Happy At Home
Track & field got under way on Friday in London, and suddenly, Americans could watch all of it from home — not on their TV sets, but on their computers, on the website nbcsports.com. And all I can say is, Wow!
There were occasional technical glitches — some viewers for some reason were limited to only track events or only field events, or didn’t have any audio, or had some timeouts. But from my vantage point here in Portland, Ore. — as a subscriber to DirecTV, because you have to be a cable subscriber to be able to sign up for this free service — it worked beautifully.
The two British announcers (hope to identify them for you at a later date) were superb. They knew who all the athletes were — not just the Brits — understood split times, analyzed shot put and discus technique on the spot. Another wow!
For the first half of the Friday evening session, there were no breaks at all for advertisements — remember Playhouse 90? — but that changed drastically in the second half when 15- and 30-second ads suddenly appeared with no warning, in the middle of a race. (We hope this can be improved, where at least the announcers are warned that a break is coming.)
Everything is live, so you need to check your time schedules and time zones. Here on the west coast of the United States, this means that the morning sessions will be available under the cover of darkness in the middle of the night, and the feature evening sessions will be midday.
There are no competitor interviews and limited replays, two reasons to tune in again for the network version at night.
On Friday, the women’s 10K final was shown on a delayed basis on NBC-TV — at different times depending on your time zone. This is a big improvement over past Games, when such races received little air time. However it was impossible to tell in advance when the race would actually be on the air, so we watched the webcast instead. Live and complete!
Then we ran downstairs to see it again on the bigger screen, this time presented by the Yank announcers Tom Hammond and Craig Masback. It was all set up with a superb preview by none other than the consummate pro Al Michaels, who gave a lengthy, flawless intro to the track and field section of these Olympic Games. Track may be declining in popularity in some places, Michaels said, but this stadium is packed and the atmosphere electric, so now here’s Tom and Craig for the call of the women’s 10,000. Gave you goosebumps.
We believe the stadium seats 75,000, and it appeared to be nearly full for both of Friday’s sessions. The American athletes raved about the fans.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Deedee Trotter, one of three American women to win their first-round races in the 400 meters. “Everybody came out this morning. I’ve been to three Olympics, and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
The American triple jumper Amanda Smock said she remembered “walking out into the stadium and seeing how packed it was here and how electrified the crowd was. It was absolutely amazing.”
It didn’t hurt that there were plenty of British athletes to cheer for, and on top of that, they were doing well.
Jessica Ennis, one of the favorites in the heptathlon, ran an extraordinary 12.54 in the 100 hurdles — at 10 in the morning — to get those two days of competition under way. It was the fastest ever run in a multi, and probably would get a medal in that event’s final, were she in it. Then Ennis PR’d in the concluding 200 (22.83) to take a 184-point lead heading into Saturday’s concluding three events.
The British women’s 400 trio of Christine Ohuruogo, the New Yorker Shana Cox,and Lee McConnell all moved on to the semifinals, joining the Americans Trotter, Sanya Richards-Ross and Francena McCorory.
“It felt good,” Richards-Ross said. “I’m 100 percent healthy. My fitness is phenomenal."
The Brits also advanced two men, Greg Rutherford and Chris Tomlinson, to the long jump final, and two milers, Ross Murray and Andy Baddeley, to the 1,500 semis.
The American trio of Matthew Centrowitz, Andrew Wheating and Leo Manzano all moved on in the 1,500 as well, but not without drama. Manzano came from way back to get sixth place in Heat I, .05 ahead of seventh; Wheating was seventh in Heat II in 3:40.92, qualifying last, and Centrowitz was nearly taken down by a stumbling Kenyan runner before finishing fifth in Heat III after a long, steady drive down the straightaway.
“Everyone started to move and get away from me,” Wheating said. “I decided not to press because I haven’t raced in over a month. I’m right on the bubble. I’m scared.”
“It’s nerve racking,” said Centrowitz, running his first Olympic race. “I was definitely trying to stay out of trouble.”
The British competitors even shone in the women’s 10k, as Joanne Pavey and Julia Bleasdale finished seventh and eighth, the top non-African finishers. Not far back, 11th through 13th, were the three Americans — Amy Hastings, Janet Cherobon-Bawsom and Lisa Uhl — all of whom ran lifetime bests, between 31:10 and 31:12.
“It was the fastest 31 minutes and 12 seconds of my life,” said Uhl, one of two Oregonians in the race. “It flew by … It was a great experience.”
The other Oregonian was Sally Kipyego, who lives in Eugene, went to Texas Tech and runs for Kenya. Kipyego ran a lifetime best, 30:26, and won the silver medal.
Plenty of other Oregonians — pardon the provincialism — will be running big races over the weekend. Wheating and Centrowitz, both Oregon Ducks, will be in Sunday’s 1,500 semis, but first there’s Saturday’s men’s 10,000-meter final, where the training partners Mo Farah and Galen Rupp will be two of the top competitors.
Farah, who runs for Great Britain, was born in Somalia and now lives in Portland, Ore., where he is coached by Alberto Salazar. Farah, who possesses a devastating kick, is considered the favorite in the 10,000, an Olympic event no British runner has ever won. The London crowd will be roaring.
Rupp, the American recordholder, is no slouch either. The U.S. has won the Olympic 10 only once, in Billy Mills’ historic victory in Tokyo 48 years ago. The only other American medalist in the event is Louis Tewanima, who won the silver in 1912. Tewanima, as is Mills, was a Native American.
The other two Americans in the 10k, Matt Tegenkamp and Dathan Ritzenhein, also live in Portland, giving this lone medium-sized American city four entries in the OG 10k, an honor even Nairobi and Addis Ababa can’t claim.
Of the 29 entries in the race, 18 are Africans — three each from Eritrea, Kenya and Ethiopia; two from Uganda; one each from Burundi, South Africa and Rwanda, and expats Ayad Lamdassem (Moroccan running for Spain), Mohammed Ahmed (Somalian in Canada by way of the University of Wisconsin); Turkey’s Polat Kemboi Arikam, whose name was Paul Kipkosgei Kemboi when he lived in Kenya, and Farah.
The closest GB came to winning the men’s 10 was 1984 when Michael McLeod took the silver. David Bedford, once the world recordholder, finished just sixth in ’72.
And then there’s the men’s steeple, whose prelims were held on Friday morning. The final is Sunday night, and it will include two Americans for the first time since 1996 — Donn Cabral, the recent Princeton graduate from Glastonbury, Conn., and Evan Jager, who lives in, yes, Portland.
Cabral, at 22, and Jager, 23, are two of the youngest runners in the field — younger even than any of the three favored Kenyan finalists, which include two prior Olympic champions, Brimin Kipruto, 27, who won in ’08, and Ezekiel Kemboi, who won in ’04. They are joined by Abel Mutai, 23.
Kenya has won the men’s steeplechase in seven Olympics in succession. The U.S. has won the event exactly once, when Horace Ashenfelter, a 29-year-old FBI agent from Glen Ridge, N.J., pulled off a huge upset to win the 1952 Games, 60 years ago.
Cabral has had a spectacular senior season, winning the Heps 10,000; anchoring two winning teams at the Penn Relays, the first double win at Penn by an Ivy League school in 51 years; setting an American collegiate record in the steeple, at 8:19. Yet Jager has been even more remarkable.
Jager, who is from Chicago, spent one season at the University of Wisconsin before moving to Portland with his coach, Jerry Schumacher. A miler (3:38 1,500 best), Jager ran the first steeple of his life four months ago, and ran 8:26. He won the Olympic Trials in 8:17, then broke the American record two weeks ago, running 8:06.81, a time that puts him among the leading entries in London. On Friday he finished second in Heat I in 8:16.61, the second-fastest time of his career.
The last American to medal in the steeple at the Games was Brian Diemer, with a bronze in ’84. When Ashenfelter entered the ’52 Games, he arrived with a PR of 9:06.4 and wound up winning in 8:45.4, setting a world record.