Hurdler Lifts America’s Track and Field Spirits

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The New York Sun

Before the start of the Olympic Games, the American men’s track and field team’s press campaign was centered on Tyson Gay and Bernard Lagat. But it took four days and a third-place runner from the Olympic trials to secure the first American gold in men’s track and field yesterday.

Angelo Taylor is nobody’s bridesmaid, and in a sport that often relies on the Hollywood mantra of “you’re only as good as your last movie,” his re-emergence to the top step of the medal podium is quite a compelling story. Taylor, the Olympic champion in the 400-meter hurdles eight years ago in Sydney, didn’t completely disappear and retreat into the woods of his native Georgia. Although he might have been overlooked by many hurdlers while racing for the past two years in the 400-meter sprints, his times in that event were fast enough to win a bronze at the World Championships last year in Osaka.

He ignored the hurdles, even running the 200, as if haunted by his doomed 2004 semifinal race in Athens that eliminated him from competition. He then “retired” in 2005. “Don’t call it a comeback,” he barked into the phone to this writer after yesterday’s upset win in his “old” event, the 400 hurdles. Wearing his trademark sunglasses, accentuating his perennially cool persona, Taylor ran a personal best of 47.25 seconds to lead an American sweep, followed by prerace favorites Bershawn Jackson and Kerron Clement, who captured silver and bronze, respectively. Taylor’s time was .25 seconds faster than his win in 2000, and anybody who noticed his heats over the last two days watched an athlete who never lost focus while steadily improving his time in each heat. If the USATF wants to add some “bang” to their team, they should include Taylor in the 4×400-meter relays later this week. Taylor tried in Eugene, Ore., during the trials, to pull off the unprecedented 400 double. After his third-place finish in the hurdles secured his spot in Beijing, he took his mark, less than 45 minutes later, in the 400 final. He was too fatigued, however, and dropped out 150 meters into the race. America should award him with a chance at double gold.

There were no surprise results yesterday, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t exciting. Russian Yelena Isinbayeva broke her own world record in the women’s pole vault with an outstanding leap of 5.05 meters (16.6 ft). Mild-mannered American Jenn Stuczynski, who uncharacteristically boasted earlier that she would beat the Russian, was far behind at 4.80 meters, but it was good enough for silver. Pamela Jelimo won the women’s 800 in a stunning 1.54. It was her 11th consecutive victory in 2008. The 19-year-old Jelimo ran away from the field, becoming the youngest-ever champion in breaking the 1968 record set in Mexico City by the great American runner , Madeline Manning.. Jelimo’s time was the third fastest in Olympic history.

This is what track and field desperately desires: new, young faces with devastating performances. Jelimo, Dayron Robles of Cuba, Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser, and perhaps American Walter Dix, all 22 or younger, represent the generational shift the sport requires as a cosmetic makeover to finally expunge the drug-laden cloud that’s been hovering since Athens in 2004. This is a badly-needed changing of the guard, and Bolt continued his success by gliding into the 200 semifinals along with Americans Dix, defending champ Shawn Crawford, and dark-horse medal candidate Wallace Spearmon Jr.

Robles advanced to the semifinals of the 110 meter hurdles along with Americans David Oliver and David Payne. Yet two-time silver medalist Terrence Trammell crumpled to the track after eight steps, a victim of an apparent leg injury.

Lolo Jones led another American charge in the 100 hurdles semifinals with a 12.43. Teammates Damu Cherry and Dawn Harper accompanied Jones into this morning’s finals. The hurdlers look set to defend the title Joanna Hayes took in Athens 2004, with Jones in reach of Hayes’s Olympic record of 12.37.

The event that has produced consecutive Olympic gold for America since 1960 (excluding the Moscow boycott in 1980) is the men’s 400. Prerace favorites Jeremy Wariner, the defending Olympic champion, and his American rival, LaShawn Merritt, had easy opening heat victories to begin the march to Thursday morning’s final. Finally, Texas Longhorn Sanya Richards, the 23-year-old national champion (although she was born in Jamaica), is seeking to become the first American since 1984 to capture the women’s 400. Richards, the lone American, will battle three Russians for the gold, a race that is a throwback to the old Cold War showdowns, especially in light of the frosty relations between America and Russia after the recent invasion of Georgia.

The New York Sun

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