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TRACK AND FIELD

Berlin Wall concrete for Usain Bolt, gold for Bekele and fewer medals for Team USA

A big chunk of the wall is given to record-breaker Bolt, who has outshined all others at the world championships. But the Americans' performance needs to be put in perspective.

August 24, 2009|Philip Hersh

BERLIN — The mayor of Berlin gave Usain Bolt a piece of political history Sunday for the Jamaican sprinter's contribution to sports history at the 12th World Track and Field Championships.

It is a chunk of the Berlin Wall decorated with Bolt's image, appropriate for an athlete whose world records in the 100 and 200 meters shattered the apparent limits of human performance in this 20th year since the fall of an enormous barrier to human interaction.

This token of the city's esteem for Bolt is 12 feet tall and four feet wide and weighs 1.7 tons. That will be tough to lug home even for the man who carried the 2009 world championships that ended Sunday to the front pages of newspapers around the world.

In the long shadow cast by Bolt's massive achievement, it is easy to forget Kenenisa Bekele, a 110-pound distance runner from Ethiopia, also performed some heavy lifting to carry off gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, which no man had ever done in the same world meet. That is the same double Bekele won in the 2008 Olympics.

Bolt ran an aggregate 1,300 meters for his medals in the sprints and the sprint relay. Bekele ran 20,000 meters for his two titles, the last 50 in a stirring sprint to carry him past defending champion Bernard Lagat of the United States in Sunday's 5,000 final. He already had won a fourth straight title in the 10,000.

"When you think of those distances and doubling in a single championships, that's phenomenal," said U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix, who Sunday added a second straight gold on the 4x400 relay to her three straight in the 200 meters.

"You do get caught up in the fastest. Sometimes it's difficult to step back and look at other performances that are in a different realm."

Judged on medal counts, the U.S. did not meet its standard of the last two worlds. When a second straight year of relay fiascoes is factored in, the accounting seems worse.

Five medals Sunday, including expected golds in the 4x400 relays and 22-year-old Brittney Reese's surprise in the long jump, pushed the U.S. numbers to 10 gold and 22 total.

That is three more gold than No. 2 Jamaica and nine more total than Jamaica and Russia, which shared No. 2 in that category. It also is four fewer gold and total medals than the U.S. won in 2007, four fewer gold and three fewer medals than 2005.

"We can blunt the craziness that accompanies these incredibly high expectations to win everything," Doug Logan, chief executive of USA Track and Field, said in a text message. "We won this competition convincingly in all aspects, period."

Compared with the number of top eight finishes, a valid measure of a nation's overall success, the U.S. did as well as it had in winning that category at the last two worlds.

Among the top eights were three in the women's 1,500, in which Shannon Rowbury got the bronze medal after the first finisher, Natalia Rodriguez of Spain, was disqualified for shoving medal favorite Gelete Burka of Ethiopia, causing her to fall and finish last. Rowbury's teammates, Christin Wurth-Thomas and Anna Willard, were fifth and sixth.

"It was an accomplishment for all of us to be in the final," Rowbury said, "but it's even better we didn't show up to get 10th, 11th and 12th."

That the U.S., once the world sprint leader, was routed by Jamaica (five of six golds in 100-200-sprint relays) for the second straight global championship has a huge effect on the perception of Team USA's performance. So do baton exchange and injury mishaps that kept both U.S. sprint relays out of the finals again.

"Our first job with the relays is to completely take the pressure off," Logan said.

It would also help if the runners knew what legs they were running before getting to the track, which was not the case in the men's 4x400 relay Sunday. It made no difference because the U.S. could run that event in order of age or height or waist size and still win.

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phersh@tribune.com

twitter.com/olyphil

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