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BEIJING 2008 : HELENE ELLIOTT

U.S. gets on beaten track

August 23, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

BEIJING — The U.S. men's and women's 1,600-meter relay teams passed the baton safely Friday, big news after the muffed handoffs that knocked the 400-meter relay teams out of the Olympics a day earlier.

Although the batons didn't fall, the U.S. team's medal count rose by only one after seven finals were contested.

A runaway victory by Glendora's Bryan Clay in the decathlon was the lone addition, giving the U.S. track and field team 21 medals -- five gold, nine silver and seven bronze.

Medals will be awarded in seven events today at the Bird's Nest. U.S. athletes should make the top three in the men's and women's 1,600-meter relays and could in the men's 5,000, where defending world champion Bernard Lagat will pursue his first Olympic title as an American citizen.

Even if every handoff is perfect, the U.S. team might not match the 25 medals it won at Athens. Doug Logan, USA Track and Field's chief executive for all of five weeks, said the medal count isn't bad but also isn't as good as it could have been.

"We are not producing best performances at these Games. We need to find out why," said Logan, formerly the top executive of Major League Soccer.

"We need to find out if this great investment in human and fiscal resources that we've put into some of these elite programs for a number of years is really paying off for us."

Logan identified two priorities before he took the job. "And baton passes in the relay were not a part of that," he said.

They are now, tacked onto an agenda that includes building a stable business model for the sport and maintaining a vigorous anti-doping policy.

Among his first moves was creating a blog called Shin Splints on USATF's website, www.usatf.org, a refreshing display of openness after the rare, tight-lipped pronouncements of his predecessor, Craig Masback.

Within a week, Logan made headlines by urging President Bush to deny defrocked Olympic medalist Marion Jones a reduction of the prison time she's serving for check fraud and lying to federal investigators about her drug use. The man isn't shy, and he doesn't kid around.

He wasn't angry with Darvis Patton or Tyson Gay, who dropped the baton before the final leg of the men's 400-meter relay, or with Torri Edwards and Lauryn Williams, who did the same in the women's first-round race.

Handoffs can be tricky: Jamaica's Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart, co-silver medalists in the women's 100, couldn't complete an exchange within the zone in the 400-meter relay final and lost a sure medal.

The nature of the gaffes here, Logan said, is "just symptoms of a larger problem" rooted in procedures for selecting, training and coaching relay runners.

"The choices that have been made by those who have been responsible have got to be examined and they've got to be questioned," he said.

He intends to form a task force that will report to him "and not to the ingrained infrastructure of USATF." He will ask for recommendations within 12 weeks so a new system can be implemented to improve results in events leading up to the 2012 London Olympics.

"The relays and the sprints are our signature events. Like it or not, that's the way we are judged," he said. "We can win 35 medals in other events, but if we don't do well in the sprints it's something we feel extraordinarily bad about as fans, as administrators, as coaches, as athletes.

"If it were just an inadvertent handoff, a freaky kind of a thing, you'd understand. You'd feel bad about it as a fan and you'd moan and groan, but I have a feeling it's a symptom of a larger, systemic problem. I have dug into it enough to have some reservations with regard to some of the things that I'm hearing."

Relays and sprints aren't the only weak spots. Results have lagged in field events too.

U.S. men won 10 long jump medals in the previous five Games, including gold and silver in 2004, but were shut out here. In eight men's throwing or jumping events, only four of 22 entrants reached the finals. They produced one medal, Christian Cantwell's silver in the shotput.

Ten of 22 U.S. entrants made the finals in women's throws and jumps. They won two medals, Jenn Stuczynski's silver in the pole vault and Stephanie Brown Trafton's surprise gold in the discus.

"That's going to be examined too," Logan said. "I was talking to Carl Lewis, and Carl was just bemoaning the fact that we didn't have a finalist in the long jump, America's event. It's Carl Lewis, it's Bob Beamon. It's traditional.

"There are some [good] pockets on the field side. We had a bright spot in the women's discus that was totally unanticipated. A lot of what happened is simply sport. I think that there are some telltales out there that certainly I'm going to charge this panel or task force or whatever you want to call it, with looking into."

Sounds like a plan. Too bad it's too late to help the U.S. relay runners.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@ latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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