Matthew Centrowitz

The ups and downs of 'hardest team to make'

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EUGENE — As Sunday’s final-day action at historic Hayward Field got underway, the crowd was told — this is the mantra of the 2016 Trials — that the U.S. Olympic track and field team is “the hardest team to make.” It’s not. The swim team is way harder. But more on that in a moment.

What is indisputably true: the 10-day run of the Trials is a study in emotion. One, two or three in Eugene is typically cause for joy. What, though, about four, five or farther down?

Amid all the celebrating, and there was plenty of it Sunday with nine finals that saw the likes of teenager Sydney McLaughlin (third place, women’s 400 hurdles, first 16-year-old on the U.S. team in 40 years) and 21-year-old Byron Robinson (second, men’s 400 hurdles) secure Rio spots, the real story of the Trials is, and always will be, disappointment.

And how to handle it.

Track and field’s global governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, had reconfigured the Rio 2016 schedule so that Allyson Felix could try for the 200-400 double. Here, Felix won the 400. On Sunday, though, she finished fourth in the 200, one-hundredth of a second out.

Just after the finish in the 200: Tori Bowie, left, is the winner; Jenna Prandini, on the ground, is third; Allyson Felix, in blue, fourth; Deajah Stevens, right in green, second // Getty Images

“Honestly, I’m disappointed,” Felix said. “All year I planned for this race, and for it to end here, it’s disappointing. But when I look back and see everything that happened,” in particular an ankle injury this spring, “I still think it’s quite amazing that I was able to make this team. I feel like everything was against me.”

The tension and drama of the Trials makes for a once-evey-four-years study in how to handle what life gives you — or throws at you.

As Jenny Simpson, the Daegu 2011 world championship gold medalist who on Sunday won a ferocious women’s 1500 in 4:04.74, put it, “On the starting line, you have that balance of confidence and doubt,” adding that track and field is, and has to be, a "really selfish sport — it’s you against the world.”

She added, “The selection process makes you go through the fire,” adding in a reference to the Trials, “The gift we get from this really horrible and brutal experience is that when we get to the Games we have a sense we have done something difficult already and we are prepared.”

Erik Kynard, the 2012 Trials runner-up in the high jump, went to London and won silver. Here Sunday, he won the 2016 Trials. Asked what he learned from 2012, he said, with a laugh, “Jump higher.”

Robinson, after the 400 hurdles, “I’m shellshocked. I’m overcome with joy.” He also said, “I just wanted a chance, you know?”

Generally speaking, top-three at the track and field Trials go to the Games. Everyone else stays home.

With all due respect to Charles Barkley, and his assertion that sports stars are not role models — sorry, they are. That’s the case all the more in track and field; participation in track and field in high school and college remains robust.

“Knowing we’re doing it right, knowing we’re doing it the right way — hopefully we’re inspiring young women,” said Shannon Rowbury, the Berlin 2009 worlds bronze medalist who took second in Sunday’s women’s 1500 in 4:05.39.

Math makes plain that roughly nine of 10 of those who showed up here to compete in Eugene will not be heading to Rio. But it’s even harder to make the U.S. swim team.

Some numbers:

The swim Trials, in Omaha this month, held 52 spots. In swimming, moreover, qualifying is, again speaking generally, not top-three; it’s top two.

Because of doubles or even triples — the likes of Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Maya DiRado will each compete in multiple events in Rio — the field of 52 going to Rio will actually be 45.

That’s out of 1,737 entries, according to USA Swimming.

Math: 2.5 percent of those in Omaha are heading to Rio.

In track and field, there are 141 spots, including relays.

Not all spots get filled because Americans will not have met qualifying standards set by track’s global governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations.

By meet’s end, per USA Track & Field, there were 1,077 declared entries, 879 individual athletes.

To make the math as apples-to-apples as possible, and acknowledging that 141 is a loose number — 141 over 1,077 is 13.1 percent.

When you’re part of that magical 13 percent, it’s easy.

“I couldn’t ask for more,” Tori Bowie, the women’s 200-meter winner, said after Sunday’s racing. She took third in the 100, and now gets to double in Rio.

“I can’t believe this is happening right now,” the teenager McLaughlin said, adding a moment later, “My mind was on finishing the race and eating a cheeseburger.”

When you’re not?

Compare and contrast:

In the women’s 800 last Monday, Alysia Montaño fell on the final backstretch. She wailed. She fell to her knees. She cried.

This made for great TV.

At the same time, if a junior-high or high school athlete did this, what would the likely reaction be from his or her coach?

Meeting the press after with 2-year-old daughter, Linnea, in tow, Montaño said, “This is it, you know. You get up and you’re, like, really far away and your heart breaks.”

From there, it turned into something akin to a therapy session, Montaño saying her “biggest struggle this year” had been “finding peace and why I’m even trying for an Olympic team,” calling it all that “emotional baggage.”

Montaño was justifiably lauded two years ago when, 34 weeks pregnant, she ran the 800 at the U.S. national championships — a role model, for sure, on many levels.

Here?

“Eight years of my life as a professional runner, my entire professional career, has been a farce, basically,” she said. “Now everyone’s talking about the Russians not running in the Olympics but they’re missing the point. The IAAF is a corrupt institution that is still running the Games.”

It wasn’t until a day later that Montaño — who is active on social media and says her fans help her “pick up the pieces” — filed this to Twitter, congratulating Kate Grace, Ajee’ Wilson and Chrishuna Williams, who finished 1-2-3 in the race:

https://twitter.com/AlysiaMontano/status/750476446796124160

The sequence that sent Monaño to the track also took out Brenda Martinez. She won bronze at the 2013 Moscow worlds in the 800.

Martinez would say after the 2016 Trials 800, “I felt great but I got clipped from behind. That’s track and field. I’ve got to get ready for the 1500. Some days it doesn’t go your way. Today it was me.”

Left to right: Shannon Rowbury, Brenda Martinez, Jenny Simpson after the 1500 // Getty Images

Instant-karma department: on Sunday, Martinez got third in the 1500, by three-hundredths of a second, finishing in 4:06.16. She got there with a finish-line dive.

“However people want to take it,” Martinez said. “I feel like it had to happen for a reason. That’s the way I believe life works, you know: you’re going to get tested. If people can see what I went through, then maybe they won’t doubt themselves the next time something happens to them.”

Make no mistake: Martinez’s third was very popular, with the crowd, with Rowbury and Simpson and with many others.

Simpson made a point of saying she had reached out after the 800 to Martinez. And for all that there is in, and justifiably, in being “selfish,” Simpson said, “I went to the starting line with a little bit more love … and a litttle bit less selfishness than in the past.”

Emma Coburn, the steeplechase winner here, posted to Twitter:

https://twitter.com/emmajcoburn/status/752293842729054208

In London four years ago, Leo Manzano won silver in the men’s 1500. He was the first American to medal in the 1500 since Jim Ryun in 1968.

On Sunday in the rain, Manzano, battling Ben Blankenship for the third and final spot in the 1500, reached for a gear he had often found before. It wasn’t there. Manzano took fourth, in 3:36.62 — not even half a second behind Blankenship, 3:36.18.

Matthew Centrowitz won the race, and easily, in 3:34.09. Robby Andrews got second, 3:34.88.

The race proved the fastest Trials 1500 ever, Centrowitz breaking Steve Scott’s 1980 Trials mark, 3:35.15, and the top-four putting down the Trials’ quickest top-four times.

In the London 1500, Centrowitz took fourth. “I'm ready for whatever they throw at me in Rio,” he said Sunday. “If it’s a 3:33 race, I’m ready for that.”

Manzano: “I wish the result had been different. Unfortuantely, it’s not. You’ve got to face the facts, and congratulte your teammates. They fought hard today. It wasn’t my day today.”

In the men’s 110-meter hurdles, Aries Merritt won bronze at last year’s world championships in Beijing, running on kidneys that were so bad he underwent a transplant — his sister the donor. Merritt is the 2012 London gold medalist and, as well, the world record holder in the event, 12.8.

In Saturday’s 110 hurdle final, Merritt finished fourth — like Felix in the 200, exactly one-hundredth away from third. He crossed in 13.22 seconds. Jeff Porter and Ronnie Ash went 3-2, both in 13.21; University of Oregon star Devon Allen ran away with the event, 13.03.

Merritt afterward: “Given the circumstances, I did the best I could with what I had and I came up a little bit short. I’ve come to grips with it. But it couldn’t be worse than being told you’ll never run again. I’ve been to the Olympics, I’ve won the Olympic Games, I’ve broken the world record. I mean, someone else can have a turn.”

In that same race, Jason Richardson finished fifth, in 13.28. He is the London silver medalist and the Daegu 2011 world champion.

His reaction:

https://twitter.com/JaiRich/status/751951488054808576

Jillian Camarena-Williams, a two-time Olympian, is 34. She and her husband, Dustin, 38, who will be the head trainer for the U.S. track team in Rio, married after the Berlin 2009 world championships. They moved to Tucson after the 2011 worlds. Their daughter, Miley, was born on the very day of the women’s shot put event at the 2014 championships in Sacramento.

“Our relationship is all about track meets,” she said, laughing.

The thing is — it’s not.

Camarena-Williams herniated her back at the London Games. She needed surgery. Then she had to decide — should I try to come back? If so, why?

The answers:

“I missed the sport and the people that are in it, the people that have helped me throughout my career,” she said in a quiet moment Sunday.

She also talked about what she called “my journey.”

Track brought her a husband and now a family: "It’s more about the places we were able to go, people we were able to meet than the outcome. I have talked to young people and brought my medals,” including a third in Daegu in 2011, the first medal of any kind for an American woman in the shot in the history of the track worlds.

“I love these medals. They represent that journey to me. But they just sit in my drawer. They don’t hang in our house. We’re porud of them. But we’re way more exicted about the things we were able to do along the way than the actual hardware.”

After the third throw — of six — here, in the rain, Camarena-Wiilliams stood third. But she knew it wouldn’t be enough.

Dustin, Jillian and 2-year-old Miley

Heading out for her final throw, in round six, Camarena-Williams’ sister, 36-year-old sister, Christi, a nurse in Sacramento, told her, “Just smile. Go out there and enjoy yourself.”

Michelle Carter, on her sixth and final throw, won, in 19.59 meters, 64 feet, 3-1/4 inches. Raven Saunders and Felisha Johnson finished 2-3. Camarena-Williams ended at 18.81, 61 8-1/2.

A lot of family was here in Eugene for Jillian and Dustin. Her mother. Two of her three siblings. A cousin with her two daughters. His brother. Two sets of his aunts and uncles.

Coaches.

And, of course, 2-year-old Miley.

“It’s a village that supports us to get [to the Olympics] in the first place,” Rowbury would observe. “It’s a commitment to trying to be the best you can be, a commitment to the people who support you along the way and a commitment to honor your country.”

"No matter what I do in life," Robinson said, "if the people back home aren’t proud of me I know that I didn’t really live up to expectations. Knowing that they are behind me, I know I can achieve anything."

After Jillian Camarena-Williams' final throw, no tears. She went looking for her husband and their daughter.

“Sometimes,” she said Sunday, holding the baby, “you are overtaken with emotion. So much can happen. I feel like I’m in a really good place with our family and where we’re at. It was disappointing, but I have to put a smile on my face and be grateful for what we have, outside the track.

“And we have a lot.”

 

U.S. No. 1 overall -- in fast-changing world

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BEIJING — With images of Jesse Owens and Luz Long on the big screens, Owens’ grand-daughter kicked off the final night of the 2015 track and field championships by presenting Usain Bolt his gold medal from the men’s 4x100 relay the night before.

This was, in a nutshell, the past and present of the sport. The future?

Usain Bolt on the medals stand Sunday night // Getty Images

This, probably more than anything, from Seb Coe, the newly elected president of the IAAF, the sport’s governing body, taking over from Lamine Diack of Senegal, who served for 16 years: “We are more than a discussion of test tubes, blood and urine.”

He also said at a Sunday news conference, “We have a sport that is adorned by some of the most super-human outrageously talented people in any sport. Our challenge is to make sure the public know there are other athletes,” not just Bolt, “in our sport.”

This is not — not for a second — to discount the import of doping in track and field. But it’s clear things are changing.

The men’s 100 is often thought to be the dirtiest race in the sport; not so; a read of the historical record shows that, without question, it’s the women’s 1500.

And now that times in that event are often back at 4 minutes and over — the final Tuesday saw a slow, tactical 1500, won by one of the sport’s breakout stars, Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia, in 4:08 — more women from more countries can claim a legitimate shot at a medal.

That, actually, is one of the two big take-aways from these 2015 worlds: more athletes from more countries winning medals.

And, despite a disappointing medal performance by the U.S. team, the other: the emerging political influence internationally, concurrent with Coe’s presidency, of USA Track & Field.

Seb Coe, center, at Sunday's news conference, with IAAF general secretary Essar Gabriel, left, and communications director Nick Davies, right

Despite the chronic backbiting within certain circles — sometimes, track and field comes off as the only major sport in the world in which its most passionate adherents seemingly find joy by being so self-destructive — the sport could well be poised for a new era in the United States.

That depends, of course, on a great many factors. But everything is lined up.

Next year’s Rio Games are in a favorable time zone.

USATF has, in the last three years, under the direction of chief executive Max Siegel, made significant revenue leaps.

Beyond that, Eugene, Oregon, last year played host to the World Juniors and a meeting of the IAAF’s ruling council; the 2016 world indoors will be staged in Portland, Oregon; the 2021 world championships back in Eugene.

The 2017 track championships will be in London; in 2019, in Doha, Qatar.

By comparison: the swim world championships have never been held in the United States. This summer’s FINA championships were held in Kazan, Russia; in 2017, the swim worlds will be in Budapest; in 2019, in Gwangju, South Korea.

In elections that preceded this Beijing meet, all five of USATF’s candidates for IAAF office won; USATF president Stephanie Hightower got the highest number of votes, 163, for any candidate running for the IAAF council.

“You’ve got Seb leading the way but the change in the USATF position internationally is extremely significant,” Jill Geer, the USATF spokeswoman, observed Sunday night.

She also said, “Our development has to continue, and we don’t take our status as the world’s No. 1 track and field team for granted, at all,” adding, “No medals are guaranteed.”

From 2013 going back to 2004, the U.S. has been a 25-medal average team at world majors, meaning the Olympics or worlds.

Here, 18 overall, six gold.

Kenya and Jamaica -- with a victory late Sunday in the women's 4x4 relay -- topped the gold count, with seven. Kenya, overall: 16. Jamaica, overall: 12.

The upshot: for the first time at a world championships, dating to 1983, the U.S. finished third or worse in the gold-medal standings.

The last worlds at which the Americans won so few medals: Edmonton 2001, 13 overall, five gold; Athens 1997, 17 overall, six gold.

Here, the Chinese showed they are an emerging track and field threat, with nine medals, seven of them silver.

Ethiopia, Poland, Canada and Germany won eight apiece. Canada won two golds, in men’s pole vault, Shawn Barber, and on Sunday in men’s high jump, Derek Drouin, with a jump of 2.34 meters, or 7 feet, 8 inches.

Canada's Derek Drouin after his winning jump // Getty Images

Some specific examples of how the world is changing in real time:

The women’s 100 hurdles, long the domain of the Americans (and, recently, Australia’s Sally Pearson, who was hurt and did not compete here)?

Your Beijing podium -- Jamaica, Germany, Belarus.

The women’s 200? Gold went to Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands in a time, 21.63, surpassed in history only by the Americans Florence Griffith-Joyner and Marion Jones.

Asked the inevitable question, Schippers said, I’m clean.

Allyson Felix, the U.S. 200 star, didn’t challenge Schippers in that race; instead, Felix ran the 400, cruising to gold Thursday in 49.26, the year’s fastest time. Coe said the conversation ought to begin in earnest now about the possibility of allowing Felix the chance — like Michael Johnson in Atlanta in 1996 — to double in the 200 and 400 next year in Rio.

Without question, Bolt remains the dominant figure in track and field, and has been since his breakout performance here at the Bird’s Nest seven summers ago. Indeed, Coe said no single figure in international sport had captured the public imagination like Bolt since, probably, Muhammad Ali.

Assuming Bolt can keep himself in the good health he showed here, the world gets at least one more run-through of The Bolt Show, next summer in Rio, now with a worthy rival, the American Justin Gatlin, who took silver in both the 100 and 200. After that? Bolt’s sponsors want him to keep going through the London 2017 world championships; Bolt said he will have to think about it.

That relay Saturday night capped yet another incredible performance for Bolt. But for his false start at the Daegu 2011 worlds, he has won everything at a worlds or Olympics since 2008 — 100, 200, 4x1.

That was a familiar storyline.

This, too:

Mo Farah, the British distance star, nailed the triple double — winning the 5 and 10k, just as he had done at the Moscow 2013 worlds and the London 2012 Olympics.

The American Ashton Eaton won the decathlon, setting a new world record, 9045 points. He and his wife, the Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton, make up the reigning First Couple of the sport; she won silver in the heptathlon.

Dibaba, after winning the 1500 on Tuesday, took bronze in the 5000 Sunday night, a 1-2-3 Ethiopian sweep. Almaz Ayana broke away with about three laps to go, building a 15-second lead at the bell lap and cutting more than 12 seconds off the world championships record, finishing in 14:26.83.

Senbere Teferi outleaned Dibaba at the line. She finished in 14:44.07, Dibaba seven-hundredths behind that.

For junkies: Ayana covered the last 3000 meters in Sunday’s final quicker than any woman has run 3000 meters in 22 years.

Dibaba’s sister, Tirunesh, had held the world championship record, 14:38.59, set in Helsinki in 2005. Tirunesh Dibaba holds the world record still, 14:11.15, set in Oslo in 2008.

Then, of course, Beijing 2015 saw this all-too-familiar tale:

The U.S. men screwed up the 4x1 relay, a botched third exchange Saturday night from Tyson Gay to Mike Rodgers leading to disqualification after crossing the finish line second, behind Bolt and the Jamaicans.

Going back to 2001, the U.S. men’s 4x1 has failed — falls, collisions, botched handoffs — at nine of 15 major meets. Not good.

Job one is to get the stick around. If the Americans do that, they are almost guaranteed a medal — and, given a strategy that now sees Gatlin running a huge second leg, the real possibility of winning gold, as the U.S. team did in May at the World Relays, with Ryan Bailey anchoring.

Bailey did not qualify for these championships.

It’s not that the U.S. men — and women — didn’t practice. Indeed, all involved, under the direction of relay coach Dennis Mitchell, thought things were lined-up just right after the prelim, in which the same four guys — Treyvon Bromell, Gatlin, Gay, Rodgers — executed just fine.

The plan, practiced and practiced: hand-offs at about 10 to 12 meters in the zone in the prelims, 12 to 14 in the final. The plan, further: 28 steps in the final, 26 in the prelim — the extras accounting for the faster runs in the final, adrenaline and other factors.

Rodgers took responsibility for the essential mistake. He broke too early.

As Jill Geer, the USA Track & Field spokeswoman put it in an interview Sunday night with several reporters, “In the relays, there’s a lot of pressure. everybody feels it,” athletes, coaches, staff.

She added, “They don’t accept a DQ any easier than the public does.”

Geer also noted, appropriately, that medals at this level are a function of three things: preparation, execution and luck, good or bad.

In the women’s 1500 on Tuesday, American Jenny Simpson — the Daegu 2011 gold medalist, the Moscow 2013 runner-up — lost a shoe. She finished 11th, eight-plus seconds behind Genzebe Dibaba.

Men’s decathlon: Trey Hardee — the Berlin 2009 and Daegu 2011 champion — got hurt halfway through the 10-event endurance test. He had to pull out.

Women’s 100 hurdles: 2008 Beijing gold and 2012 London silver medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson crashed out; Kendra Harrison was DQ’d; and the 2013 world champion, Brianna Rollins, finished fourth.

Women’s 4x4 relay: the Americans sent out a star-studded lineup, 2012 Olympic 400 champ Sanya Richards-Ross, Natasha Hastings, Felix and Francena McCorory, who had run the year’s fastest pre-Beijing time, 49.83.

Before the race, the four Americans went all Charlie's Angels.

Left to right, before the 4x4 relay: Francena McCorory, Allyson Felix, Natasha Hastings, Sanya Richards-Ross // Photo via Twitter

Felix, running that third leg, then put the Americans in front with a 47.7-second split. But McCorory, windmilling with 90 meters to go, could not hold off Novlene Williams-Mills, and Jamaica won in a 2015-best 3:13.13. The Americans: 3:19.44.

It was the first Jamaican 4x4 relay worlds gold since 2001. The Jamaicans have never won the relay at the Olympics.

After the race: McCorory, Hastings, Felix // Getty Images

What gold looks like // Getty Images

In the men’s 4x4, LaShawn Merritt reliably turned in a winning anchor leg to lead the U.S. to victory in 2:57.82.

Trinidad and Tobago got second, a national-record 2:58.2. The British, just as in the women’s 4x4, took third. The British men: 2:58.51; the British women, a season-best 3:23.62.

Earlier Sunday night, Kenyan men went 1-2 in the men’s 1500, Asbel Kiprop winning in 3:34.4, Elijah Manangoi 23-hundredths back.

The U.S. got three guys into the final, including 2012 Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano and Matthew Centrowitz, second in the 1500 at the Moscow 2013 worlds, third at Daegu 2011.

The American finish: 8-10-11, Centrowitz, Manzano, Robby Andrews.

Manzano said afterward, “The first 800 was fine, but I thought I was just going to gear up like I did two days ago,” in the prelims, riding his trademark kick. “Unfortunately it didn’t quite pan out like that. Sometimes it just clicks in place, and today didn’t quite fit in there.”

A couple hours before that men’s 1500, Geer had said, “We had an awful lot of 4-5-6-7 finishes,” adding that “those are the kind of finishes where we will be drilling in and saying, how do we turn that 4-5-6 into a 1-2-3?”

The men’s 5k on Saturday, for instance: 5-6-7, Galen Rupp, Ben True, Ryan Hill.

Beating Farah? That’s an audacious goal.

But, Geer insisted, there is “nothing systemically wrong” with the U.S. effort.

“Our performance wasn’t necessary all the medals we had planned for or hoped for,” she said.

At the same time, she asserted, “When you look at our performance here, where we did well and maybe didn’t do well, if we can fix, which we absolutely can, even half the areas we had execution mistakes or under-performed, we will be extraordinarily strong in Rio.”

Relay this, out-of-the-box thinkers

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NASSAU, Bahamas — The first race has not even been run. Action gets underway Saturday at jam-packed Thomas A. Robinson Stadium. But, already, barring a security breach or unforeseen disaster, this inaugural edition of the IAAF World Relays can already be proclaimed a fantastic success.

Track and field needs innovation, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. These relays are that, and more.

As Wallace Spearmon, the U.S. 200-meter specialist, said at a news conference here Friday, “As an athlete, I just want to say thank you because this is the first time this has been done,” adding a moment later, “The sky is the limit for this event.”

Left to right: Christian Taylor, Sanya Richards-Ross, Wallace Spearmon, Morgan Uceny, Leo Manzano at Friday's news conference

The IAAF can often, and fairly, be accused of being cautious in its nod to tradition.

But let’s give credit where it is due.

It is light years ahead of almost every other international sports federation in the Olympic movement in its understanding and its use of the digital space to promote its sport. The IAAF website is way better — broader, deeper, loaded with stats, more accessible — than anyone else’s. The IAAF’s phone app is superb. There’s now a Diamond League phone app that gives results — provided by Omega Timing — in real-time.

The overwhelming problem with track and field is the presentation of the sport itself. That is, on the field of play.

To make a long story short — a meet now is the same as a meet way back when.

Like, way, way, way back when.

For the track freak, it’s like renewing a long-running love affair.

The overwhelming problem, again, as time and experience have proven, is that there aren’t enough track freaks. To the average consumer, meets are cluttered, confusing and far too long.

Thus the genius of these relays.

Two nights. Easy schedule — 4x100, 4x200, 4x400, 4x800 and 4x1500.

Your mother can understand that, people. Even your grandmother. And there are likely to be a lot of Bahamas grandmas at this meet.

The stadium is sold out. Both nights.

The IAAF has arranged for extensive live television coverage — in the United States, on Universal Sports.

More interestingly, it will for the first time in its history be live-streaming. In Europe, the stream is available here.

If you’re not in Europe, you can find the live-stream via the Eurovision Sports Live app. It’s available both for iOS and Android.

Beyond all that, the mood here is light, easy — genuinely anticipatory.

For one, the weather and scenery are as you’d expect.

For another, pretty much everyone expects two, maybe three, world records to go down — the men’s and women’s 1500s and the men’s 800.

Maybe — though it does seem like a stretch — the sprints as well. “If I’m running 19 [seconds] and having to do a start, imagine what i can do in a relay,” Jamaican star Yohan Blake said of the 200.

All in, there’s a total prize package of $1.4 million, put up by the national sports ministry. Any world record is worth $50,000.

Teams are here from more than 40 nations — with more than 500 athletes — including the U.S., Jamaica, Kenya and Russia.

The unique twist to the upbeat mood is one that took U.S. middle-distance runners Morgan Uceny and Leo Manzano to explain. At the Olympics or world championships, she said, yes, everyone comes as a team. At the same time, you’re still competing against your teammates. Here — it’s truly a team atmosphere.

The last time it felt like this, Manzano said, was college. He said, “I’m excited to be out there and lay it on the line.”

How long before this sort of relay event becomes a fixture on the FINA swim calendar?

How long, too, before the track people take a clue from the swim people, who themselves have an innovative event coming up, the Singapore Swim Stars, a series of match races in September among the series of events opening the new national stadium and aquatic center there.

It’s clear that the Olympic Games and traditional world championships are fixtures, and rightfully so, on the sports calendar — swim or track. But in between there’s room to experiment.

Track needs the energy and excitement of the relays; it already has proven, in places like Manchester, England, that street racing is the way to go. The way forward would seem obvious:

Why not a series of street races — say, five. Pick your venues: Fifth Avenue in New York. Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Outside LA Live. The whole thing would culminate on the Strip in Las Vegas, at night, under the lights, with the Bellagio fountain roaring.

Line the worlds great athletes up and let them run for 150 meters.

You don’t think people would watch? Isn’t that made for TV?

If he — or she — wins all five events, it’s worth a grand prize. The Michael Phelps experience with Speedo has taught that a $1 million bonus gets people talking.

Just thinking out of the box here. That’s what track and field needs.

Like these relays.

Now, nothing is perfect. These first Bahamas relays for sure won’t be.

For sure there are bound to be glitches.

Already, there’s a major one in the run-up: Usain Bolt isn’t here. In the same way that Phelps has made it clear he understands fully his responsibility to promote swimming, Bolt should be here promoting these relays.

This, though, isn’t so much on organizers as it is on Bolt, who is for all intents and purposes the global icon of track and field. Even if he’s not running, he should be here as an ambassador of the sport.

“It is the role of our top athletes to do this,” Lamine Diack, the IAAF president, said at Friday’s news conference. “But we also know that he is not there. But we have a full stadium — two days. we have a world championship. We have a lot of athletes who will be competing — very good athletes, who will be competing against each other.”

He quickly added a moment later, “I can’t focus on the one who is not there.”

Or the ones.

The U.S. team is hardly the A team. Missing for a variety of reasons: Justin Gatlin, Carmelita Jeter, Allyson Felix, Mary Cain, Nick Symmonds, Jenny Simpson, Matthew Centrowitz.

All of these absences, individually, can be explained. Nevertheless,  if you are the U.S. delegation and Eugene is bidding for the 2019 world championships, which the IAAF will award in November, Doha and Barcelona also in the running, and everyone who is anyone in track and field leadership circles is going to be here, wouldn’t you, you know, want to put on a red, white and blue smiley face?

It’s not as if the Bahamas is a long flight from the continental United States. Like 30 minutes from Miami.

Which brings us to another matter, way more significant, in fact, for Eugene’s hosting of the World Junior Championships this summer, for its 2019 track and field bid, even for a potential U.S. Summer Olympics bid in 2024, because this exemplifies the chronic refrain you hear from around the world about border, customs and transit difficulties involving the United States:

“I would like to inform you that concerning IAAF World Relay Bahamas 2014, we cannot be able to participate because of we [tried] to get the transit visa USA and other country,” Bililign Mekoya, general secretary of the Ethiopian track and field federation, said in a note emailed May 12 to agents and managers around the world.

At the end, all the Ethiopians could get, for reasons of timing, were visas through the United Kingdom — via historical connections — for one men’s 4x1500 team.

For U.S. sports leaders, indeed for all of world sport, this sort of visa and transit challenge must be addressed.

Of course we live in the real world. At the same time, the 9/11 attacks were more than 12 years ago and, as the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has made clear, sports can prove a constructive tool for dialogue.

The way it is here in the Bahamas.

Keith Parker, the local organizing committee chairman, noted that there are all of 350,000 people in this island nation,. The relays are to be preceded by events featuring local, junior racers.

“We hope,” he said at the news conference, “this great event will influence them to strive for greatness. If you find any shortcomings, please let us know.

“We will do everything possible to correct them and make the event as good as it possibly can be and keep the standard up to other world championships,” he said, adding, “I wish you all welcome …”

 

'...Big things' for 2011 U.S. track team

DAEGU, South Korea -- Christian Taylor, 21 years old, won the triple jump Sunday at the 2011 track championships with an audacious leap of 17.96 meters, 58 feet, 11 1/4 inches, the fifth-best in history. He declared afterward, in the tone of a respectful competitor, not a jerk, "I came to win." Will Claye is just 20 years old. Both Claye and Taylor were going to be seniors at the University of Florida until turning pro. What are the odds that these would be the two guys finishing 1-3 at the worlds in the same event? Yet that's what happened, Claye jumping a personal-best 17.5, or 57-5. He said, "We came out here, did our best and ended up doing big things."

The American team did, indeed, do big things.

First and foremost, it topped the medal table, with 25, the second-highest medal total at a worlds for Team USA, one shy of the 26 won by the 1991 and 2007 teams.

But for the thoroughly unexpected, the American team actually could have reached the elusive 30 mark, which would have been sweet validation indeed for Doug Logan, the vanquished former chief executive of USA Track & Field, who had said all along that 30 was eminently do-able -- only to get sent packing before the plans he had put in place to get to 30 could be realized.

The Americans put four men in the final 12 in shot put, an event the U.S. has dominated in recent years. None got a medal. The U.S. has also been strong in the 400-meter men's hurdles; no medals there in Daegu despite two finalists. The Americans took home no medals in pole-vaulting, men's or women's, a traditional strength.

And, once again, in the very last event of the championships, the men's 400 relay, an event won by the Jamaicans -- anchored by Usain Bolt -- in world-record time, 37.04, the American men did not get through without disaster.

The 2008 Olympics, the 2009 world champs and now these 2011 worlds -- all DQs. This one involved a collision on the final exchange involving American Darvis Patton and Britain's Harry Aikines-Aryeetey. Details, even after repeated viewings of the tape, remain sketchy.

"I felt his big knee in my arm," Aikines-Aryeetey said in a television interview.

Under no circumstances would the Americans have beaten the Jamaicans. Even so, Justin Gatlin, who had run the second leg, said, "You can't tell me we weren't going to set an American record."

Stepping back to assess the U.S. team's "big things" over the nine days of the meet:

The 12 medals won by the U.S. women are the most-ever; the 1993 team won 11.

Allyson Felix didn't win individual gold in her 200/400 double. But she did win silver in the 400, bronze in the 200 and gold in both the 400 and 1600 relays. Four is the most medals ever won by a woman at one meet; American Gwen Torrance, Kathrin Krabbe of Germany and Marita Koch of East Germany also won four.

If Felix had been a country, the four medals she won would have tied her for seventh on the 2011 medals chart.

Also: those four medals lift Felix's career world-championships total won to 10. That ties her with Carl Lewis for most medals won by an American.

Jenny Simpson, 25 and still a newlywed (last October), won the first gold for the United States in the women's 1500 since 1983. Then, a couple days later, Matthew Centrowitz, 21, a fifth-year senior at Oregon, won bronze in the 1500.

The U.S. men swept the high jump, long jump and triple jump golds. The U.S. men -- Trey Hardee and Ashton Eaton -- went 1-2 in the decathlon. Dwight Phillips' long jump victory was his fourth at the worlds, to go along with his 2004 Olympic gold.

Phillips is 33, turning 34 in October. Bernard Lagat, who took silver Sunday night in the 5000, is 36, turning 37 in December. Lagat is the 2007 5000 and 1500 champ and, as well, the 2009 1500 bronze and 5000 silver medalist; he won silver at the 2004 Games in Athens when he was still running for Kenya.

Lagat, Phillips, Simpson, Centrowitz -- they illustrate the mix of veteran and younger talent that made up this team. That same sort of mix is likely to be on display next year for the United States track team at the Olympics in London.

"If Jenny can do it … if Matt can do it … if Bernard can still do it … I'm proud of my team," Lagat said.

Taylor, asked about the U.S. men sweeping the jumps, said, "It's about time. That's what I would say. Like I said, to have Dwight in the same group and having that family -- you know it's like, I wouldn't say a brother, but he's kind of old, so kind of like a dad! I mean, it's just been a great experience.

"The U.S. definitely represented and showed the world that we are the best team in the world."

So -- what does this performance here in Daegu mean for London?

Maybe a lot and perhaps very little.

LaShawn Merritt, the 2008 400 gold medalist, took silver in the event here and anchored the gold medal-winning 1600 relay. His future remains uncertain pending the outcome of litigation stemming from a 21-month doping-related suspension he has already served.

Tyson Gay, who had been America's best 100 and 200 sprinter, was hurt. Jeremy Wariner, the 2004 400 gold medalist -- hurt. Chris Solinsky, the 10,000-meter American record-holder -- hurt. Bryan Clay, the 2008 Olympic decathlon champ -- hurt. Standout hurdler Lolo Jones -- hurt. None of them competed here.

Do any or all of them make it to London? No one can predict.

Who knows whether Gay, who has struggled to stay healthy, can get fit?

Beyond which -- the brutal nature of the U.S. Trials, in which you're top-three or you stay home -- allows for no sentiment.

Just ask Phillips. He finished fourth at the Trials in 2008.

Or Simpson. "I mean, all this can do is bolster my confidence," she said.

But now Daegu is over, and London awaits. And she said, "I'm very cognizant of the fact this doesn't mean that I'm any shoo-in for any race following this."

'Believe': Matthew Centrowitz does

DAEGU, South Korea -- For 20 years, Americans -- whether native-born or naturalized -- proved non-factors in one of the glamour races in track and field, the 1500. Now, though, it appears the Americans are again for real.

On Saturday night, Matthew Centrowitz, who this fall will be a fifth-year senior at the University of Oregon, won the bronze medal in the 1500 at the 2011 track and field world championships. "Taking that victory lap," he said afterward, "I still didn't think it was real."

It was, and it adds to these recent performances:

Thursday: Jenny Simpson wins the women's 1500.

2009 worlds, in Berlin: Bernard Lagat takes bronze. That race was particularly noteworthy because, of the 12 guys in the final, three were American. All three were naturalized Americans, and damn proud of it: Lagat, Lopez Lomong and Leo Manzano.

2007, in Osaka: Lagat wins. He also wins the 5000.

Before that -- there was a long, long gap.

You have to go all the way back to Jim Spivey, in 1987 in Rome, who took bronze.

The two medals here mark the first time since 1983 that Americans have won medals in the men's and women's 1500.

The same day that Simpson won her final, Centrowitz won his semifinal.

It made him realize, he said, that he had a chance -- a real chance.

Later that day, he called home and told his folks he had made the final. His dad, Matt, ran in the 1976 Summer Games and was on the 1980 U.S. team as well; he was All-American at Oregon. "He was just pumped," Matthew said. He caught his mom, Beverly, as she was driving to work; Matthew said she cried.

In retrospect, of course he won the semifinal. The day before, as he posted to his Twitter feed, he had been in the cafeteria and Cher's song, "Believe," started playing: "In Korea … whats the odds of 1 of my fav songs coming on?!"

A college senior who not only listens to Cher but admits to it in a public forum -- that takes a certain amount of confidence in one's self, right?

That same guy was loose and confident in the ready room. Nick Willis, the Beijing Games 1500 silver medalist, who is now all of 28, said after the race that he was looking over at Centrowitz, 21, who was laughing and joking while waiting in that ready room, and it reminded him of a young Nick Willis: "There was no pressure."

There were two Kenyans in the race, 2008 Olympic champ Asbel Kiprop and Silas Kiplagat. Two Moroccans. An Ethiopian. An Algerian. Willis.

In other words -- the field was stacked. And Centrowitz felt zero pressure. "I think I looked at the start list for this final the least of any race I raced all year," Centrowitz said. "I knew everyone was going to be good -- so what was the point of looking at their [personal-bests], or who was in it? I knew I was going to have to come out and give a hard showing no matter what … not analyzing who was in it, just -- no expectations, just having fun."

Centrowitz's strategy is to run from the front. "I get more excited up there. I'm more engaged," he said, adding, "I like to stay up there," and that was his plan in Saturday's final as well.

Willis led the pack through the first two laps, with Centrowitz right behind.

Then the Kenyans took over. At 1200 meters Kiplagat had the lead, and Centrowitz found himself slightly behind, and boxed in.

"I mean, they went so hard with like 350 to go," he said. Relax, he told himself. They'll come back to you.

"Sure enough, once 200 hit, each 50 -- it was just one more guy, one more guy and then I found myself in my own position, just digging down," on the outside, coming down the stretch, crossing the line in third.

There used to be a time when having "U-S-A" on your jersey seemed to doom you in the 1500. Maybe that time is over.

"As we have seen," Centrowitz said, "anything can happen. When you put good training in, when you stay consistent, good things happen, and that's what I believed when I came here."