BOSTON — Given the developments that have jarred track and field the past two weeks, it would be tempting to believe the sky is falling.
A much-hyped North American match race wound up a major disappointment, American stars Michael Johnson and Dan O'Brien bowed out of the national championships and, by extension, this summer's world championships, and a third American, Mary Decker Slaney, was suspended by the sport's international governing body as she became embroiled in a still-unresolved drug-testing controversy.
These setbacks hardly provide the best lead-in to this week's US Track and Field Championships, which begin tomorrow in Indianapolis and run through Sunday. The top three finishers in each event qualify for August's world championships in Athens. Due to injuries, however, Johnson and O'Brien will have to skip the US meet and thus will be ineligible to defend their world titles.
O'Brien believes that track and field unnecessarily restricts itself this way. "How will it look if Dan O'Brien and Michael Johnson don't compete on the US team?" he asks, adding, "There should be exemptions for people who deserve them." O'Brien advocates letting the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), the sport's governing body, pick the candidates.
Track could really benefit from having its best athletes face off more regularly yet it often seems helpless to facilitate such meetings. Track insiders were consequently enthusiastic about the potential of two recent events that attempted to create new, marquee-caliber rivalries. The one held June 1 in Toronto's SkyDome brought together Johnson, the men's 200-meter world record holder, and Canadian Donovan Bailey, the 100-meter world record holder, in a million-dollar, 150-meter match race.
The day before in Hengelo, the Netherlands, two distance-running greats, Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie and Algeria's Noureddine Morceli, ran in another duel of Olympic champions. The competitive format was more conventional, with 11 runners starting a race that was part of a sanctioned IAAF Grand Prix event. What made it special was the in-between, two-mile distance and the financial incentive: a $1 million bonus for breaking the 8-minute barrier.
Gebrselassie set a new world record of 8:01.8, narrowly missing the bonus. Meanwhile, Morceli fell so far behind that he stopped with a lap to go. At least there was a race. In Toronto, Johnson injured a leg coming out of the turn and watched helplessly as Bailey finished uncontested.
The televised pre-race hype and post-race posturing in Canada was more suited to boxing than track. Primo Nebiolo, president of the IAAF, called the event "a circus" and said the federation would not sanction a rematch. The match race concept, however, is bound to resurface. Its success will depend upon finding the right opportunities, promoters, athletes, and formats.
Here's one suggestion: a 150-meter showdown, much like the Johnson-Bailey race, except with an eight-sprinter field divided evenly between 100- and 200-meter men.