Americans Mine for Gold in a Day of Surprises

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The New York Sun

Although most eyes in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium were on Usain Bolt, the Jamaican superstar who easily cruised into the final of this morning’s 200-meter sprint — along with the American trio of Walter Dix, Shawn Crawford, and Wallace Spearmon Jr. — Dawn Harper stole yesterday’s track spotlight. The unheralded 100-meter hurdler from East St. Louis, Ill., wasn’t even listed on the favored athlete-bio press sheets distributed at July’s Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. Yet, the UCLA graduate proved the experts wrong when she won the first track gold for America’s women with a personal best of 12.54 seconds. Her pedigree had been upgraded in recent months when she began working with Bob Kersee, the West Coast coaching guru (and husband of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and brother in-law of the late Florence Griffith Joyner).

Harper, whose best finish in college was third place in the 100 hurdles at the NCAA championships in 2005, was rated only the sixth-best 100 hurdler in America last year. The American team (along with its de facto sponsor, NBC) desperately needed a feel-good American story line, and the 24-year-old Harper provided one. Pre-race favorite Lolo Jones faded to seventh when her foot hit the ninth hurdle, and Harper won by a comfortable margin.

Another unexpected highlight for the Americans came in the women’s 5,000, where all three entrants qualified for Friday’s final, led by Shalane Flanagan, the 10,000 bronze medalist, along with Kara Goucher and Jenn Rhines. The favorite in the finals will be Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba, the newly crowned Olympic 10,000 champion. She has a heated rivalry with her countrywoman, Meseret Defar, the 2007 world champion in the 5,000. Going back to 2002, the Ethiopian duo has met 22 times in the 5,000, with Defar holding a 12-10 lead and burnishing her reputation as the world’s finest 5,000 runner. Unless an American medals here, NBC will probably dump this great race on us at 1:30 in the morning. Hopefully, the peacock network is beginning to understand (as Bolt and his Jamaican teammates have proven) that great races in the Olympics aren’t predetermined by an athlete’s uniform color.

A case in point would be the American favorite, Sanya Richards, in the 400. The 2008 Olympic trials winner and a gold medalist on the 4×400 relay team in Athens, Richards finished a disappointing third yesterday to capture the bronze. England’s Christine Ohuruogu, the 2007 world gold medalist, was fourth coming into the homestretch, a healthy five meters behind Richards, but ran down the American to win her country’s first Beijing gold. The Jamaican nightmare continued for America, as Shericka Williams also burst past the distraught Richard to win silver.

Some sanity was restored for the Americans in their most reliable Olympic event, the men’s 400. The co-favorites, LaShawn Merritt and defending Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner, were dominant in their respective semifinals heats. Wariner, the Baylor graduate, shut it down with 50 meters remaining, but still managed a sizzling 44.15. Merritt was even faster yesterday morning, as the 22-year-old U.S. Trials winner was unchallenged over the final 100 meters, stopping the clock in 44.12. This year, the duo has split their four meetings. The lane draw in tomorrow morning’s final may be crucial: Wariner’s victories against his rival came when Merritt ran to his outside. In the final, Merritt draws the favored lane four, while Wariner is outside in seven. American indoor champion David Neville also qualified, providing America with a possible medal sweep.

The American women sprinters continued their chance for redemption with the quarterfinal heats in the 200. Yet the Jamaicans, who swept the medals in Sunday’s 100 showdown, may be even stronger here with the addition of Veronica Campbell-Brown. Campbell-Brown, who failed to qualify for Jamaica’s 100-meter team, is the defending Olympic champion at 200, and in an unusual heat pairing, went head-to-head against the 2007 world champion, Allyson Felix. Felix, America’s nominal Golden Girl, finished behind Campbell-Brown as both runners focused on advancing, in lieu of making any statement on the track. Americans Muna Lee and Marshevet Hooker also advanced to this morning’s semifinals.

Aside from “Lightning” Bolt and his followers getting down to it this morning, there’s only one other track final today: the women’s 400 hurdles. American Sheena Tosta (née Johnson) finished fourth in the event at Athens four years ago. At the time, the UCLA graduate was doubling between the 100 hurdles and 400 hurdles. Now focused solely on the intermediate hurdles, the U.S. trials runner-up enters the finals as a favorite, particularly after her solid heat performances delivered the favored lane five. An unfavorable lane draw was handed to Tiffany Ross-Williams, who won the 400 hurdles at the U.S. Trials. The 25-year-old (and mother of a 3-year-old daughter) has run a ragged route to the final, pushing her lane assignment to the far outside. But both Americans may be battling for silver as another Jamaican, Melaine Walker, is undefeated this year, although her 54.20 was almost two seconds slower than her personal best. The women’s 400 hurdles world record has never been broken at the Olympic Games, thus providing another record for the Jamaican to aim for.

Finally, after not qualifying an athlete in the men’s long jump for the first time in Olympic history, and after a shutout in the high jump, America’s men’s field event coaching begs for examination. The Olympic high jump record is still held by Texan Charles Austin (1996), and has been home to such American luminaries as John Thomas, Dick “Fosbury Flop,” and two-time bronze medalist Dwight Stones. The fault may lie with the sparse developmental money ponied out by U.S.A Track and Field and their corporate sponsors to youngsters at the grassroots level. Money surged into woman’s pole vaulting a decade ago, resulting in gold in 2000 and a silver in Beijing. Yes, the world may be getting smaller, as evidenced by the Jamaican surge. But not having an American in either jump is simply an embarrassment.

The New York Sun

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