Track And Field’s New Savior Bolts Past the Competition

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The New York Sun

It wasn’t a shock. A victory was predicted. But it was a staggering achievement indeed, best described as “the bolt heard round the world,” as Jamaican Usain Bolt delivered yesterday what was expected of him: an astonishing 19.30 to win Olympic gold in the 200-meter sprint in Beijing. Bolt’s time breaks the 12-year-old world and Olympic record of 19.32, set in Atlanta by the legendary Michael Johnson.

Let it be known that this young man — Bolt turns 22 today — begins the process of vanquishing the demons that have plagued track and field in the last few years; as well as becoming the first sprinter since Carl Lewis, at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, to record a double-double with his previous victory in the 100, also set in world record time. The 6-foot-5-inch Jamaican is also the first sprinter, since compatriot Donald Quarrie in 1976, to hold both sprint world records at the same time.

But controversy arose after American Wallace Spearmon Jr., running on the outside in lane nine, crossed the finish line third, and was given a time of 19.85. He happily joined in the postrace celebration with his good buddy Bolt. But this was shattered when he was disqualified for running out of his lane. Spearmon clearly took at least one step onto the inside lane occupied by fellow American Walter Dix. American officials lodged a protest, but Spearmon’s disqualification was upheld. It got even more bizarre when the protest affected second-place finisher Churandy Martina. Martina, of the Dutch Antilles, was also disqualified for a lane violation. Consequently, Spearmon’s sacrificial lamb outing resulted in America sneaking an extra medal in the event: Shawn Crawford, the defending champion, was bumped to silver, and Dix leaped from fifth to third.

The Jamaicans continued their domination over America in the running events with Melaine Walker setting an Olympic record of 52.64 in winning the women’s 400-meter hurdles. Walker’s time was the fourth fastest in history, and came just minutes after Bolt’s world record. The Bird’s Nest crowd was electric, and that certainly must have had an impact on Walker. It was also Jamaica’s fourth gold medal, the most of any country in track and field. American Sheena Tosta finished second, more than a full second behind Walker, to garner the silver. Tiffany Ross-Williams, the University of South Carolina graduate who looked so impressive in Monaco just three weeks ago, finished last.

Gearing up for today’s final in the highly anticipated 200, a trio of Americans and Jamaicans qualified easily in yesterday’s semifinal action. The expected battle between Veronica Campbell-Brown, Jamaica’s defending Olympic champion, and American star Allyson Felix is now on: Both won their respective heats, with Campbell-Brown notching the prime lane assignment for the final with a speedy 22.19. Felix, who will run next to Campbell-Brown, won her heat in 22.33. Jamaica’s medalists in the 100, Kerron Stewart and Sherone Simpson (who tied for silver), will look for the repeat sweep that rattled the American sprint team on Sunday.

Aside from the women’s 200, today’s mega-final morning will also include the 110 hurdles, where the emerging Cuban superstar, Dayron Robles, looks to top off his amazing year. The Guantanamo native set the world record of 12.87 in early June, and the withdrawal of reigning champion Liu Xiang of China has increased the chance of Robles, 21, adding the Olympic title to his world record. American champion David Oliver, the only hurdler to defeat Robles outdoors this season, lines up next to him. Oliver is the sole American to run less than 13 seconds this year, with an impressive 12.95 at Qatar. On Robles’s other side is American David Payne, who beat Robles for bronze in Osaka’s world championships last year.

America has captured 400-meter gold in every Olympics since 1956 (excluding the 1980s boycott). Jeremy Wariner is the defending champion, as he looks to duplicate the back-to-back titles won by his mentor, Johnson. He’s been in a battle with LaShawn Merritt all season, and as previously noted, they’ve split their four meetings in 2008. It’s hard to pick against Wariner, who holds the world’s fastest time this season — 43.89. But Merritt, just 22, might follow the lead of the new young guns of men’s track, Bolt, Dix, and Robles.

The decathlon begins today, with American champ Bryan Clay looking to improve on his silver medal performance in Athens. Clay has rebounded from last year’s injury-plagued campaign. He won the 2008 Indoor Championships in Valencia, Spain, and broke the Olympic trials record, previously held by 1996 gold medalist Dan O’Brien. Clay’s performance in Eugene, Ore., during Olympic trials was a personal best, as well as the highest score recorded by a decathlete in four years.

Preliminary rounds began yesterday in several events, including the men’s 5,000, where American star Bernard Lagat kept his medal hopes alive, after his poor performance in the 1,500, by qualifying for Saturday’s final. Nick Symmonds, a rarity among the Americans as he is competing in Beijing as a Division II athlete (Willamette University), is the sole American survivor of the first round in the 800. Symmonds is another young runner (24) with a nice upside, but he’s running in an event that America hasn’t won in 36 years.

In a strange twist that didn’t help America, the pole vault qualifying rounds had to extend, for the first time in Olympic history, to a second day, due to the amount of entrants who cleared the opening heights. Brad Walker, the 2007 world champion, continued his late-season decline. After barely making the Olympic team, Walker failed to clear any height in Beijing, as did the oldest athlete on the American track and field team, Jeff Hartwig (40). Only Derek Miles, the American champion, qualified. America has gone gold-silver in the previous two Olympics; yesterday’s debacle, coupled with non-qualifiers in the triple jump, ends a disastrous men’s field performance in Beijing (aside from Christian Cantwell’s come-from-behind silver in the shot put).

America might be reeling entering the final three days of competition, yet the relays this weekend might spur it on. They are now the underdogs, and a galvanizing turnaround would erase more than a few bad moments — unless, of course, Bolt takes matters into his own hands. For the sake of the sport, I hope he does.

The New York Sun

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