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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Olympic Oscars Part 2

Olympic Oscars Part 2: The less serious awards

Yesterday we did the first our Olympic recap "awards" post, which we continue today, in our look back on the Games and some of the stories we might not have covered during the actual Games.

The distance award

Since we have a preference for the distance events, we can’t let this go without giving special mention to the best of the distance events. Beijing ended up being one of the greatest Games ever for distance running. It produced two 5000m-10000m doubles, with three of those four golds won in Olympic Record time.

We also had an Olympic record in the Marathon, and the emergence of Kenya’s women in the middle-distance races. They won the 800m and 1500m titles, and the 800m champion, Jelimo, is probably the most dominant athletes in the world today, yet is still a little under-rated, in my opinion. Last week, in the first meeting post-Beijing, she ran the third fastest time in history in winning Zurich in 1:54.01, and Kratochvilova's world record, almost without doubt a doped record, seems under threat. For that reason, Jelimo will also not escape some cynicism over her own performance, particularly given her age. Nevertheless, the margins of victory in her races is quite astounding, and she is the most dominant female athlete around today.

But the BEST distance athlete of the Games, in our opinion, goes to Tirunesh Dibaba, for her double. The 5000m-10000m double was only introduced in 1996, so it’s not surprising that hers is the first of its kind. But her 10,000m win, in the second fast time in history (and perhaps fastest legal time, given what we all suspect of the Chinese of 1993), followed by a spectacular 5000 m (where the final 1500m was covered in the same time as the 1500m final) give her the nod. But really, it could just as easily have gone to Bekele. Or Sammy Wanjiru, who gave Kenya its first gold in the marathon, with a front running performance in the heat that defied physiological belief.

Biggest “no-show” of the Games

Which athlete threatened greatness and didn’t show up? Well, perhaps the biggest “no-show” was the impact of the pollution on the distance athletes. It was one of the big talking points leading up to Beijing, and no one knew what impact it would have on performances. Many experts had predicted disaster, but in the end, we got 4 Olympic records in 6 distance races, and no athletes were noticeably incapacitated by the famous Beijing smog. Of course, it may have had some impact, time will allow those stories to emerge, but watching the Africans dominate on the track, you got the feeling the body is far more impressive than most give it credit for!

In terms of athletes, difficult to say. We obviously focus only on swimming, cycling and athletics, so our picks come from there. Katie Hoff was expected to be the Michael Phelps in the female division, but she was heavily overshadowed by Stephanie Rice and Kirsty Coventry. So she’s a candidate, and perhaps the US trials were a little too close to the Games to allow their swimmers to hold their form or regain that peak. Hoff did, after all, set world records in the US Trials in June, but wasn’t the same in Beijing. The same could be said of many of the US swimmers, with the noticeable exception of Phelps. They still dominated the swimming medal table, of course, so perhaps this is overly critical...

On the track, Sanya Richards has dominated the women's 400m event for years, apart from at major championships, and she’ll have to try again for her first major title. And then Asafa Powell came, saw, and ran a final that was slower than his semi-final…again. It’s the second major Games where he’s looked good in the semi-final, and then tied up in the final. Not that he would have won gold, but he certainly should have won a medal. He got consolation by anchoring the Jamaicans to the world record.

And then the final one, perhaps the biggest, was pointed out by Erik in the comments below (I forgot about him because I'd commented on the event in yesterday's post), was Liu Xiang. That was maybe the biggest disappointment of the games - we were denied the race between Xiang and Robles (who was discussed yesterday). But Liu was the pin-up boy for the Games, the face of Beijing 2008 since 2001 when the Games were awarded. In the end, he didn't even clear a hurdle...

The Four-years of redemption award

This one goes to Blanka Vlasic, who has been unbeatable in the high jump since about 2 years ago. Yet in Beijing, she was suddenly matched and then beaten by Tia Hellebaut, who has shown nothing of that kind of form all year. Vlasic might be considered a little unlucky – it’s not as though she under-performed. After all, she cleared 2.05m, which is pretty much her norm for the year, but she was unable to raise it higher on the day, and lost on count-back. People have suggested that she was over-jumped, and had competed too much leading into the Games. This may be true, but again, she didn’t come to Beijing and jump anything less than what she typically does. She did, however, fail to jump a season’s best and as any athlete knows, you have to be in the shape to jump your best when it counts on the day, and she couldn’t do it. She’s young enough that in four years, she’ll have another shot at it.

Also in this category is LoLo Jones, who had gold in her sights, within her grasp even, but hit hurdle 9 to do a “Gail Devers” and lose out. She’s since bounced back, and seems quite upbeat about it. But the images of her coming to terms with that result were among the most dramatic of the Games. She’ll also have a chance in four years’ time, health-willing, to set the Olympic record straight.

Biggest surprise of the Games

You'd have been hard pressed to pick that Constantina Dita would win the women's marathon. We're showing our distance bias again, but watching the women's marathon, I had this "expectation" that any momen, one of Ndereba or Chunxiu would take the initiative and chase the Romanian down, and that surely she wouldn't stay out in front for a full 22 km. Yet she survived, and the chasing two settled for silver, in what was perhaps the biggest surprise.

Not that there were others - someone posted yesterday on Rebecca Adlington's triumph in the women's 400m freestyle event, which she followed up with a world record victory in the 800m freestyle. That was an unexpected medal.

Maybe the biggest surprise of all, which we touched on in yesterday's post, was the USA's failure to win a single gold in the short sprints and relays. They were completely outrun by Jamaica, with the Russian women providing the only "variety" by winning the relay. The USA sprint dominance was well and truly broken, and many suggested it's because the stricter anti-doping controls have slowed them down. I don't think that is the case - the truth is everyone else got faster. They were, after all, beaten by two world records, one Olympic record, and two performances that were the fastest in ten years (and of course, two dropped batons). So that's not a weakening, it's just that they've been outrun, and it will be interesting to see whether they return to form in the next few years.

Next up as we look back, a discussion of the medal table!

Until then!


Steve said...

You mentioned the lack of effects that the pollution had on the athletes. Yet, weren't there some 53+ cycling dropouts on the first day of racing? None of the athletes attributed their DNF's to the pollution; they merely said that the conditions were extreme, noting the humidity and heat. Although these two elements could be to blame, wouldn't these element typically intensify the effects of pollution and the particle count in the air due to humidity?
Besides these opening, week one races, the pollution appeared to have little to no effect on the week two athletes. Is this correct?

Erik said...

Big no show from the Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang

MarkyV said...

"chase the Romanian down"

Romanian? Last time I checked all three of those Romanians were BOULDERITES!!!! :)


Sorry... couldn't resist! :)

Coach Ryan said...

Guys - As an American swimming coach I have to comment on your selection of Katie Hoff as the biggest no-show of the games. This can only be a valid statement if you accept the hype that she was supposed to be the "female Phelps." Only by the fact that she was the best female on the U.S. team heading into the games was she comparable to Phelps. Phelps was WR holder in four of his five individual events and psychologically owned the WR holder in the other (Crocker in the 100 fly). The smart money was on Phelps in all of his events. For Hoff, she was truly only the favorite in one - the 400 IM. She set ONE world record at the Olympic Trials (in that event) with a phenomenal swim, and then two other swimmers went over a second faster than that (their bests by several seconds) in Beijing. Though she was slightly off her times in other events, I feel Hoff had decent performances at the Games and is mainly a victim of the insanely high bar set by Phelps.

Perhaps a better choice for no-show in swimming would be the Australian Grant Hackett. The double-defending Olympic champ in the 1500 and greatest distance swimer in history was second, more than 7 seconds off his best. In the 400 free, he was a distant 6th when a mere personal best would have given him the bronze.

I thoroughly enjoyed your Olympic pieces - keep up the good work!