Perhaps more than anything, track and field needs rivalries, and when Tyson Gay pulled himself out of the men's 100-meter dash Friday evening at the U.S. track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., it signaled yet another serious blow to the sport's effort to become anything but increasingly marginal. It is no fun to write such things.
Here's how much I like track and field: My wife and two daughters were out of town. The son was over at a friend's for the evening. I had the house all to myself. What did I do? I was one of precisely 3,067 people nationwide enduring the online live-stream of the field events while simultaneously checking the as-they-happened results from the sprints on another website -- which inexplicably were being held back for showing later on ESPN.
Earlier this month, after the Prefontaine Classic, I wrote a column that essentially said track was going nowhere fast in the United States. I proposed some suggestions for change. LetsRun.com, among others, linked to my column; the message boards there picked it up, one of the posters declaring I was an idiot.
Maybe. But that's why I have two dogs. They don't care.
Possibly, though, after more than 10 years of covering track and field, I have picked up a few things.
Unless and until someone else runs in the 9.6s, as Tyson Gay did, Usain Bolt stands alone in the sprints.
That's not healthy.
It's not healthy for Bolt and it's not healthy for track and field.
Obviously, Gay's problem is in fact his health -- now his hip. Frankly, he has had such a succession of injuries over the past few years that it's not clear, really, whether he can get it back together in time for the Olympics next year.
Where does that leave the state of the sport?
It's far from improbable that the Jamaicans take the top-three spots at the 100 at the world championships late this summer at Daegu, South Korea.
Good for Jamaica, maybe.
Good for track? Uh, no.
Again, the sport needs rivalries, and in particular in its marquee event, the men's 100.
None of the Americans is even within shouting distance of Bolt right now.
Walter Dix, who won the U.S. title on Friday in 9.94, is a really good sprinter, the bronze medalist in both the 100 and 200 in Beijing. His personal best in the 100 is 9.88; problem is, that's a full three-tenths of a second behind Bolt's world-record 9.58.
Michael Rodgers, the 2009 U.S. national champion, ran 9.99 Friday to earn the third U.S. slot at the 2011 worlds. His personal best is a 9.85, at the Pre three weeks ago.
The guy who finished second Friday in Eugene, Justin Gatlin, in 9.95, is of course the 2004 Olympic champion. He is back from a four-year doping ban.
Gatlin has every right to run. He has served his time.
But meet promoters in Europe have made it plain he's still not welcome there. And his appearance in Daegu, wearing red, white and blue with "USA" on it -- which, again, he has earned -- is guaranteed to spark a rash of stories in the feral British press and elsewhere that will a) compare his case with that of Dwain Chambers, b) with that of Marion Jones, c) rewind the Trevor Graham saga, and d) remind one and all that the U.S. track scene suffered for years from doping and wonder if the current crop of athletes, despite well-known advances in testing, can be said to be competing cleanly.
To the dismay of USA Track & Field, it will be no great surprise if one or more stories manages to wrap in e) all of the above.
Track needs to move out of precisely that morass.
Maybe Bolt can run even faster than 9.58.
But he doesn't seem in 2011 to be building toward a lightning strike the way he was in 2009 and 2008; his early-season times in those years were far more suggestive than this year's.
Beyond which -- he simply can not do everything for the sport all by himself. Nor should he be expected to do so.
He needs a rival.
Especially in the United States. Now, though, Bolt v. Gay, the sort of thing that might have gotten track onto the JumboTrons at football stadiums -- just the way Michael Phelps' swim races were shown on those big screens -- is gone for 2011.
It might even be gone for 2012.
And track and field is left to be -- what? Except for one week every four years at the Olympic Games, when it rocks, what then?