Friday, August 2, 2013

Placing and Chasing

A 2013 trip to Canada for the Harry Jerome and Victoria International Meets reconnects me to my track and field roots.

I pull into the parking lot at Swansgard Stadium, in Burnaby, British Columbia, for the Harry Jerome Classic and realize I shouldn’t have tried: it’s jammed. In the adjacent neighborhood, I park as a young man in front of me empties his car of a stash of javelins: Curtis Moss, Canada’s London Olympian.

I am, as always, wearing modest University of Oregon identifiers: screaming yellow with huge green letters. We make the connection: Curtis’ coach is Don Steen, a Duck of considerable note, a teammate of Phil Knight’s, and Dad of Dave, Canada’s 1988 Olympic bronze medalist in the decathlon.

My day – Canada Day, July 1 – is off to a good start.

I enter the stadium looking forward to seeing Dylan Armstrong – after all, he’s an Olympic bronze medalist now. I take my seat and within moments an entourage of big men walks up the stairs.


“Dylan,” I blurt out.

“Hi, how are you?”

“I am so delighted about your bronze medal.”

“Hey, thank you, thank you very much.”

The last shot putter to say that to me was Parry O’Brien at the Legends of Gold banquet at the 2001 Worlds in Edmonton, when I pointed out to him that the announcer had made a terrible mistake in identifying Dick Fosbury as the only athlete in the room to have transformed an event.

Armstrong sits two rows behind me, and no one takes the seat in between.

Most of Canada would give their eye teeth to be sitting where I am today.


Armstrong has become one of a growing group whose membership is not sought: Olympic and World placers who move up once drug testing catches up to the unclean, sometimes even as long as a decade later.

Adam Nelson from silver to gold (Athens ‘04), Dylan Armstrong from 4th to bronze (Beijing ‘08), and Valerie Adams from silver to gold (London ‘12) are among the most notable throwers of this increasingly less exclusive club, and all have had their status change in the last year as samples are retested.

Adams was fortunate to have the disqualification occur soon after her Olympic competition so she could reap the many benefits of her gold medal status. But not soon enough to stand atop the victory stand and hear her national anthem played in front of the world.

Imagine Nelson’s life the past 9 years as Olympic gold medalist. Or Armstrong’s national hero status enhanced in Canada as Olympic bronze medalist instead of the heartbreaking story of his 1cm medal-miss in ’08.

Imagine the personal loss of status and reward, as well as the loss of opportunity to promote the sport and enhance its presence on each country’s sporting stage.

Kudos to WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) for delivering a new message: you may be ahead of us on the day of competition, but we’ll keep your samples and test them and retest them as our techniques improve. As in Adam Nelson’s case, while it may take us almost a decade, we’ll do our utmost to assure that the medalists are clean.

There is no apology adequate for these champions, each of whom has handled this travesty of fairness with uncommon grace.


The shriek at the end of the women’s 800m in Victoria symbolized the standards chase that took place from the end of Nationals until the late July dates when qualifying for Worlds closed. Canada’s Melissa Bishop already had the B-standard and was headed to Worlds. But the A was her pre-Worlds goal and on this evening the gods were with her as she cracked the 2:00 minute A-standard for the first time. Hard to say when I last saw an athlete as overjoyed as she.

Two weeks later, Jordan Hasay sets out to make the US World Championships 10k team. And in spite of my misgivings about the pacing, Hasay’s 10k was a joy to watch (thanks, Flotrack). At the end of it all, Hasay got what she came for: a trip to Worlds in her first year in the event, not to mention a 20-second PR. No shriek from Hasay when merely beaming will do.

This chase, this pursuit of the dream, takes place on stages large and small and in countries all over the world. It’s no less compelling wherever it takes place, whether at Swansgard Stadium or a high school in Oregon late on a Sunday evening.

There is much about the Jerome and Victoria meets that connects to my track and field soul.

Tickets? Man at the gate in Burnaby with a handful. Results? That’s what results runners are for. Measurements? That what tapes are for.

What resonates here is that the track and field dream is alive and on center stage. Athletes running sub-3:40 for the first time, a flock of women sprinting in the 11.2-11.5 range, five men in the 46s in the 400m, javelin throwers mastering the wind.

Athletes without sponsors: a middle distance runner with adidas backpack and Nike shoes the surest sign that sponsorship remains one competition away.

In every event, those who aren’t quite yet on the international stage know that in moments they could be. The national developmental races are at least as compelling as the international ones.

*     *     *

Curtis Moss provides bookends for both Canadian meets. We meet again at our cars at the end of the Jerome Meet and, hours after meeting me for a just moment, greets me by name. “Would you like to join us for dinner?” he asks, and my track and field family grows once again – Curtis, Coach Steen, Paralympian Courtney Knight, Coach Earl Church – how privileged am I?

And five days later as the meet closes in Victoria, Curtis shows a large group of his friends the photographic inventory I’ve brought him of my running shoe collection (which includes a pair from the waffle iron, prototypes of the Waffe Trainer, and six pair from Blue Ribbon sports).

At least three Olympians are in this circle: Moss, Britney Henry, and Sultana Frizell (who, memorably, took out the 70m marker with her last hammer throw, much to the delight of the crowd and herself) and we couldn’t be more engaged. The spirit in that circle is track and field at its best: their amazement at and appreciation of the shoes, their gentle humor and good nature, their clear support of one another, their appreciation.

I realize we are speaking the same language when I don’t have to explain what waffle iron shoes are.

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