From The Editor — May 2008: Watching 3 rounds of dash prelims is as good as a cliff-hanging serial at the Saturday matinee

“AMERICA’S NEED FOR SPEED” is the title of this issue’s lead article, which segues into the previews of both Olympic Trials 100-meter races. Eugene may have built its reputation as a distance-running community, but when the first weekend of this year’s OT rolls around, it’ll be all about speed, baby.

You can count me among the ranks of those who awaits the dashes perhaps more than any other races. Yet it was not always so. In my formative years as a fan, while I eagerly embraced all disciplines I had no special interest in watching the sprints. Perhaps it had something to do with my own frustrating lack of true speed. I was fast enough in my little corner of the world—to always be an also-ran. Especially frustrating was that more than once I got accused of intentionally losing. Something to do with the bizarre concept—the inverse of the usual—that I was “deceptively slow.”

But my sprint flames were fanned for the first time when as a teenager I saw my first ever in-person World Record: a 9.1 for 100 yards by Harry Jerome. My fandom was undoubtedly helped by the fact that he was staying in the university dorm room next to mine (yes, there was a time when 25-year-old “pros” actually stayed in dorm rooms instead of fancy hotels) and that evening he broke out a bottle of Jack Daniels (or was it Wild Turkey?) and we had a few celebratory toasts.

What really sold me on the hundred as the best of all races was when I began my announcing career at the Olympics and World Championships. When at those meets solely on magazine duty, I was usually so busy that I skipped most of the morning sessions, meaning that I missed “meaningless” early rounds.

But guess what? If you pay attention, the heats and quarterfinals aren’t meaningless at all. Sure, they are if you view them as easy run-throughs that only serve to eliminate the 12-flat guys from Klopstockia. But there’s more, so much more.

Focusing on the favorites—like in Gay vs. Powell last year—starts not in the final, but a day earlier, in the heats. You watch each of them, hoping for a clue as to which is looking better. Which one is perhaps overextending himself by laying down the gauntlet too early? Which one is sandbagging, running far beneath his capacity? Who’s the dark horse that you realize might be capable of stealing it from both of them?

Having three chances to watch these plotlines unfold before the final makes for a cliff-hanging serial worth showing at the Saturday matinee.

I just wish I had the wide-angle/slo-mo vision of T&FN founder Cordner Nelson. The first meet we ever watched together was a dual at Cal that featured a super hundred. When the race was over I marveled at how good Eddie Hart had looked. Cordner, on the other hand, gave a précis of everybody in the race and where they had been at various points coming up the track.

That taught me a key ingredient to enjoying the sprints fully—don’t get tunnel vision on whomever you think is the favorite. Try to take in the whole field (another underappreciated secret is to watch the 100 from the middle of the backstretch side). Maybe you’ll even turn out to be the next Cordner. I keep trying.

On Your Marks!…