I don’t have a real, rational belief in some kind of supernatural ledger that keeps score on our every move. But I find it easy to believe that when people, in groups or individually, behave well, good things are more likely to come their way (there’s more good around) and when they behave badly, they’re more likely to have bad things happen to them.
So Wednesday night, when the U.S. track federation gave up their protest of Wallace Spearmon’s DQ in the 200m final (Spearmon crossed the line third) but then filed one against the Netherlands Antilles’ Churandy Martina (who crossed the line second) for a similar lane violation, I cringed.
Part of it, selfishly, was just that the Netherlands Antilles is a long country name to type, grammatically awkward, and burdened with an obscure abbreviation (AHO).
But more troubling was that I felt like this protest did us no good. Shawn Crawford, who crossed the line fourth, was getting a medal anyway. DQing Martina got him silver and Walter Dix bronze, medals neither of them seemed to want—at least not by disqualifying runners who’d finished in front of them. The Netherlands Antilles’ tiny federation decried what they saw as big-nation bullying, a fit of pique and minor-medal greed from a nation used to dominating the individual sprint events and having a bad Games. I pretty much agree with them; Team USA has known how to win for decades, but they frequently need lessons in how to lose gracefully. (N.B. Individual athletes, for the most part, have been excellent losers; it’s the coaches and managers who’ve been the worst sports, as exemplified by this protest.)
But karma, at least as far as I can see, has come back on Team USA. Last night was an absolute massacre in the men’s 4x100m relay, with four of the eight teams starting the first heat failing to negotiate the third exchange. Only ten of the sixteen teams that started the heats finished with a legal mark, and eight advanced to the final. It could’ve been pure bad luck that the Americans bobbled the baton, especially given how many times they’ve dropped the stick before. (They’re infamous for it, in fact.)
But then the women dropped their baton in the same way, in the same spot.
It’s gotta be karma. I can’t describe it any other way. And it’s a shame that the athletes are losing out. Tyson Gay hoped for three gold medals like he won in Osaka, but now he’s leaving Beijing empty-handed. Allyson Felix could’ve contended for three or even four; she has a silver (mild disappointment) but now won’t even have one relay to race. Hopefully they’ll be able to get the 4x400m quartet in the final for her.
It’s the coaches, and the agents, and the lack of a sharply defined process for picking a relay squad without politics and forcing them to practice their handoffs until they can swap the stick in their sleep. It’s the officials, in other words. The ones who protested the 200m. The ones who promised too many track medals to the USOC and went scrambling to gain one by protest when the Games were going badly.
Poorly done, gentlemen.
(As I wrapped this up, I got a press release from USATF with a “blog entry” from the new USATF CEO, in which he says the right things:
Ultimately, the athletes on the track are the only ones who can successfully pass the stick around the track. But they need the proper leadership and preparation. These are professional athletes who are the best in their field, and anybody who ever ran a high school relay cringes when that baton hits the track. It reminds me of NBA players who have horrendous free-throw percentages. All it takes is repetition, preparation and focus to make a free throw. The same goes for baton-passing. As an organization, we owe it to our athletes to provide the preparation they need to succeed. We will do everything we can to figure out what went wrong and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Now let’s see what happens in 2009 in Berlin.)