Some more Events to watch in Helsinki


Track and Field has drifted from the mainstream into a niche. “There’s no denying it,” British promoter Ian Stewart told me earlier this summer. That’s not so bad. In many ways, in the United States every sport except the NFL, March Madness and any golf tournament in which Tiger Woods contends is a niche sport. Track does respectable TV ratings in the U.S. I suggested to USA Track and Field CEO Craig Masback yesterday that this means track fans are loyal and find their sport on television. He suggested that the sport also attracts "stumblers,’’ people who just fall across a meet while surfing and stay with it. Maybe so.

In either case, the sport is still in the process of a metamorphosis that began in Athens last summer.

The world championships are a sprawling epic, comedy and tragedy on the same stage on the same night. U.S. hurdler Allen Johnson, a four-time world champion and 1996 Olympic gold medalist, offered this bit of poetry: "This is where new stars are made, old stars fade away and current stars continue to be stars.’’

Add to that: This is where the sport finds its identity.

Here’s a list of things I’ll be watching. This one goes to eleven.

  1. Gatlin The Man – Gatlin’s 100-meter gold medal in Athens was a shock to many. Rising Jamaican Asafa Powell was supposed to win. Or Greene. But Gatlin was best in the fastest 100 in history. It changed his life. He bought a new house. He bought a $90,000 Porsche (license plate JGAT2 to go with the JGAT on his Cadillac Escalade flatbed). He found himself out front.

"People expect things now,’’ he told me Thursday night in Helsinki. "I accept that.’’ He might have come here as the underdog to Powell, who broke the 100-meter world record in June. But Powell got hurt. "I wish he was running,’’ Gatlin says. "I wish he was in every race I run.’’

I think Gatlin has the same mental toughness that Greene has and that he would have beaten Powell on that alone. Now he is the clear favorite, which is a different deal altogether. If he’s the New Mo, he needs to win here. Period.

  1. Is Webb ready for prime time? – Two pieces of information:

*Alan Webb came to Athens looking to make the Olympic final and bombed out in the first round, a victim of horrible tactics that he openly admitted to.

*Less than a week ago, Webb ran a 3:48.92 mile at the Bislett Games in Oslo, the second-fastest mile ever by an American-born runner and the fourth-fastest by any American (Sydney Maree and Bernard Lagat ran faster as naturalized U.S. citizens). Converted to 1,500 meters, Webb should be roughly the sixth or seventh seed in Helsinki. Hicham El Guerrouj isn’t running here. Neither is Lagat. Webb is still only 22 years old and relatively inexperienced at tactical running. Nonetheless, this is a great opportunity. He should make the final and possibly threaten for a medal.

  1. Radcliffe’s Double – After her terrible Olympics, in which she dropped out of both the marathon and 10,000 meters, Great Britain’s Paul Radcliffe has chosen to run both events in Helsinki. Worse, she seems conflicted about her expectations, having told British journalists at first that she wouldn’t run if not to win and later that the 10,000 was just a warm-up for the marathon. Radcliffe is one of the great, tough distance runners in history, but why take on this load? She’s never won a major title. Pick an event and take a shot.

  2. Barber vs. Kluft – Okay, so Americans haven’t much been interested in the heptathlon since Jackie Joyner-Kersee retired. Last year, Eunice Barber was injured and did not get the chance to compete against Sweden’s Carolina Kluft in Athens. Now she gets that chance.

  3. Richards in a hurry – Two years ago, Sanya Richards won the NCAA and USATF 400 meters as a freshman at Texas. Last year, she was a disappointing sixth in the Olympic Games, but at the U.S. Nationals in June, she ran 49.28, the fastest time by an American in more than two decades and the fastest in the world this year. A native of Jamaica who has never competed for that country, Richards has benefited from training in Waco with Clyde Hart, who also mentors men’s Olympic 400-meter gold medalist Jeremy Wariner and, of course, before that Michael Johnson.

Like Webb, she has hastened the learning curve. She said on Friday that she feels fit and ready to run a personal record, which would put her within range of becoming the second American woman (after Valerie Brisco), and the ninth in history, to break 49 seconds.

  1. High, high hurdles – There is no race in track and field quite like the men’s 110-meter hurdles. Eight men, sprinting and leaping over barriers in a flurry of arms and feet. In Helsinki, the field is full of 13-flat-or-better hurdlers, including Americans Allen Johnson, Dominique Arnold and Terrence Trammell, Athens gold medalist Lu Xiang of China and rising star Ladji Doucoure of France, of whom the sly Johnson, ever the scamp, asked two French journalists earlier in the summer: "How do you pronounce his name?’’ If Johnson wins, he will be the first to win five gold medals in the same track event at the Worlds. He is 34 years old. "Already, the greatest in history,’’ says former U.S. Olympian and Chicago Bears’ wideout Willie Gault. Last summer in Athens, Johnson crashed in the semifinals and watched the final from the seats. "Front row, third hurdle,’’ says Johnson. "It was a strange place to watch from.’’

  2. Can Wariner break 44 seconds? – Forty-four flat in the Olympic final. Then 44.20 in the nationals this year. Slower since, but I’m betting Hart has been training Wariner hard to peak here.

  3. Sanchez vs. Clement – The reigning king of the 400-meter hurdles, Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic (raised in Southern California) has struggled with injuries this year and will find the 19-year-old Kerron Clement (American by way of Trinidad) to be a handful. It would be sweeter to see this race with Sanchez at full strength, but also sweet to see Clement become the first man since world record holder Kevin Young (46.78) to break 47 seconds.

  4. Shot put sweep? – It would be nice to see John Godina win his fourth world title and rediscover his early-season magic (and health). It would be nice to see Adam Nelson win a gold medal after four silvers in Olympic and World Championship events (2000, '01, '03 and '04). It would be nice to see Christian Cantwell win the gold after missing the Olympic team altogether a year ago.

  5. Isinbayeva ever higher – Utterly in a class by herself, Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia, only 23, has become the first woman to clear five meters in the pole vault (16 feet, five inches; the height that Bubka once said would bring respectability to the women’s vault). Can it be long until she attempts 17 feet?

  6. Sturrup – At nearly 34, Chandra Sturrup has run a PR of 10.84 for 100 meters this summer and is favored to win the gold in Helsinki. Her previous PR was 10.86, five years ago. Another nice coaching job by Trevor Graham. Can I hear you say: Hmmmmmm?