Season of Change?
Summer is set to sizzle, with plenty of hot-button issues heading
into the nationals
There's no Olympics or world championships on the schedule in
2002, making this one of those off years when track and field
athletes tweak technique, try a different coach, switch sponsors
and even experiment with new events. Here are four important
questions in the run-up to the U.S. Nationals in Palo Alto,
Calif., June 21-23.
I. Will multitalented Marion Jones finally master the long jump?
Not this year. Though her long jump technique still needs major
work, Jones is committed exclusively to sprinting this summer.
She's balancing her training evenly between the 100 and the 200
meters, both of which she plans to run at the Nationals. The
five-time Olympic medalist says that to challenge either of
Florence Griffith-Joyner's 14-year-old records in those events,
she needs to devote hours to the minutiae of sprinting. "We're
talking about a whole day just to work on the angles of my hands
or the tilt of my chin," Jones says. "If my chin is too high,
then my head goes back, and that throws off my entire upper
II. What's the hottest event in U.S. track and field these days?
Would you believe the men's shot put? At the Prefontaine Classic
in Eugene, Ore., last month, Kevin Toth, Adam Nelson and John
Godina all surpassed 71'10", marking the first time three U.S.
competitors had done so at the same meet. In fact, the top 15
throws of 2002 belong to Americans--and these aren't your
typical dour behemoths. Nelson fires up the fans by clapping,
prancing and flinging warm-up gear before his throws, and when
Toth and Godina join in, the crowd loves it even more. "The shot
put is quickly becoming the most electric event in track and
field," says Nelson, the silver medalist in Sydney whose toss of
73'10 1/4" at a meet in Portland last month was the best by an
American since 1990. "To people who used to get psyched for the
sprints or the mile, we are the buzz now." Marion Jones concurs.
In the press tent during the shot put competition in Eugene, she
said over the crowd roar, "They're stealing our thunder."
III. What's the latest Webb site?
It won't be Michigan for long if Wolverines freshman Alan Webb
decides to turn pro before next fall. At South Lakes High in
Reston, Va., Webb became the fastest U.S. prep miler in history,
running 3:53.43. But he has been less dynamic in college. At the
NCAA championships in Baton Rouge earlier this month he finished
fourth, a performance he called "the end of an incredibly
terrible year." Webb, who could command a six-figure income with
a shoe contract and appearance fees on the pro circuit, would
likely reunite with Scott Raczko, his coach at South Lakes. More
important, by turning pro Webb could forgo the cluttered
collegiate schedule and train so as to peak for specific meets.
IV. How long until Stacy's sweet 16?
It's only a matter of time before Olympic pole vault champ Stacy
Dragila becomes the first woman to clear 16 feet. But don't
count on her doing it this year. Dragila, who has raised the
world record eight times, most recently to 15'9 1/2" last June,
says she doesn't yet have the strength and control to switch
from her 14'7" poles to a 15-footer, which could fling her
higher. "I have 10 poles now," she says. "When I don't have any
more big heights left in them, I'll probably take the step up."
Svetlana Feofanova of Russia is Dragila's closest rival with a
vault of 15'7", but no other American woman has cleared 15'2".
IAAF Rules for El Guerrouj
Chance of a Lifetime
Ayachi El Guerrouj, a 65-year-old restaurateur from Berkane,
Morocco, walked into an eatery in Eugene, Ore., last month, clad
in sweatpants and a T-shirt. When he spotted his son Hicham, 27,
fidgeting over a salad, he clenched his fists, struck a he-man
pose and watched him dissolve into laughter. "It is easy to make
him think," said the elder El Guerrouj, "but I know how to bring
him to saada [joy]."
These days Hicham, the world-record holder in the 1,500 meters
(3:26.00) and the mile (3:43.13), says he's again running with
saada, thanks to news that the IAAF, the sport's international
governing body, had adjusted its race schedule at the 2003 world
championships in Paris and the 2004 Olympics in Athens to
accommodate him. Not since Finland's Paavo Nurmi in 1924 has an
athlete won the 1,500 and 5,000 in the same Olympics. Beginning
with the 1980 Games in Moscow, the two races have been contested
on the same day. But after El Guerrouj, the three-time world
champion in the 1,500, announced his intention to run the 5,000
in Athens, the IAAF made sure the two events would be held on
different days. A similar adjustment in '96 made it possible for
Michael Johnson to double in the 200 and 400 in Atlanta.
"Before I learned [of the IAAF decision], I had to make a
choice," says El Guerrouj. "I thought my career would have an
emptiness no matter which race I chose not to run. Either I
would miss a chance for a new challenge, or I would be
unfulfilled. Now I will make history doing both."
El Guerrouj won the mile at the Prefontaine in 3:50.89. It was
his 62nd victory in 65 races dating to 1996, but two of the
losses came in the Olympics. In Atlanta he fell and placed
seventh, and in Sydney he broke late from a trailing pack and
had to settle for silver behind Noah Ngeny of Kenya. Afterward
sympathy rained on El Guerrouj, whom two-time Olympic
1,500-meter champ Sebastian Coe calls "undoubtedly history's
greatest miler." Morocco's King Hassan II gave him an SUV. Roger
Bannister sent him a sheet inscribed with the signatures of 16
world-record holders in the mile.
When El Guerrouj announced last year that he would start
focusing on the 5,000, the reaction in the track world was akin
to that in the NBA when Michael Jordan took up baseball. "I'm
honored to have run with him even if I could never beat him,"
Kenya's Bernard Lagat, the Sydney bronze medalist in the 1,500,
said last year, "but it is a big loss for the event." El
Guerrouj says he will likely wait until next season to start
racing in the 5,000. And thanks to the IAAF, perhaps in Paris or
Athens he'll get a double dose of saada.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Nelson is firing up the fans while helping to fuel a shot put revival.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES (JONES) Forgoing the long jump, Jones will focus on the 100 and 200 meters.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Thanks to the IAAF, El Guerrouj won't have to choose between the 1,500 and 5,000 at Athens.