With the Tokyo Olympic track and field competition set to begin July 30, here are some need-to-know observations, ranging from drugs to shoe wars to the latest teenage phenoms to the arrival of the next big superstar. Let’s get to it.
As usual, the U.S. will be a force in the sprints, hurdles and jumps, but will be hard-pressed to win a medal in an event longer than 1,500 meters. The best hope is Paul Chelimo, who was born in Kenya but became a U.S. citizen a few years ago by joining the Army. He won a silver medal in the 5,000-meter in the Rio Olympics. Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs went one-two at the 2019 world championships — a stunning outcome — but the Africans will be difficult to beat again. On the other hand, somehow Coburn has medaled in the last three world championships.
Elle Purrier, a 5-foot-3 farm girl from Vermont (NBC will tell you all about it), has been the biggest revelation of the year for USA track and field. She has dominated the U.S. middle-distance scene, setting American indoor records for the mile (4:16.85) and two-mile (9:10.28 — which actually is better than the outdoor record, too). She won the Olympic trials 1,500 with a meet-record time of 3:58.03.
Grant Holloway is the favorite to win the high hurdles in Tokyo. In the trials he ran the second-fastest time in history, 12.81, missing the world record by .01 of a second. Holloway is an amazing athlete. In college, he ran a 4x400 relay split of 43.75, long jumped 26-9 ½ and recorded the 10th fastest time in NCAA history in the 60-meter dash. He also cleared 7-feet, 1-inch in the high jump in 2014.
Keni Harrison was favored to win the 2016 Olympic trials 100-meter hurdles, but finished sixth and failed to make the Olympic team. A couple of weeks later she set the still-standing world record of 12.20. She won the 2021 trials and is favored to win the 100-meter hurdles, an event in which the U.S. has won eight out of 12 medals the last four Olympics, including three golds.
The U.S. team will be strong but will be missing some of its biggest stars in Tokyo — world 100-meter dash champion Christian Coleman, U.S. 100-meter champion Sha’Carri Richardson, American 1,500/5,000-meter record holder Shelby Houlihan, world 800-meter champion Donavan Brazier and Olympic 1,500-meter medalist Jenny Simpson.
Coleman missed a drug test and was banned for 18 months. Houlihan tested positive for an anabolic steroid and was suspended for four years. Richardson tested positive for cannabis and was suspended for 30 days. The ban will end in time for her to run on the 4x100 relay, but USA Track and Field elected not to give her a slot. Brazier and Simpson simply failed to finish in the top three at the U.S. trials.
Before the Beijing Games in 2008, Jamaican sprinters had won only three gold medals in the 25 previous Summer Games — Don Quarrie in the 200-meter in 1976, Veronica Campbell in the 200 in 2004 and the women’s 4x100 relay in 2004. In the three Games since, they’ve won 11 of a possible 12 gold medals at 100 and 200 meters — and 18 of a possible 36 medals, which was accomplished by eight athletes (in other words, the medal count wasn’t purely driven by the freak talent of one athlete).
Speaking of which, Usain Bolt is retired, but the Jamaican women are as strong as ever, led by Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Shericka Jackson and Elaine Thompson, who have three of the four fastest times in the world this year (Richardson has the third fastest and won’t compete). All have run under 10.80 this year. Fraser-Pryce owns two Olympic gold medals and one bronze in the 100, and Thompson has one gold in the 100 and one in the 200.
It’s difficult to account for this Olympic dominance from a poor nation of 2.5 million, an island country the size of Connecticut.
Elephant in the room
Drugs are still a big part of the story and always seem to be the elephant in the room at every Games. Thanks to a whistleblower, Russia was banned from the 2016 Rio Games in a case that rocked the sports world because it was a systemic drug program sponsored by the government. The ban of Russia from international competition will extend through 2022, which means the country won’t officially be represented in Tokyo. The Russian flag, anthem and name won’t appear in the Games, but Russian athletes can compete under the name of “ROC” — Russian Olympic Committee. If you’re trying to make sense of that, good luck.
The fundamental flaw in the pursuit of drug users in sport is that each country is responsible for its own testing. The temptations of home cooking are obvious. Some countries are, shall we say, less vigilant than others in rooting out drug users, as the Russian scandal revealed.
As stated above, Jamaica had been virtually shut out of medals in track and field for decades, but suddenly in 2008 the country began dominating sprints in international competition. In 2013, the entire board of the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission resigned over questions about drug testing protocols in that country. Renee Anne Shirley, a former senior JADCO official, told an American magazine that JADCO had performed just one out-of-competition test from February 2012 to the start of the London Olympics in July. The World Anti-Doping Agency told the Jamaicans to fix it, but it’s difficult to say what was done. Four Jamaican athletes tested positive for banned substances that year, including three sprinters.
Similarly, Bahrain suddenly began producing world-class track athletes. According to Running Magazine, Salwa Eid Naser, the defending world 400-meter champ, is one of several Bahraini athletes who have been busted for anti-doping violations in the last 15 years. The magazine stated that since the mid-2000s, Bahrain has won 17 track and field medals at the world championships and Olympic Games, but “more than half of them have been tainted by doping scandals, suspensions and bans.”
The cat-and-mouse game between drug cheats and the overseers of sports continues.
The Allyson Felix Show
Brace yourself, America. You are about to get bombarded with Allyson Felix. She has just the type of story that the TV types seize and beat viewers over the head with it, but you already know this if you watched the Olympic trials, where Felix’s young daughter and husband got more air time than any athlete.
For those of you who don’t know the story (spoiler alert): Felix became a mother two years ago after undergoing an emergency C section. The baby, who weighed 3 pounds, 7 ounces, spent her first few weeks in the hospital. Baby Camryn is healthy and thriving. Now Felix is appearing in her fifth Olympics at the age of 35.
It’s a nice story, but NBC will wear you out with it. After the Olympic trials 200-meter final, in which Felix finished fifth, NBC interviewed her and ignored the three top finishers. There’s an unwritten rule somewhere that says TV can’t cover Olympic competitions like a real sport.
Felix, an uncommonly serene, gracious, humble woman, is worthy of admiration. She’s a class act and, unlike some other top athletes, she isn’t starved for attention and doesn’t act out to get it. It’s not her fault if NBC obsesses over her story.
As an athlete, Felix has had a long run, so to speak. She is the only female track athlete to win six Olympic gold medals, and she is tied with Jamaica’s Merlene Ottey for the most medals, with nine. To be fair, it’s a little misleading. Of those nine Olympic medals, five were from relays and only one of her four individual medals is gold (Ottey won seven individual medals). Felix has 31 total medals in world championship events (which includes the Olympics), 18 of them from relays.
What Felix has done is endure, which has allowed her to win all those medals.
She is nearing the end of her career. She did not make the team in the 200 and was second in the 400 at the U.S. trials. She is unlikely to medal in Tokyo, and yet things seem to be falling her way. She has only the eighth-fastest time in the world this year, but two of the women ahead of her — Athing Mu and Shamier Little — won’t contest the Olympic 400, and there is some uncertainty whether Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas will defend her Olympic title in the 400 even though she has officially entered all three sprint races. Also, Naser, the world champ, has been banned for missing a drug test and won’t race in Tokyo. All of this makes the path to a medal much easier for Felix.
Dalilah Muhammad has set two world records and won the world championships and Olympics in the 400-meter hurdles, and yet all along it felt as if she was simply delaying the inevitable. Sydney McLaughlin, who made the 2016 Olympic team as a 16-year-old, was breathing down her neck. She was a half-step behind Muhammad in both of her world records. Wasn’t it only a matter of time before she overtook Muhammad?
McLaughlin’s time has come. In last month’s Olympic trials, she crossed the finish line in 51.90 to rout Muhammad’s world record of 52.16. The 31-year-old Muhammad held the lead at the top of the homestretch, but McLaughlin powered past her and won by two full strides. The last three times these two met in a major competition they produced a world record. They will meet again in the Olympics, and this time there’s an outsider to add to the mix. Femke Bol, a 21-year-old, 6-foot Dutch hurdler, ran 52.37 in early July.
McLaughlin is a sensational talent and that will make her the next big deal in track and field. There has rarely been a female runner who runs with such power and ease. She has a glide gear that allows her to conserve energy while keeping up with her rivals. Now that she has cleaned up her hurdle technique, who knows what she is capable of.
An equally riveting rivalry has developed in the men’s 400 hurdles. For almost 30 years, Kevin Young was the only man who had broken 47 seconds, doing it once by running 46.78 in the 1992 Olympics. Then along came Norway’s Karsten Warholm and America’s Rai Benjamin, who have broken the mark seven times since 2019. Benjamin ran 46.80 at the Olympic trials, the second fastest ever, and two weeks later Warholm ran 46.70 to break the world record.
If conditions are good in Tokyo, expect the men’s and women’s world records to fall again.
Nike has taken some big hits to what’s left of its reputation in the last few years — to wit: the accusations that it employs sweatshops overseas to make its shoes as well as the accusations made by former running prodigy Mary Cain, who went public with her story of physical and emotional abuse she says she endured while training with Nike and its coach, Alberto Salazar.
Then last fall, a book titled “Win at All Costs: Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception” was released in which author Matt Hart details a comprehensive and systemic drug program that Nike and Salazar put its athletes through. He also chronicles the way the company penalized its female athletes who became pregnant.
Felix wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times in 2019 to detail her experience as a Nike athlete who wanted to have a baby. “Last week, two of my former Nike teammates, the Olympian runners Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher, heroically broke their nondisclosure agreements with the company to share their pregnancy stories in a New York Times investigation,” she wrote. “They told stories we athletes know are true, but have been too scared to tell publicly: If we have children, we risk pay cuts from our sponsors during pregnancy and afterward. It’s one example of a sports industry where the rules are still mostly made for and by men.”
Nike’s carefully crafted image is at odds with what goes on behind the scenes.
Maybe that’s why many of the top female athletes do not seem to be wearing Nike. Felix broke with Nike and signed a deal with Gap’s Athleta brand, but the shoe company that has culled the biggest number of female stars is New Balance, whose stable includes McLaughlin, Simpson, Bol, Coburn, Purrier, Gabby Thomas, Emily Sisson, Colleen Quigley and Abbey Cooper. Nike executives must’ve been grinding their teeth when they saw the top three finishers of the women’s Olympic trials 1,500 final wearing New Balance gear right there on Nike’s home-base track.
Because of a team contract that USA Track signed with Nike, all of those athletes must wear Nike uniforms in the Olympics.
One footnote: Salazar and Jeffrey Brown, Salazar’s colleague who served as a physician for the coach and the Nike Oregon Project track club, received four-year bans for administering a drug program. Strangely, no athletes were punished. Two of Salazar’s former distance runners — Galen Rupp (marathon) of the U.S. and world champion Sifan Hassan, an Ethiopian who represents the Netherlands — will compete in Tokyo.
Youth is served
If the 2016 Summer Olympics was McLaughlin’s introduction to the world, then this Olympics will introduce 19-year-old Mu and 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton.
Mu, one of seven children born shortly after her family immigrated from South Sudan to New Jersey, has stormed onto the scene this year in both the 400- and 800-meter races. She set a collegiate record of 49.57 en route to winning the 400 at last month’s NCAA championships (also the second fastest time in the world this year). She passed up the 400 to run the 800-meter distance at the Olympic trials and not only won the race but recorded the fastest time in the world this year, 1:56.07. At 5-foot-10, she has a long, easy stride that makes even a 1:56 half-mile look effortless.
Knighton, a lanky 6-foot-3 phenom from Tampa, Florida, turned pro in January, forgoing the high school season. In the Olympic trials he placed third in the 200-meter dash with a time of 19.84, breaking Bolt’s world junior record in only his third year of track competition. He is the youngest man to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team since Jim Ryun in 1964.