case. LaShawn Merritt, our top 400m sprinter, has also failed drug tests in the past. Two of our fastest female sprinters, Sanya Richards-Ross and Carmelita Jeter, have retired. Allyson Felix is entering fourth, and likely, final Olympics. How did we get here?

Critics are quick to blame the declining state of track and field on high-profile performance-enhancing drug use as Gatlin, Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery all fell from grace in the 2000s because them. PED scandals have hurt Team USA’s integrity and popularity, but there are more reasons.

Records are meant to be broken, especially at the Olympics. Gold medals are good, but fans want to see history unfold on track’s biggest stage. In Beijing ‘08, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt ran his competitors out of the building in the 100m and 200m, setting world records in both. He beat his own records in 2009 and broke his Olympic record in London ‘12. Each time Bolt steps foot in an Olympic stadium, he guarantees us an opportunity to witness something special.

It’s been a long time since an American sprinter has guaranteed us that same opportunity. The last American to break the 100m record at the Olympics was Carl Lewis in Seoul ’88. Unfortunately, Lewis’ 9.92 in Seoul was overshadowed by Ben Johnson’s PED disqualification. Michael Johnson’s 400m records from the 90s still stand today. The women’s 4 x 100m relay team set a remarkable world record in London ‘12, but with Carmelita Jeter’s retirement, it’s unclear whether that team can repeat in Rio.

Maurice Greene came close to reaching this pinnacle, but he did not deliver on the big stage. He entered Sydney ’00 as the “Fastest Man Ever”. He set a world record 100m sprint of 9.79 in 1999. He won the 100m Gold medal in Sydney, but with a slightly disappointing 9.87. Had Greene broke his world record at the Olympics, he would have done what no American has done since Florence Griffith-Joyner ("Flo Jo") and break his own 100m world record.

Flo Jo’s world records in the women’s 100m (10.49) and 200m (21.34) have stood since 1988. Several have questioned the wind assistance and allegations of PED use, but the records still stand. Flo Jo’s times are an aspirational target for today’s sprinters, but they have cast a looming cloud over the sport.

Source: FloTrack

American sprinting needs its athletes to break records  —  that’s the only way to stay relevant. Each broken record makes it harder for it to be broken again though. It’s like a game of Tetris where each new record is a piece that completes a full row of squares. It brings new opportunities to the board, but the game gets consistently tougher from there.

Team USA has some promising young talent to potentially take advantage of these opportunities. Newcomers Trayvon Bromell, 21, and Marvin Bracy, 23, are making their 100m Olympic debuts in Rio. Bromell's personal record is 9.84, tied for the 10th-fastest ever. If he ran that sprint in 1996, he would have tied Bailey’s world record. Bracy, the former Florida State wide receiver, is no slouch, either. His 9.98 in the Olympic trials was fast enough push Tyson Gay, who’s still the American 100m record holder (9.69 in 2009), to the reserve squad.

The women’s side is promising as well. Although Jeter and Ross will be watching Rio from their “retirement homes”, there are some upcoming stars with hopeful futures. English Gardner, 24, ran the seventh-fastest 100m ever at the Olympic trials (10.74). Tori Bowie, 25, has ran the 14th-fastest 100m (10.78). There is hope for Team USA Track & Field to reclaim its glory.

The Americans are looking to Rio as a chances to add the perfect Tetris blocks that the record books need. Flo Jo’s records may have already reached the ceiling. Michael Johnson’s 400m record is nearing the top. Usain Bolt and the rest of Jamaica are breezing through the same levels that we are struggling with. USA Track & Field needs to catch up. We can’t get tempted with performance enhancers as those are essentially cheat codes. We’ll have to start back over again. We’ve come too far to risk all that. There’s too much opportunity to do this the right way.

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