Sprinters Are Setting Records (for Civility)
By LYNN ZINSER
Published: August 4, 2008
Before the final of the men’s 100 meters at last month’s United States Olympic track and field trials, something extraordinary had already happened at the starting line.
Tyson Gay, the reigning world champion and the man who was about to run the fastest race in history, walked among his seven competitors and slapped hands with each.
In high-level sprinting, this qualified as outlandish behavior. :eek:
Sportsmanship has broken out among a group of athletes who historically act like porcupines or peacocks before races, and most of the time in general. Once the biggest trash-talkers in all of sports, sprinters have become, of all things, nice.
“I thought this was going to be the downfall of this generation of sprinters,” said an incredulous Ato Boldon, a former Olympic sprinter for Trinidad and Tobago, who was working as a broadcaster for NBC during the trials. “People have said to me, ‘This is boring.’ And yeah, it is kind of boring. This is like boxing. You’re not supposed to like each other. But they have proved me wrong.”
Even Boldon, one of the renowned trash-talkers in a generation that included the Americans Maurice Greene, Michael Johnson, Jon Drummond and Carl Lewis along with Canada’s Donovan Bailey, has begun to get used to the current scene.
Sprinters now compliment one another, wish one another the best. Gone is the prerace trash-talking, the once-incessant preening. Boldon said he now believes that as long as sprinters are running fast times, fans will be happy.
At the head of this generation is Gay, the perpetrator of the prerace well-wishing.
Outside of his track performances, he carries such a low profile that he might slip in under a track-side fence. His voice is whisper quiet. He admits to being nervous about races. After one of Gay’s biggest rivals, Usain Bolt of Jamaica, set a world record and beat him soundly in the 100 meters in a meet in New York in late May, Gay waited until the hubbub had died down and bounded over to give Bolt a hug.
“Times have changed,” Gay said before the Olympic trials. “It’s all very businesslike. We don’t really have that thing where this group doesn’t like that group. There’s really no need to talk a lot.”
In fact, when Gay tumbled out of the 200 meters with a cramp that later was described as a muscle strain, Bolt sent a message through his agent wishing Gay a speedy recovery.
This atmosphere is not unique to the men’s side of the equation. Gone are the sneering battles between women like Marion Jones, Gail Devers, Gwen Torrance and Jamaica’s Merlene Ottey. Torrance, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, once followed a race in the early ’90s by implying that all of her competitors were taking performance-enhancing drugs. Jones, who lorded over the sport like a queen, could rankle her competitors simply by walking into a room.
Now, the women are led by Allyson Felix, the two-time world champion in the 200, whose signature statement is a giggle. Muna Lee, the women’s 100 meters champion in the trials, is so quiet that she makes Gay sound like Terrell Owens. Even the voluble Lauryn Williams, the defending Olympic silver medalist, could be found jumping into other runners’ arms in celebration when they made the team at the trials, yelling, “We’re going to China!”
“I don’t think we have the drama at all,” Williams said. “The girls are very even-tempered and smooth. I like everybody. I don’t have anyone where I say really mean things about. I don’t have that fierce feeling toward anyone. I think everybody is a competitor, an enemy when I’m on the track. After that, we can hang out.”
The only thing that has even caused a rivalry-like ripple was last year at the world championships when Felix’s agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, sniped that the 400-meters specialist Sanya Richards was getting too much attention for asking the international track federation to change the Olympic schedule so she could attempt a double in the 200 and 400. Nehemiah thought it was detracting from the attention given Felix’s 200-meter title, but even Felix seemed embarrassed. “Renaldo got excited,” Felix said at the time.
“It’s just a new generation,” Felix said. “We’re kind of laid back. It’s nice.”
But some people maintain a nostalgic look at the old days. Boldon was among the most colorful of his generation, turning his sharp wit on his competitors whenever given the opportunity.
“I always thought it was good for the sport,” Boldon said. “In my generation, we had Maurice and Ato and Michael Johnson, who hated each other, and Dennis Mitchell, who everyone hated.
“But it’s good to see. Track and field has enough problems getting over the drug problems that put a cloud over our sport for so many years. When the guys at the top behave that way, it pervades the entire sport. They really are a bunch of gentlemen, genuinely nice guys.”
And that might be as stunning as how fast they run.