It was after 11:00 pm (Beijing time) on August 15th, 2008, and my 13-week pregnant wife was slouched in her chair, suffering from hunger pangs (as we hadn’t eaten since before 6 pm) and hiding her face from embarrassment. We had been at the track for over 4 hours. I was on my feet, screaming at the top of my lungs, “GO SHALANE!”, “GO SHALANE!” like an iPod stuck on repeat. There were other Americans in our section, but for the most part, we were surrounded by Chinese fans.
No one, Asian, American, or otherwise, knew what or why I was screaming, and I didn’t care. The track was crowded with 31 female athletes, many of whom had already been lapped by the leaders. If you weren’t following closely, you had no idea who was leading and who was getting lapped. You would have no idea that Shalane Flanagan, US distance star, had been gapped significantly by the leaders but was slowly picking her way back through the field. She had been written off before the event, not only because her personal best didn’t match up with the favorites, but also because she suffered from a stomach flu or food poisoning in the week before the event that left her weak and tired.
Early in the race, the leaders surged, and she wisely let them go because the pace was suicidal. At that point, she could have given up, resigned to match the expectations of American media who would say that a top 10 finish would be a solid result, a “moral victory.” But, she didn’t. She fought. She picked off 11th place, then 10th, then 9th , and 8th, and 7th, and 6th, and then 5th… and my screams grew louder with each pass. She needed one more pass to medal, to do the unthinkable. She would make the final pass into 3rd place just before the final lap and then power to the finish, where she raised 3 fingers in the air, not in celebration but with the question, “3rd, did I get 3rd?” while desperately looking for confirmation from her husband in the stands.
She had just won an Olympic Bronze, only the 2nd medal by an American woman in that event ever, and she didn’t even know it for sure. She was just fighting, fighting for every place, and she did it! She did it during the fastest Olympic Women’s 10K final ever… a final that would take an American Record performance from Shalane to make top 3. My screaming turned to more screaming and jumping up and down and more screaming and jumping, while the Americans in the stands around me looked at each other, confused, wondering what in the world had gotten me so excited. In the midst of my excitement and with water welling up in my eyes, that is when I realized it…
Track and field has a problem, a big one. Ironically, in a day where running participation is arguably at its all-time highest, no one cares about the professionals who are running circles around the track, except for maybe 2 weeks every 4 years between the lighting and extinguishing of the Olympic Torch. No. One. Cares.
And, it is hard to say why. Some would argue that years of doping issues (steroids, EPO and otherwise) put a sour taste in our mouths, making us question every performance. Others might say that we have trouble relating to the skinny distance kids on the track who can run times that we could never relate to. Or, maybe it is that years of East African dominance have left us hopeless, tired of waiting for an American to legitimately compete. Or, quite simply, maybe Track and Field, and specifically the distance events, simply sucks at marketing itself.
As someone who follows the sport daily, it’s sad because the sport is so pure – no judges, referees, or scoring systems, just the clock – and, it’s so rich with stories of inspiration that we can all relate to and draw motivation from. Track and Field provides the perfect crucible to test, experience, and prove the power of the human condition, to see what happens when extremely hard work meets talent and pressure and pain.
On June 22st (this Friday), the Track and Field Olympic Trials begins in Eugene, Oregon (http://tracktown12.gotracktownusa.com/). For 8 days, America’s best T&F athletes will endure one the most democratic selection processes in all of sports to see who will wear the Team USA jersey and represent our country under the Olympic lights in London. Place and time is all that matters, and anyone, anyone in the field has a chance from the highest-paid sponsored athlete to the athlete running without a logo who works 30-40 hours per week, on top of his/her training, just to survive.
During the Trials, I will attempt to preview the key distance events, so that you can watch and relate to the sport in new ways. My hope is that my passion shines through and brings you context and stories that allow you to follow the events more closely, enjoy the sport on new levels, and maybe, just maybe inspire your running too.
Check back tomorrow for my preview of the 10,000m.