LAST LAP — August

HERE’S THIS MONTH’S collection of short takes on generally off-track activities that have gone/will go a long way towards shaping the way the sport is headed.

Reigning world 1500 champ overcame a scare before he was added to Kenya’s Olympic team. (VICTOR SAILER/PHOTO RUN)

How Fast For Bolt With Super-Shoes?

While there’s no question that modern high-tech shoes have been shaving time off runners’ PRs, nobody has yet come anywhere near Usain Bolt’s 100 WR of 9.58.

Sean Ingle of The Guardian asked the Jamaican great how fast he thought he would run in the new footwear. “We have guessed and we have talked about it, but I don’t know for sure,” Bolt said. “But definitely much faster. Below 9.5 seconds for sure. Without a doubt.”

He did express some unease about technology contributing to his losing his 100 and 200 records, but admitted, “How can I argue if World Athletics decide that it’s legal? I can’t do anything about it. The rules are the rules. I don’t think I’ll be fully happy, but it’s just one of those things.”

And Then There’s The Felix Footwear

As if qualifying for a fifth Olympic team weren’t enough, Allyson Felix chose one of the Olympic Trials rest days to announce the launch of her own shoe brand, Saysh.

Two years after her break with Nike, the 35-year-old posted on Instagram, “I was tired of asking for change. I knew I needed to create it. So, we started our own brand. It’s called Saysh. We design and develop products for and by women. We started with my racing spikes. We’re bringing lifestyle sneakers next and creating all of this on the foundation of community.” The Saysh One sneaker will retail for $150.

The company is also offering a custom-built racing spike for — no, really! — $2500. The Saysh website gives some details: “Inspired by HER. Built for HER. Made by hand in the USA. Upon purchase you will have a design consultation with our designers who will take you through the handmade manufacturing process and create your production plan.”

Team USA Alternates Put On Alert

In most Olympic years, being an alternate on the U.S. team doesn’t mean much at all, the chances of being called to duty are so small. But in this COVID Olympics, USATF has called on its alternates to be on high alert.

It’s not an Olympian getting a positive test result that’s the biggest worry. It’s that if a U.S. team member comes in inadvertent contact with someone testing positive, whether on the flight over, at the airport, or in the Olympic Village itself, the protocol is for them to be quarantined and possibly miss the competition.

In the days leading up to the Games, already the South African rugby team has been placed in quarantine because of a positive test on their flight, even though all team members tested negative. And a portion of the Ugandan boxing team was quarantined after a coach tested positive.

Robert Chapman, director of USATF’s Sports Science & Medicine arm, told Erin Strout of Women’s Running, “We’re communicating to the alternates to essentially be on ready alert and be ready to go. They will be ready to get on an airplane at a moment’s notice. We’re trying to get across to them that they need to be more ready than they might otherwise be, because the chances of them being called into action is greater than what they would be in a normal Olympics.”

The alternates have already received their uniforms as well as at-home test kits.

Testing Protocols Put Cheruiyot On Team Kenya

A major shocker came at Kenya’s OT meet when reigning world 1500 champ Timothy Cheruiyot slipped to 4th and wasn’t named to the team.

But wait, given its significant number of past doping transgressions, Kenya is in Category A of the WA/WADA watch list. Meaning? All of its athletes who expect to participate in major championships must go through 3 out-of-competition tests within 10 months before the event. The tests must be done 3 weeks apart within the 10 months’ period and 3 weeks prior to the championships, including 1 mandatory blood test.

That tough-on-newcomers proviso dinged the surprise runner-up, 18-year-old Kamar Etyang, so he’s off the squad and Cheruiyot is on. But Etyang is not the only Kenyan to lose a spot. Texas A&M 400 hurdler Moitalel Mpoke was similarly bounced. Mpoke says he had three tests, but Kenyan authorities ruled that the testers weren’t WA or WADA sanctioned.

Russian Fines To Fund WC Prize Money

The World Championships, starting with next year’s Eugene edition, will be a little more lucrative for athletes, thanks to the Russians.

WA president Seb Coe said at the OT that $2 million of the fines paid by the Russian federation for its doping transgressions will go directly into the prize money for the WC, to be spread over the next two editions.

“The last 18 months have been really tough for thousands of athletes who make their living from competing in events around the world,” he said.

How exactly the new funds will be allocated within the prize money structure has not been decided. The WA Council is awaiting recommendations from the Athletes Commission as well as the Competition Commission.

Benjamin Cancels European Tour

One of the most eagerly anticipated clashes of the year has been Rai Benjamin vs. Karsten Warholm in the 400H, a battle amped up by the American’s near-WR at the OT, passing the Norwegian for No. 2 on the all-time world list before Warholm broke the WR in Oslo.

That set the stage for a clash of titans at the Monaco DL, but the week before Benjamin canceled his entire pre-Tokyo schedule, telling Reuters, “The time is very tight — I leave for Tokyo in 3 weeks — so we decided not to go to Europe.” He added that after the trials he returned to Los Angeles to talk with his coaches: “They decided it was best to take an easier week this week and ramp my training back up next week to be best for Tokyo.”

With the Olympics now the meet where the two hurdlers shall finally meet for the first time since the ’19 Worlds, the Tokyo final gets must-see status.

Mu Goes Pro Early

In an Instagram post titled “Waving goodbye to my NCAA career…” superstar college frosh Athing Mu announced on the day before the Olympic Trials 800 heats that she had turned pro.

“I’m convinced that saying, ‘The past year at Texas A&M was the greatest year of my life,’ is an understatement. I have never had so much fun, joy, and love come from any experience like I did here. I met some of the best people that I have ever met and I was taken care of like no other. Most importantly, everything I went through and everything I accomplished was done w/ a TEAM.”

In her one season as an Aggie the precocious 18/19-year-old set Collegiate and American Junior records in both the 400 and 800, topping out — so far! — at 49.57 and 1:56.07. Not to mention the fastest collegiate relay split ever, a 48.84 which will surely have her in position for some Tokyo relay duty.

Houlihan’s Last-Gasp Hope Fades

The news of Shelby Houlihan’s nandrolone suspension — which was the lead item in this section of the magazine’s July edition — went on to dominate track’s social media in the days leading up to the Trials, but the drama didn’t stop there. To the very end, the Houlihan camp held out hope that she might be able to run, and her name appeared on the heat sheets for the 1500 and 5000 the day before competition.

A USATF tweet indicated that Houlihan would be allowed to run, saying, “Given there is an active appeal process, USATF will allow any athletes to continue competing until the process is completed.”

Not so fast. WADA quickly responded by saying, “All Member Federations must respect CAS decisions under the WADA code. We are talking to USATF.”

USOPC head Sarah Hirshland stepped in to clarify, “The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, together with USATF, can confirm that we will adhere to the WADA Code and any CAS decisions that govern athlete participation in sanctioned events.”

The AIU also released a statement the same day saying that it had contacted USATF and that the CAS ruling on Houlihan was “final and binding,” adding, “Ms. Houlihan’s status during the period of ineligibility means that participation in any competition… such as USATF (i.e., the US Olympic Trials…) is strictly prohibited.”

A group of notable athletes in the Clean Sport Collective also chimed in, saying any move to allow Houlihan to run in the Trials “creates an opportunity for athletes convicted of doping to compete in the future, which is not a standard that’s ever been applied in the past.”

The next day, Houlihan tried to clarify the matter on Instagram: “This week, my attorneys sought an emergency injunction with the Swiss Federal Tribunal to allow me to run the Olympic Trials while my appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) decision is pending. Unfortunately, this morning, they did not grant our request for the emergency order. The court found that because the CAS has not released its reasoning for the decision, they can’t know whether I am likely to succeed in an appeal.

“I want to be clear that, contrary to media reports, I never had any intention of competing if this injunction wasn’t granted. If I was going to race, it was going to be in the right way. I respect the sport and my competitors too much. I would never jeopardize the legal standing of the US team and the Olympic dreams of others. This ruling means that my goal of making another Olympic team is over for now.”

The NCAA Eases Its Amateurism Rules

In late June, faced with a number of state laws coming online that would mandate such a move, the NCAA Board of Directors followed a recommendation from the Div. I Council to allow athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness (NIL).

The ruling applies to all three divisions and opens the doors to athletes being able to compete collegiately with at least some of the aspects of being professional.

Said NCAA president Mark Emmert, “With the variety of state laws adopted across the country, we will continue to work with Congress to develop a solution that will provide clarity on a national level.”

The organization is seeking federal legislation standardizing the rules, rather than a mix of varying state laws on the issue.

Less than 10 days earlier, the Supreme Court had unanimously ruled against the NCAA’s restrictions on education-related benefits, saying they violated anti-trust laws. The case only dealt with those benefits and while it did not open the door to college athletes being true professionals, many feel the ruling, much like the new NIL rule, is knocking on that door.

One sign of a quickly changing landscape: NCAA 1500 champ Cole Hocker is now making money from online t-shirt sales showing his “shush” gesture at the finish of his Trials 1500 victory.

Namibian Teens Caught Up By Testo Rules

They seemed too good to be true: a pair of sprinters from Namibia emerged at world-class levels, one of them, Christine Mboma, running a World Junior Record (and world leading) 48.54 in the 400. The other, Beatrice Masilingi, clocking a 49.53 at altitude.

Then the two disappeared from the WA Olympic 400 page, but remained on the 200 page. Mboma has run 22.67, Masilingi 22.65. That led to speculation that they had run afoul of WA’s guidelines for athletes with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD).

A week later, Namibian officials charged WA with “an unacceptable invasion of the athletes’ right to privacy and to the confidentiality of their health records.”

According to Abner Xoagub, the Namibian Olympic Committee president, the two have natural high testosterone levels. It was after they underwent a medical assessment in Italy that the federation shared the findings with WA; that led to WA’s removing them from the 400 listing.

Amid the tumult of these developments, the WA policy came under fire from various directions. In a statement to the BBC, WA maintained, “We are committed to fairness for women in sport and reject any allegation that biological limits in the female category are based on race or gender stereotypes.”

Masilingi said she was not interested in taking hormones to reduce her testosterone levels. “I wouldn’t want to involve any other things because this is the way my body functions in its normal way.”

The fight, she added, is not over: “We won’t be quiet.”

McNeal Can’t Clear The Final Hurdle

Rio 100H gold medalist Brianna McNeal, facing a 5-year ban from the sport (Last Lap, July), was allowed to hurdle at the Olympic Trials because her appeal to CAS was scheduled for the next week.

It was all for naught, as she lost the appeal. Before the OT, she shared details of the “tampering” charges at the heart of the case. In January ’20 she missed a test while recovering from an abortion, she told the New York Times.

She says when the testers arrived at her door 2 days after the procedure, she did not hear them.

In sharing the medical documentation with the AIU, McNeal says she changed the date on the paperwork by one day because she thought it was mistaken.

CAS not only upheld the 5-year ban, but also disqualified McNeal from February 13 through August 14 of ’20, meaning she has to give up any honors and prize money from that period. In her only major meet during period, she placed 3rd in the USATF Indoor.

“Right now I feel excommunicated from the sport itself and stigmatized, and to me it is unfair,” McNeal said. “I just don’t believe that this warranted a suspension at all, much less a 5-year suspension, for just a technicality, an honest mistake during a very emotional time.”

McNeal was previously banned for a year for whereabouts failures after winning the Olympic title.

Meanwhile, In Tokyo…

As the clock ticked down to the opening of the Games, Japanese authorities made the costly decision to ban all spectators from all venues, creating the unprecedented prospect of a made-for-TV Olympics with athletes, officials and media, but no one cheering from the stands.

This came amid rising C19 numbers in the Japanese capital, which has been placed in an extended state of emergency through the entire Games period as the caseload has hit a 6-month high.

*In a rare public statement on the Games, a spokesperson for Japanese Emperor Naruhito said, “His majesty is extremely worried about the current situation of the COVID-19 infections,” adding that he feared the Games would lead to a bigger spread…

The Japanese have started vaccinating their Olympic workers. Currently around 20% of the Japanese public is vaccinated…

Games officials clarified that athletes who test positive during competition would be listed as DNS (did not start) for the next round, and they would be replaced by the next eligible athlete. ◻︎

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