Saturday, July 14, 2007

Stuff You Won't See on ESPN: Track Action!

Track is so poorly marketed, presented and covered in America. In Europe and Asia interest is significantly greater because people have been taught how to understand, and hence appreciate, what they are watching. Have a true fan give me a 15-minute primer on sport I'm unfamiliar with and I'll be hooked. That's why I've greatly appreciated Ollie's and soccer-savvy intern Shadow's takes on DC United and the US national team. ESPN just finds it so much easier to package and sell 4 main sports -- football, basketball, baseball and NASCAR -- while virtually ignoring everything else. When an important news story breaks outside of this little orbit of ballsports, with golf and tennis thrown in there for good measure, it's comical to watch all the talking heads and beat reporters try to muster some iota of appreciation. And I think one such moment is coming up.

Alan Webb, local DC-area runner who broke the high school mile record several years ago, running 3:53 against the big boys at the Prefontaine Invitational, has had a rocky professional career thus far. Heralded as the new Golden Boy of track, one who could compete against the two-decade dominance of Ethiopian, Kenyan, Morrocan, Algerian, and European distance runners. America, despite all its sports success, despite having more kids in high school participating in cross country than any other sport, has not medaled in the Olympic mile since Jim Ryun in 1968, nor in a World Championships, held in Olympic off-years, since Jim Spivey in 1987. Webb was going to change all that.

But after dropping out of Michigan after only one year in the program to sign with Nike and train full-time for the mile with his high school coach Scott Raczko, Webb has been mercurial, showing great promise in one race only to make questionable strategic decisions in the next. Now 24, Webb has shown considerable strength, an ability to run the whole race at a fast pace, but dubious last lap speed, the difference between first and 8th.

Two seasons ago he seemed to make a breakthrough, making it through two challenging rounds of preliminaries to earn a spot in the World Champs final. The consensus among us track folks was that Webb couldn't wait around till the last lap or runners with better kicks would fly by him -- he had to try to break the race open much earlier. The result was a brave, impressive failure that showed tremendous guts, reminiscent of Steve Prefontaine. See it here.

After a down season last year, Webb has emerged with new confidence and power.
First he won the US Championships against uber-talented Kenyan emigre Bernard Lagat.
Then, there was this race in Paris where Webb defeated some of the best international competition, including home favorite Baala.

Webb's new personal best of 3:30 for 1500 meters translates into roughly a 3:46 mile. The American mile record is 3:47.69, set by Steve Scott way back in 1982.

Webb runs the mile at a meet in Belgium on July 21st. With the right pacing, he breaks 3:47.
In August, Webb will compete at World Champs, right in the mix of contenders.
Like soccer, Americans have just been out of the picture internationally for the past 15 years or so. Webb leads a troop of young talent, Dathan Ritzenheim, marathoner Ryan Hall, Matt Tegenkamp (who just ran a 8:04(!) two-mile American record) that seems to be able to compete against the best in the world because they believe they can.

See the things ESPN misses out on?

1 comment:

Ollie said...

The caption for that picture should read, "Webb wins race, ruins shorts."