At Olympic Trials, stories, performances strike at track and field’s complex heart

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There is this eternal struggle in track and field. A struggle between, on the one hand, the soaring egalitarian joy in which a giant shot putter with stubbly orange hair on his face and a tiny sprinter with flowing orange hair on her head, him so large and she so small that he comprises nearly three of her (and throws a ball that is just less than one-seventh of her body weight almost the length of a basketball court) can rise together; and on the other hand the ever-present shadow of suspicion, uncertainty and bureaucratic entanglements, a nearly fatal flaw, that stands beside every professional track, scythe in hand, head hooded in black, damning the entire proceedings and covering them in scandal, both real and presumed.

Four days before the start of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, a meet that is nearly as good as the Games themselves and even more enervating, came the news that Shelby Houlihan, a midwestern distance runner with a furious kick and American records in the 1500m and 5000m events, had been banned from competing for four years because of a positive test for a banned steroid. Not only was Houlihan out of the Trials, but at age 28, her career was toe-tagged at its peak. This was bad enough, for Houlihan (sitting in neutral on guilt-or-innocence for a beat) and for the sport. But when Houlihan claimed that her positive test was triggered by eating tainted pork in a burrito – a plausible explanation in 2021, even if not an accurate one, and who really knows? – the sport was heaved down a deep internet well of easy and bludgeoning humor. Attention was diverted away from a sensational event and landed directly on cynicism and snark. Track lol who’s eating the fastest burrito?

It was all too familiar, all too painful, all too frustrating. Meanwhile in Omaha, a few hundred miles east of Eugene, where the Track Trials would take place, the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials unfolded in blissful simplicity. There were races. There were OIympians. Joy and hugs and tears. There was no extracurricular drama, just a sensational sporting event.

Track and field deserved the same. After all, it is nearly the perfect sport. It can be complex if you like it thus. A guy like NBC’s Ato Boldon can do 90 minutes, easy, on the first three steps of the 100m, every word of it fascinating. And don’t get any real track nut (easy now, it’s a term of endearment) started on triple jump or pole vault mechanics because that’s a like a biomechanics seminar. But it can also be blessedly simple, if you like it thus – first one to the finish line wins. Citius, altius, fortius, in the extreme. And what a show: Faces contorted, bodies of all different forms, colorful uniforms. It’s all there. But the drug thing holds the sport in its icy fingers, going all the way back to Ben Johnson. As if every track athlete has a laboratory in his bathroom, which the vast majority do not. But the image hangs on, and gets new life with a case like Houlihan’s.

This was the pretext for the Track Trials.

But then over four days and nights in Eugene, in a glittering new stadium that wasn’t allowed to fill, but sure wasn’t empty, something happened. Again. In the ongoing battle against itself, track and field not only survived the Houlihan scandal, but rose far above it. (The same cannot be said for Houlihan herself, and that is either justice served or a tragedy of over-regulation and collateral damage, and we will likely never know which. No getting past that.). A giant man filled a controversial place in the record book. A small, sensational woman announced herself at high speed. Two mothers ran one fast lap. A male sprinter completed the unlikeliest of comebacks. It was simple. It was complex. But it was no joke.

TRACK AND FIELD TRIALS: Results | TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview

It started with Crouser, a 6-foot-7, 320-pound native Oregonian (Portland) who won the shot put gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and has since been chasing the event’s world record of 75 feet, 10 ¼ inches, set by Randy Barnes 31 years ago. Less than three months after setting that record, Barnes tested positive for a steroid and was banned for more than two years. Eight years later, he tested positive again and was banned for life. Barnes’s shot world record has long been considered suspect, a line of small type leering at the rest of the sport. (And not the only one).

Just past seven on Friday night, Crouser stepped into the shot circle for his fourth attempt. Three times his waved his right arm, asking for noise. He then spun twice across the circle and heaved – no, it was more graceful than that … flipped – the 16-pound shot into the blue sky. He immediately raised both arms, Steph Curry dangling a fishhook, Fernando Tatis, Jr., flipping his bat. “The second it left my hand I knew it was good,” he said afterward. It landed 76 feet, 8 ¼ inches away, a record by 10 inches, unfathomable.

I know what some of you are thinking: You break a dirty record, you’re dirty. At some point, that cycle of presumption has to stop. Because it is killing track. At some point, you believe. Crouser has never borne the whiff of scandal. There are no absolutes in track (or any sport), but replacing Barnes’ name in the record books with Crouser’s is a win. It just is.

Twenty-four hours later, 21-year-old Sha’Carri Richardson won the women’s 100m, with a long mane of orange hair trailing behind her and a cone of charisma as wide as her native Texas surrounding her. She won the final by daylight in 10.86 seconds, into a significant 1.0 meters-per-second headwind, but it was after running a blinding 10.64 (with an illegal tailwind) ninety minutes earlier in the semifinal – and pointing at the clock for the last 10 meters as if commanding it to freeze memorable digits, that she told NBC Sports’ Lewis Johnson, “I want the world to know I’m that girl.” (Richardson also said that her biological mother had died in the previous week, and went into the stands for a long embrace with her grandmother, but hasn’t elaborated publicly on the granular details of her life).

And there is surely power in her words to Johnson: I’m that girl. Track and field in its best form is a niche sport than crosses into the mainstream only on the backs of dynamic athletes with celebrity power. Like the recently retired Usain Bolt. Although the more obvious parallel is the late Florence Griffith Joyner, the 100m and 200m world record holder who won three gold medals at the 1988 Olympics and never raced again after that year. She captivated a world far beyond the track not just with her transcendent speed, but with her flamboyant kits, her makeup, her fingernails (rarer then than now). She was Flo-Jo. Richardson is aware of the parallel and embraces it. In a 2019 Instagram post she wrote:

Y’all love talking about my hair & my nails like the greatest woman to ever enter the game didn’t run in style 🤣💅🏽 keep hating the player 😘 and y’all right we gone let them keep talking.

Like Flo-Jo, Richardson’s personal style has rankled some of track’s old-school fan base. This is a shame, but they will be left behind like her opponents, and it will be their loss. On the track, like Flo-Jo’s, Richardson’s style is tight, compact, powerful. Her start needs cleaning up, but she’s early in her career. A massive test lies ahead: Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce has won two Olympics golds and four world championships in the 100m and recently ran her personal best of 10.63 seconds at age 35, the fourth-fastest wind-legal time in history and fastest by anyone other than Griffith Joyner. (Like Richardson and many others, S-A F-P has gotten a boost from Nike’s newest spikes. Says Boldon, who also coaches 19-year-old Jamaican Briana Williams, “Briana, who I coach, has the shoes. They are definitely a factor. I’ve seen the difference in the numbers with my own eyes. But I think it’s wrong to act like the shoes are responsible for huge improvements. They aren’t.” I asked Boldon if we are talking hundredths, not tenths. He said: “So far I think hundredths, but if Shelly-Ann runs 10.55, which I think she will, I’ll stand corrected.” (It’s not just Fraser-Pryce; on Saturday Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria, 32, also ran 10.63 seconds with a 2.7 tailwind, which still translates roughly to 10.84 in still air).

Last thing: As with Crouser, some have tried to muddy Richardson’s times because she is coached by Dennis Mitchell, who tested positive as an active athlete, and who coaches Justin Gatlin, who has been at the center of doping controversies for a decade and a half, some deservedly, some scurrilously. It is a yes, but routine that is almost reflexive. I know, because I’ve done it (and been both validated and not). But again, no. The cycle has to stop. The sport must be allowed to flourish in the moment. If there is a reckoning, let it come in its own time (and preferably without burritos).

Come Sunday night, the stage was ceded first to a pair of mothers. Quanera Hayes, 29, won the 400m in 49.78 seconds; she was followed by a bigger story, as 35-year-old Allyson Felix took second in 50.02 seconds to make her fifth Olympic team. They were joined on the track by Hayes’ son, Demetrius, and Felix’s daughter, Camryn, both born in the fall of 2018, both wobbling on toddlers’ legs as their mothers wobbled on oxygen-deprived ones. The moment was especially resonant because over the past two years, Felix – for most of her career reticent about taking strong stands – had publicly called out shoe and apparel companies for limiting the earning power and job security of women who took time off to have children.

But it was also resonant for the way Felix qualified. She tore through the first 200m near the lead, then fell back to fourth place entering the home stretch, possibly fifth place, a backward trend that is usually a recipe for certain defeat in the 400m. But from there, she grinded her way all the back to second with a combination of experienced relaxation and courage. “Man, it has been a fight to get here,” Felix said on the track. “And one thing I know how to do is fight, so I just wanted to do that all the way home.”

Trayvon Bromell can relate. Four years ago he was destined to succeed Gatlin and Tyson Gay as the alpha male of U.S. sprinting. But he tweaked an Achilles in the summer of that season and then blew it out chasing Bolt in the 4x100m relay in Rio. He left the track in a wheelchair and later underwent surgery, which customarily ends a sprinter’s career. Christian Coleman took his place and won the 2019 World Championship but now is serving a suspension for several times failing to be present for drug tests. Instead, Bromell won the Trials 100m in 9.80. With Jamaica’s dominance over for now, he’s looking at a long, clear lane to America’s first Olympic 100m gold since Gatlin’s upset win in 2004.

The list of moments is yet longer. World record holder Keni Harrison won the 100m hurdles, shaking the lingering Asafa Powell Big-Race Failure Disease that beset her in 2016, when she failed to make the U.S. team. (Although, complexity alert: 2016 gold medalist Brianna (Rollins) McNeal also earned a conditional spot on Team USA, but she is fighting a suspension in international court and may not be eligible to run).

Monday night brought heartbreak, and courage.

In temperatures north of 90 degrees, Elle Purrier St. Pierre, the top seed in the women’s 1500m, bounced away from an early collision and eschewed any tactics at all. “I just wanted to get out there, make it honest, make it fast,” she said afterward, and she won from the front in a Trials record 3:58.03, her best ever. It’s one of the races in which Houlihan might have run, and she surely would have tested Purrier. But her absence had become a distant sidebar (again, justice or tragedy – we don’t know) next to the race itself.  Burrito jokes had fallen silent.

The Trials also offer up a singular form of agony. Donavan Brazier won the world title in the 800m in 2019 and is the American record holder and joint-ninth-fastest man in history in that event, a genuine international star. But the Trials ask perfection on one night, and like Harrison, Brazier has occasionally struggled with big-race moments, and after fighting off 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy short of the bell, he faded to last, paying for an ill-advised move. Murphy won the race in 1:43.17. “There’s things that champions overcome, and I couldn’t overcome them,” Brazier said after the race. “So obviously, I’m not of that championship-caliber that I needed to be at.”

And in the last race of the Trials’ first half, Abbey Cooper finished a painful, near-missing fourth in the 5000m. Cooper – as Abbey D’Agostino – had snagged 15 minutes of Olympic fame in ’16, when she became entangled with Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand and fell to the track in a heat of the 5000m. She rose and helped Hamblin finish, but later needed ACL surgery. Last Friday she soloed the Olympic qualifying standard in winning a heat of the 5000m, a brave move, and hoped to finish in the top three Monday. Close, but not enough, but in her effort there was a painful joy that struck at the heart of track and field — the willingness to risk.

Four days on and four to go, a sport had healed itself, leaving scars, but not blood.

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