Renaud Lavillenie

Rio 2016 track meet: world-class buzzkill


RIO de JANEIRO — In a shining example of why track and field has such problems, many of the sport’s own making, the men’s 200m prelims got underway Tuesday afternoon — before a nearly-empty house — with its biggest star, Usain Bolt, running at 12:46 p.m. in the ninth of 10 heats. Justin Gatlin ran about a half-hour before, four heats prior.

Under what theory of marketing, salesmanship, promotion — more, relevance — are the No. 1 and No. 2 names in track and field slogging it out in the dog day afternoon?

The 'crowd' in the stadium with just the women's 200 semifinals, women's 1500 final and men's 110 hurdle final to go

It’s halfway through the Rio 2016 Olympic meet. Track and field should be seizing its moments in the once-every-four-years spotlight.

Instead, what we have is world-class buzzkill.

The 2016 world indoor championships, in Portland, Oregon, in March, went off before a full house, a show full of music, lights and world-class competition.

The 2012 Olympics in London were marked by full, rowdy crowds, day and night.

Here: not so much.

At the outset: it’s no fun to assert that the track and field competition has serious issues, especially amid what should be an Olympic celebration. But if not now, when?

By now, it’s well known that track’s worldwide governing body is confronting a range of extraordinary issues, among them a purported corruption scheme involving the former president tied to allegations of state-sponsored doping in Russia.

If there ever should be a week when all of the sport’s big-picture issues could be brushed aside, this ought to be it — the Olympics.

Track and field, for all its challenges, and there are many, holds enormous potential. It has long been the king of the modern Olympics and maybe still should be — the one sport that anyone anywhere can, and pretty much does, do, at least in some form. Run, jump, throw. Basic.

Instead, this Rio meet finds itself bedeviled by a bevy of logistics, location, pricing and scheduling challenges, all of which surely have contributed to the sparse crowds. And then there remains the sport’s underlying presentation problem: doping. As in: can you believe what you see? 

All of that was encapsulated in Tuesday’s women’s long jump qualifying. The lone Russian allowed to compete here, Darya Klishina, jumped away. She was part of a field of 38, two groups of 19, that got cut to 12. Eighth, she passed  through to the final.

Why in the world go through such a ridiculous exercise — cutting 38 to 12? Same with the men’s high jump qualfiying on Sunday night — 44, two fields of 22, to 15, an event that Canada’s Derek Drouin won Tuesday night at 2.38 meters, or 7-9 3/4.

All sports, especially Olympic sports, depend on stars and on stories. 

Swimming and gymnastics, which dominate the first week of the Games, have thrown off stars who have become household names: Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles, among them, Biles on Tuesday winning her fourth Rio gold medal, in the women’s floor exercise.

Track and field, at these Olympics, seems determined to sabotage virtually every great story there might be.

Christian Taylor is a threat to break the world record every time he competes in the triple jump. He and Will Claye went 1-2 in London, and on Tuesday they went 1-2 again.

In a competition that started at 9:50 in the morning.

Seriously — 9:50 in the morning. To say that the stadium was not full would be — generous.

Afterward, Claye proposed to his girlfriend, the 2008 Olympian and hurdler Queen Harrison. 

Who saw any of this?

In the heats Tuesday morning of the women’s 5000m, American Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand's Nikki Hamblin tangled together, then fell. In a lovely moment of sportsmanship, D’Agostino then helped Hamblin up, and — painfully — each finished the race.

As the Indianapolis Star would report, the moment drew attention from international journalists — reporters from eight countries waiting to talk to the athletes afterward.


There are roughly 200 nations here in Rio.

The men’s pole vault provided high drama: Brazil’s Thiago Braz da Silva won in an Olympic-record 6.03, or 19-9 1/4. Competition started Monday evening and ended after the clock said Tuesday morning.

Granted, it rained Monday, hard, and there was a delay. Even so, if one of the key drivers of the Olympic movement is to draw young fans, how exactly does crowing a champion after midnight come anywhere near achieving that goal? 

Moreover, the American Sam Kendricks took bronze, behind da Silva and the great French champion, Renaud Lavillenie. Kendricks went to Ole Miss and is a U.S. Army reservist; that medal is the first for an American male in the Olympic pole vault in 12 years.

The news conference following that pole vault competition? It started after 2 a.m.

When what happened to Ryan Lochte is in the forefront of way too many minds and the bus schedule at night is irregular, at best: how many logically thinking reporters or news crews want to stick around for a bus that’s supposed to be there at the top of the hour, meaning 3 or 4 a.m. but, you know, may or may not be?

The aftermath of the pole vault further illustrates the disconnect.

Pole vault silver medalist Renaud Lavillenie on the medals stand // Getty Images

The sparse crowd still left in the stadium had cheered boisterously for da Silva. After, Lavillenie said, "If this is a nation where they only want Brazil and they spit on others, then you should not organize the Olympics," he said. He also made a comparison to Hitler's 1936 Berlin Games -- which he then retracted and apologized.

Even so, at Tuesday night's medal ceremony, Lavillenie got hit with a barrage of boos. It moved him to tears.

This was too much for a great many people, among them the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, who called the boos "shocking," adding it was "unacceptable at the Olympics."

Similarly, Seb Coe, the IAAF president, put out this tweet:

Sunday night proved the one night the stadium was full — because of Bolt, of course. And it had the added electricity of a world record in the men’s 400m, from South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk, who ran 43.03, taking down Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old mark, 43.18.

But Sunday night also highlights the complexities that have made this meet so — unsettling.

Even that men’s 100m final proved problematic. The two semifinals were run at 9 and 9:07 p.m., the final at 10:25. Both Bolt and Gatlin complained later that the time in between was just not enough.

Part of the challenge here has centered on weather -- for instance, Monday’s rain.

Part with location. At prior editions of the Games, track and field and the ceremonies, opening and closing, shared a stadium. Here, ceremonies are at Maracanã. Track and field is taking place at Engenhao. Think Wrigley Field or Fenway Park in the middle of a dense urban neighborhood. Unlike those two baseball parks, however, Engenhao is super-difficult to get to and from — 90 minutes, typically, from Copacabana.

Part, price. Tickets for Tuesday’s prelims ranged from $100 to $350, for the evening finals from $260 to $900. 

Part of the challenge, too, is simple scheduling. 

This Olympic meet runs for nine days.

The U.S. nationals go for four.  

Six would be more than enough.

There are lots of reasons - hello, ticket sales — to slice and dice the track and field schedule into this many days. But that isn’t happening. Outside of Sunday night, the crowds have been thin, at best.

IAAF spokesman Chris Turner, asked about the thin crowds, said:

”The IAAF's original timetable of April 2014 had evening sessions earlier and qualifications during the morning session. This was changed following requests from the local organizing committee Rio 2016 and broadcasting to have finals in the morning sessions and a later start in the evening for a combination of broadcast reasons and to help with ticket sales.  We always want to work with organizers to produce schedules which meet their requirements and broadcast to reach global audiences. This is what we have tried to achieve in this case."

With this kind of result:

The Tuesday morning session ran to 25 — 25! — events. The list: that men’s triple jump final, the women’s discus throw final (won by Croatia’s Sandra Perkovic), rounds for the women’s pole vault and heats of the women’s 5,000m, men’s 1500, men’s 200 and women’s 100 hurdles.

The Tuesday evening affair included 19 different events, building toward the two key race finals, the women’s 1500m and the men’s 110m hurdles.

Compare: last Thursday evening at the pool, when Phelps won the 200m individual medley and Simone Manuel the women’s 100m freestyle, there were all of 10 races, four of which were finals. 

As for the women’s 1500: 

The men’s 100m is often called the “dirtiest race in track.” This appellation goes back to at least 1988 and Ben Johnson. 


The women’s 1500 has historically proven way worse.

Jenny Simpson after taking third in the women's 1500, the first American ever to medal in the event // Getty Images

In the London 2012 women’s 1500m final, for instance, six of the top nine have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. 

After Sunday’s women’s 1500m semifinal, American Jenny Simpson spoke out about Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba, the world record holder in the event. Dibaba’s manager, the Somali Jama Aden, was arrested two months ago in Spain on suspicion of possessing doping products. Authorities have not accused Dibaba of any wrongdoing and after the Tuesday final she declared, through a translator, that she was "completely and crystal clean from doping."

Simpson had said after semifinals, “I think that you know a tree by the fruit that it bears. And if a tree bears sour frut, then the fruit around it are likely infected. And so I live my life that way in every way, not just through doping.”

In a reference to the World Anti-Doping Agency, she added, “And so I think that if WADA is on the case, they’ll find what they need to find. I hope so.”

Simpson finished third Tuesday night, in 4:10.53. She is the first American woman to medal in the 1500.

“The 1500m is unbelievably hard,” Simpson said late Tuesday. “And I’ve chosen to take on a challenge that I didn’t know if I could do it. There are moments where I thought, ‘Why am I here? Running 1500m is so hard.’ To take a piece of history — I don’t know, I sat down with my coaches … in 2013, and I told them I wanted to leave a mark on this sport that everyone in America could be proud of.

“I wanted to race as hard as I could, and be clean, and be someone that people could really be proud to cheer for.”

Dibaba took second, 4:10.27.

Kenya’s 22-year-old Faith Kipyegon, silver medalist behind Dibaba at last year’s world championships, won the race, in 4:08.92.

The stadium was maybe one-quarter full.

Portland 2016: a track and field innovation lab


PORTLAND, Ore. — For as long as anyone might remember, the mantra in track and field has been: well, that’s the way it has always been done. The 2016 world indoor championships, which concluded Sunday after a four-day stand at the Oregon Convention Center, offered a different take. Here, it was: let’s try something new.

“Innovation,” Max Siegel, the chief executive officer of USA Track & Field, “doesn’t happen by accident.”

It’s a function, he emphasized, of collaboration and resource: “You have to have a deliberate plan. You have to plan to be innovative, and then when you come up with an innovative idea you have to have an effective plan to execute the idea.”

The track was green. With the house lights down, the athletes entered down a ramp as their names were called out, one by one. The medals were, for the most part, awarded not onsite but at a downtown square that had been turned into a live-music and party venue. During the championships, a (mostly rock) soundtrack kept the beat to what was what on the track and in the field (special shout-out to the excellent DJ who threw Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” out there during the men’s masters’ 800).

The party at Pioneer Courthouse Square // photo TrackTown USA

Siegel at Thursday afternoon's opening news conference, at Pioneer Courthouse Square // Getty Images for IAAF

Did it all work? For sure not. A meet session should be two to two-and-a-half hours, max. Too often it went three-plus.

Did enough of it work, however, so that there’s reason, for the first time in a long time, to think that track and field at least stands a chance — again, a chance — of breaking out of its bubble and emerging over the next few years, particularly in the United States, as more than a niche sport?

For sure.

Even the highlight moment of the championships — Ashton Eaton bounding over in his warmups from the long jump pit to congratulate his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, for winning the pentathlon — was, though thoroughly unscripted, at least allowed for.

Organizers timed it so that husband and wife would be on track at the same time.

“When you know you have these possibilities,” said Paul Hardy, competition director for track’s worldwide governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, “you start thinking about creating a timetable that allows for these special moments.”

He added a moment later, “That’s how we’re now looking at it — how we present the sport.”

He also said, “We need to introduce things. Hopefully they’ll work. If you don’t try anything, you never know if it works. If it doesn’t, you can try for the next time. if it does, hopefully we can improve it even more.”

Even friendly police

The vibe was so overwhelmingly positive in Portland that even the police proved smiling, friendly, accessible.

That, too, was by design.

“Community engagement,” as police nationwide like to call it, is “a huge priority for us right now,” Portland police Sgt. Greg Stewart, the department’s acting spokesman, said in a telephone interview.

“Nationally with the police — it really is a contentious time. Police and community relations are maybe not what they should be. The chief,” Larry O’Dea the city’s police chief for the past 16 months, “is really working to make sure that’s a focus for us.”

When the police are cool, anything’s possible. Even in track and field, right?

Some is just easy: the kiss-cam (or smile-cam, whatever), a staple at other major events? Why not?

But why not think really out of the box?

What about re-configuring the set-up so that, in the same way that fans sit court-side at an NBA game, they can sit immediately along the track?

At the Kentucky Derby, thousands of fans crowd the infield. It’s not because they know the life story of every one of those horses, or could remotely care. Absolutely there would have to be some re-thinking of how that might work in track, since the infield is literally where those field events are competed — but why not turn a track infield into the same kind of party zone?

“No idea is stupid,” Hardy said. “If you don’t get people to throw ideas around, you’re never going to get anywhere. We can take ideas from other sports. We can learn from people who follow the sport. We are definitely open.”

As Vin Lananna, president of TrackTown USA, the local organizers of Portland 2016, said, “You can’t be afraid to think big.”

He observed: “The best example is American football. How many real football fans know everything about football and go to the stadium to watch a football game? A lot of it is social.

“We don’t do it in track. We make it impossible. It’s long. It’s often boring. The announcers don’t relate. There’s no music.

“We’re getting there little by little,” he said of the 2016 world indoors. “This is a good start.”

Lananna at that Thursday afternoon news conference // Getty Images for IAAF

Coe at Thursday night's opening ceremony // Getty Images for IAAF

These championships marked the first world championships with Seb Coe, elected last August, as  IAAF president.

Coe, recognizing that track’s demographics trend older than younger, has preached relentlessly that the sport must innovate — in everything from presentation to social media.

“If you’re going to innovate,” Coe said, “a lot of it is going to work but you have to recognize that some of it is like the Paris fashions — not everything is angular, jagged, outrageous. Some of Paris fashion week is inevitably going to end up on a coat hanger in a retail store. But you do need to start somewhere.

“This for me is absolutely crucial: we must give federations, we must give organizing committees, permission to think out of the box and not sit there thinking, ‘I am going to look silly if it doesn’t come off.’ Because some of it is not going to come off.”

Part Two in a three-piece Oregon trilogy

These 2016 world indoors also made for the second act in a three-part Oregon world championship track and field trilogy keyed by TrackTown, in partnership with, among others, USATF. Understand, for instance, that these indoors don’t happen without the significant financial investment of USATF.

Part one: the 2014 world juniors in Eugene. Part two: Portland 2016. Part three: the 2021 world outdoor championships, back at a rebuilt Hayward Field.

There’s more: the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials will be back at Hayward.

Plus the NCAA Division I track and field championships — they have been at Hayward the past two years, will be there this year (June 8-11), indeed will be there every year through at least 2021.

This summer is due to see the launch of the TrackTown summer series meets.

Little appreciated amid the first world indoor championships in the United States since 1987: the IAAF had to want to come. One of the reasons it did so: the IAAF meetings around the 2014 Eugene world juniors, thanks to the efforts of USATF chief operating officer Renee Washington, were arguably best-ever. A detail that might seem small but really isn’t, like the translation services — it was made a priority, not not an afterthought.

The IAAF noticed.

“There is no one person who can single-handedly take all these people stuck in the fact that [the sport] has been done a single way,” Siegel said, emphasizing, “It takes a collective effort of like-minded people to effect any vision.”

From the get-go, the point of emphasis from all involved was that the 2016 world indoors had to be more than simply a track meet.

The audacious goal was to stage “the best indoor meet ever held anywhere in the world,” Lananna said last Wednesday with the idea of sparking what Coe on Thursday called a “reawakening of track and field in this country.”

That kind of thing is, by definition, going to take time.

So an immediate verdict is, again by definition, all but impossible.

Attendance figures suggest, however, that something must have clicked — the OCC, capacity 7,000, was essentially sold out for all three night events, and even the Friday morning session, competing against an Oregon State NCAA March Madness basketball game on TV, drew 4,087.

On Saturday evening, demand was so intense that organizers added— thank you, Portland fire marshal for being so accommodating — temporary seats and allowed for standing-room only. The total: 7,173.

Sunday, much the same: 7,191. Friendly ticket “brokers” could be seen looking for business outside the convention center.

The four-day attendance total: 39,283.

A huge boost to the atmosphere: the U.S. team ended up with 23 medals overall. Runner-up Ethiopia had -- five. France, four. Nobody else had more than three.

The fundamental challenge

Putting aside doping and corruption issues, for which the sport has justifiably earned headlines in recent months and years, the fundamental challenge is easy to identify: track and field is arguably the only sport in which multiple events are going on simultaneously.

On Sunday, for example: the men’s long jump, women’s 5k and women’s high jump (won a few minutes later by U.S. teen sensation Vashti Cunningham) were all going on at exactly the same time.

American Marquis Dendy, long jump winner // Getty Images for IAAF

Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia crosses the line to win gold in the women's 5k // Getty Images for IAAF

American teen Vashti Cunningham in the high jump // Getty Images for IAAF

How to best present or package that? Production, story-telling, engaging an audience — particularly newbies or casual fans?

At the same time, track and field is without question the most diverse, most global, sport anywhere anytime. It’s also fundamental. Virtually everyone, at some point, has done the run, jump or throw thing.

The 2016 championships drew roughly 500 athletes from more than 140 nations — roughly two-thirds of the countries in the world.

That’s the good.

The not-so: no Usain Bolt, Justin Gatlin, Allyson Felix, Mo Farah (though he did show up to watch), David Rudisha and, of course, given the status of the Russian team amid doping sanction, the pole vault diva Yelena Isinbayeva.

British distance champion Mo Farah, who often trains in the Portland area, watching Friday night's men's 1500 heats with daughter Rihanna // Getty Images for IAAF

Germany's Kristin Gierisch, a silver medalist in Saturday's triple jump

The convention center pre-track build-out // photo courtesy TrackTown USA

Construction underway: note the wall on the right that had to go // photo courtesy TrackTown USA

Ready to go // Getty Images for IAAF

"Feels Like the First Time" -- thanks, Foreigner

The no-shows missed the transformation of the convention center in just 12 days to a world-class track and field venue.

And, beyond the rock soundtrack (Foreigner: “Feels Like the First Time” during the Friday men’s 1500 heats), a series of other major markers, many of which drew from a series of inspirations.

— The pole vault, men’s and women’s, as a by-themselves package on Thursday night, with hundreds of kids allowed onto the banked 200-meter track to watch.

Organizers were rewarded three times over. First: both winners were London 2012 Olympic gold medalists, the American Jenn Suhr and Renaud Lavillenie of France. Second: for the first time ever in the same competition, four women went over 4.80 meters, or 15 feet, 9 inches, Suhr winning in 4.90, 16-0 3/4. Third: Lavillenie, after setting a new indoor championships record on just his third jump, 6.02, 19-9, made three (unsuccessful) tries at a world record, 6.17, 20-2 3/4, electrifying the crowd.

The Lavillenie victory, moreover, provided emphatic evidence that, for all its challenges, track and field remains indisputably at the intersection of real-world politics and sport -- why it's so relevant in so many nations. French president Francois Hollande, on Friday posted to his Twitter account a message that read, in idiomatic English: "Congratulations to Renaud Lavillenie for his second world title! Here's to a great Olympic Games in Rio!"

In the manner of the pole-vault meet that now-IAAF vice president Sergey Bubka used to run in his hometown of Donetsk, Ukraine, stand-alone events would seem a key to the future of track and field.

USATF, for instance, made the hammer-throw at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials a signature event, held — before 5,000 people — at the Nike campus outside Portland. In 2014, the U.S. nationals saw the shot put go down on the California state capitol grounds.

Now: what about featuring that women’s high jump? On, say, the Vegas Strip? Or the Champs Élysées in Paris? Or the riverfront Bund in Shanghai?

— Those athlete entry ramps.

Swimming has long done the athlete intro big-time, with swimmers coming out from behind a partition to lights and music. Track tried that at the World Relays in the Bahamas in 2014, and again last year. Now, the ramps.

Another logistical (and time-saving) advantage: no stripping off the warm-ups in the lanes right before the start of a race.

Coe, noting that the indoor format lends itself more easily to experimentation, said, “Enough [new ideas have] come off here to make a big difference already.”

At the same time, as he noted, and this question about the ramps was rhetorical, not signaling an opinion, “Will that work on a Friday night in London when it’s 48 degrees?”

Norway’s Svein Arne Hansen, president of the European Athletics Assn., emphasizing that he, too, is a big proponent of trying something new, noted with a wry smile about turning down the house lights for athlete introductions: “I cannot turn down the lights at Bislett,” the annual summer stop in Oslo. “It’s sunlight.”

— A digitized scoreboard for the horizontal jumps.

You could see, not just have to imagine, what record a particular jumper might be going for. What a concept.

— Locals operating food trucks as an alternative to arena hot dogs. Voodoo Doughnuts!

— Uber as a sponsor, an example of integrating new, and cost-effective, technology.

Normally, an organizing committee has to find a car sponsor or rent a bunch of cars to create a dedicated carpool system. With Uber — Uber provided the carpool. If you wanted a ride — well, you know how Uber works.

— The make-over of Portland Courthouse Square downtown into the place for medals, music and more.

The nightly medals ceremonies focused on the athletes, a key for Lananna and Coe. Lananna said, “You take youth and connect them to their great heroes. That’s what it’s all about — that next generation.”

A clear logistical benefit to moving the ceremonies offsite: carving time out of the rundown at the track itself.

The offsite medals plaza has many roots — see the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games, for instance. Or the party vibe each summer at those Bislett Games in Oslo.

The vibe at the square: Portlandia from the start. At the opening news conference there last Thursday, Coe didn’t wear a tie, the first IAAF event in years at which the president did not wear a tie. Neither did Lananna. Nor Siegel.

Again, all quite deliberately.

“It has been a good event,” Hansen said Sunday as the championships came to a close. “The music. The atmosphere. Excellently organized.”

And, at least for four days, in a nod to the wave of doping and corruption headlines, he said, “We don’t talk about [the bad stuff] anymore.”

Coe in charge, track at an inflection point


PORTLAND, Ore. — Let’s get the joke out of the way early. For a sport savaged by months of doping stories, it turns out there’s a legal marijuana store literally across the street from the Oregon Convention Center, site of the 2016 track and field world indoor championship, which features a groovy, granola-crunchy green track. Can’t make this stuff up. Seriously, now: track and field arrives for the 2016 world indoors, a four-day run that got underway Thursday night, at an inflection point.

Since Sebastian Coe was elected president last August of track’s world governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, the headlines have mostly been grim. Claims of rampant corruption in the regime of former IAAF president Lamine Diack — allegations that Diack's administration was ripe with conflict of interest, graft, money for cover-ups. And, of course, doping, doping, doping. Russians, Russians, Russians. Oh, and how about the Kenyans, Ethiopians, Moroccans and more?

Wait — what’s this? UK Anti-Doping announces Wednesday a life ban against a track coach there, Dr. George Skafidis, in the wake of nine, count them, nine anti-doping violations, all relating to sprinter Bernice Wilson. In Britain? What?

The focus Thursday shifted to the sport itself, with the IAAF and local organizers, led by Vin Lananna, giving the first night of the championships over entirely to the pole vault. France's Renaud Lavillenie won the men’s event, setting a world indoor championships record, 6.02 meters, or 19 feet 9 inches. The world record, which Lavillenie set two years ago, is 6.16, 20-2 1/2. On Thursday, he made three attempts at a new world record, 6.17, 20-2 3/4. No go. American Sam Kendricks took second, clearing 5.80, 19-0 1/4. On the women's side, the U.S. went one-two, Jenn Suhr winning in a championship-record 4.90, 16-0 3/4, Sandi Morris taking second in 4.85, 15-11. As evidence of the upswing in women's pole vaulting, Thursday's competition marked the first time four women in the same competition cleared 4.80, 15-9.

"I think the Summer Olympics are going to be pretty crazy," Morris said afterward.

Jenn Suhr, the 2012 Olympic champion, winning 2016 world indoor gold // Getty Images for IAAF

London 2012 gold medalist and current world record-holder Renaud Lavillenie of France making his into to the 2016 indoor worlds // Getty Images for IAAF

The rest of the field jumping, Lavillenie waits to start -- part of the mental game in pole vault. He entered at 5.75 meters, or 18-10 1/4 // Getty Images for IAAF

Lavillenie after a scary end to his second attempt at 6.17: "I was just able to manage it and fall safely. It’s not so often I do something like that. It happens. Pole vault is very dangerous and very intense. That’s why we love it." // Getty Images for IAAF

Lavillenie, after, meeting the media. Track junkies: in the blue warmup jacket beyond Lavillenie, that's Dan O'Brien, the 1996 Olympic decathlon winner

As the vaulters did their thing, KC and the Sunshine Band could be heard belting out their mid-'70s anthem, “That’s the way (I like it),” just one of the musical numbers featured on a loop that played over the convention speakers. In another twist, the vaulters got individual introductions — each athlete running in turn into the arena down a ramp, his or her name in lights.

Medal ceremonies: back downtown at Pioneer Courthouse Square, with more music and that Portlandia hipster vibe.

Attendance Thursday at the convention center: a robust 6,924.

It's like track and field was, you know, making a genuine effort to be more interesting. And, even, innovating.

Pioneer Courthouse Square: set up to be the 2016 world indoors medals and party center

This is the reality of what is happening with Coe, in particular, and that is particularly worth noting at the start of these championships, the first world indoors in the United States since 1987.

“The USA has historically been the powerhouse of track and field,” Coe said earlier Thursday at a sun-splashed news conference in that square. “Yet given its great economic power, it is still a country where the general perception of track and field is low. The regeneration of that is taking place here in Oregon and I genuinely believe this will be a reawakening of track and field in this country. This is a new and exciting chapter in the history of our sport."

Sebastian Coe at Thursday's news conference, flanked by the husband-and-wife team of Canada's Brianne Theisen-Eaton and American Ashton Eaton, both multi-event stars // Getty Images for IAAF

Let's be real: that's going to take time.

Things were broken. Now they have to get fixed. Coe is the guy to fix them. New chapters, regeneration, reawakening — whatever label you like — don’t just happen overnight.

Which is why the many cries for Coe’s resignation are seriously misplaced.

As Coe said at that news conference in that square, “Our sport is still strong. Not to deny we haven’t gone through challenging, dark days.”

Later, asked specifically whether he believes there are clean Russian athletes, a ridiculous question in its own right, as if an entire country of 140 million people can’t produce one soul that competes without drugs, he said, “I’m sure there are. But the reality is we need to get the athletes,” wherever in the world they might be, “back into systems that people are trusting.”

That's half of what's what. Here is the other: doping is not just a track and field problem (hello, tennis star Maria Sharapova, swim champion Yulia Efimova and others now looking at meldonium issues). It is not just a Russia problem.

“We are responsible for our sport,” Coe said. “We are not the world’s policeman.”

A World Anti-Doping Agency-commissioned report — the first part delivered in November, the second in January — suggested that Diack ran a closely held conspiracy to cover up certain doping results, mostly in Russia.

Diack and his longtime lawyer, Herbert Cissé, are said to be facing criminal inquiry in France.

Last week, the IAAF’s policy-making council met in Monaco, the federation’s longtime base.

Process isn’t sexy. Process takes time. The press loves (even a hint of) negativity.

At the same time, Coe was duly elected after a hard-fought campaign, defeating the former pole vault legend Sergey Bubka. That means Coe earned — better, deserves — the opportunity to effect change.

The council was met with 51 measures. It approved 51.

It’s a measure of how into-the-21st century the IAAF has to go, alternatively an indicator of how Diack ran the federation for 16 years as more or less a personal fiefdom, that a good number of the 51 deal with basic, albeit essential, governance items.

For instance, things like getting double signatories on checks. Or job descriptions. Or standard HR controls.

Any institutional change is a combination of change wrought from without and within. Coe is — this is key to understand — a change agent.

So, too, Stephanie Hightower, the USA Track & Field president who was elected last August to the IAAF council.

As the USATF board said in December 2014, in a statement when it went with Hightower instead of the longtime U.S. representative to the IAAF, Bob Hersh:

“Change is difficult for any organization. It is especially difficult when it involves long-serving officials. In 2015, there will be significant, structural change at the IAAF – with their leadership, with their direction, vision and politics. This is a different era and a different time. We think Stephanie Hightower provides us with the best chance to move forward as part of that change.”

From 2011-15, Hersh had been the senior IAAF vice president, Coe one of three other vice presidents.

Once Coe was elected, he immediately turned in part to Hightower and to Frankie Fredericks, the former sprinter from Namibia who for years has been making a new career in sports administration.

Some have groused, and loudly, that as an IAAF vice president, Coe “must have known” what was going on with Diack.

Using that same logic, why aren’t the many critics of the USATF process by which Hightower was selected to run for the IAAF council asking the same about Hersh?

This, understand, is a rhetorical question — not what Hersh did or did not know. But those who have been often been the loudest in their criticism are not being consistent. You want to criticize Coe because he was vice president — but think it was somehow wrong for USATF not to re-appoint Hersh, who as the No. 2 man, the senior VP, should have been most closely involved with the organization and with Diack?

Indeed, the suggestion that Coe “must have known” itself betrays logic.

The IAAF council met maybe three or four times a year. That’s roughly 10 days of 365. Coe had been an IAAF vice president since 2007; from 2005-12, he was thoroughly occupied as boss of the London Olympics.

It’s a little bit like being vice president of a school board and getting asked why you didn’t know the high school basketball coach was stealing from the travel fund.

Was there talk at the council during Diack’s latter years about doping in Russia? Obviously: there were public records of sanctions. But if the word from the top was that Russians were being caught because of advances in blood passport work, precisely what more should any of the roughly two dozen on the council have done?

To reiterate a point made in this space before: the point of a conspiracy, which is what Diack alleged to have run, is to keep it hidden from those not part of it.

Coe’s “must have known” is one of four apparent points of objection that have been raised over these past several months, in tiresome fashion.

Coe at Thursday's opening ceremony, with Portland 2016 local organizing chief Vin Lannana and Portland mayor Charlie Hales // Getty Images for IAAF

Objection No. 2:

When he succeeded Diack last August, Coe called Diack the “spiritual leader” of the sport.

Given what we know now, Coe could have used a different phrase, for sure. Hindsight is always 20/20.

But three notes here:

One, when you succeed someone, you generally say nice things.

Two, Coe would never — repeat, never — have used those words if he’d had even an inkling of what is alleged to have gone down. Coe is not only a smart guy, he has had a career in the hard-knocks school of British politics.

Three, there has been zero suggestion from law enforcement linking Coe to any misconduct or wrongdoing, and you can believe he has been in contact with French agents.

Objection No. 3:

Again in Beijing upon election, Coe gave a legalistic response, rather than one more PR-savvy, when asked about his longtime ambassadorial role with Nike, saying in essence his relationship was well-known and -documented. Coe has since relinquished the position.

This was an optics problem, and nothing more.

Those who would savage Coe cried, conflict of interest! Coe was affiliated with Nike for nearly 40 years. That run included the years he oversaw the London 2012 effort. Where were the critics — particularly in the British parliament, where he regularly appeared for status reports for 2012 — during all that time?

Objection No. 4:

Upon the publication early last August of a story in The Sunday Times that claimed more than 800 athletes, and a third of all medalists in endurance events at recent Olympics and world championships had suspicious blood results not followed up by the IAAF, Coe called the allegations “a declaration of war” on the sport.

In turn, that more or less prompted many, particularly in the British press, to declare a war in print with Coe.

Here it is worth referring to Part II of the WADA-commissioned report:

The “database” on which the story revolved was “in reality, no such thing,” but a “compilation of various test results.” The three-member panel, headed by Canadian lawyer Dick Pound, the first WADA president, said it “would not have been legally possible to bring a successful sanctioning process against any athlete based on the values in the IAAF database.”

Also: “The [commission] was provided with no explanation for the differences in approach and cautions expressed … in previously written scholarly publications on the subject matter and the opinions expressed in the work commissioned by The Sunday Times. The differences are quite significant.”

Going forward, it’s worth emphasizing that in significant measure the announcement of new doping cases — specifically in Kenya and Ethiopia — marks the results of basic anti-doping standards finally being applied to, or adopted by, the rest of the world.

Which, in its way, is what Coe observed at that sunny news conference.

He said, “People want immediate action. People want immediate results. People want immediate change.

“It takes time.”

Kenya super, US again kryptonite in steeple


BEIJING — Amid keen anticipation that this would finally be the year an American man would medal in the steeplechase at the world championships, Evan Jager headed into the bell lap in the lead.

And then came a fleet of Kenyans. Jager could not keep up. The Kenyans went 1-2-3-4, the master Ezekiel Kemboi winning in 8:11.28.

You’d say it was incredible but, for about 30 years, this is what the Kenyans have been doing in the steeplechase.

The master. Ezekiel Kemboi, leads the Kenyan continent to the line // Getty Images

The Americans could take some consolation in a 5-6 finish — Daniel Huling passing a weary Jager down the homestretch for fifth.

Or you might say that the steeplechase is, for some inexplicable reason, the American track and field version of kryptonite, for generations now warding off any and all big-meet success.

Or it’s like the summer sport version of biathlon. Lots and lots of smart people, hard work, real promise — and then, regrettably, nothing.

To quote Bruce Springsteen, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

“Our plan was to go for gold, silver and bronze,” the second-place finisher, Conselsus Kipruto, said afterward. “I am happy that I was able to assist my team. I sacrificed myself for the team. We have a lot of experience but we are still young. Now we want to prepare well for the Olympic Games next year.”

Brimin Kipruto, in third, said, “We could not hope for a better result. I am so proud of my country and my team.”

In other action Monday, the U.S. woman recorded a best-ever finish in the 10k, 3-4-6, Emily Infeld going by Molly Huddle at the line for third; Shalane Flanagan took sixth. Infeld’s third matched the best American worlds finish in the event, Kara Goucher’s Osaka 2007 bronze.

Goucher may be in line for an upgrade to silver for that 2007 race. The second-place finisher, Turkey’s Elvan Abeylegesse, has been linked in recent weeks to doping reports.

Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot took gold Monday night, in 31:41.31, Ethiopia’s Gelete Burka silver, 46-hundredths back. Huddle appeared to celebrate too early, raising her arms as she approached the line, Infeld kept going. Infeld: 31:43.49, Huddle nine-hundredths behind.

What the Seiko camera saw at the end of the women's 10k // photo courtesy Seiko

Colombia’s Caterine Ibarguen affirmed her standing as the world’s best female triple jumper, winning in 14.09 meters, or 46 feet, 2-3/4 inches.

The men’s pole vault saw a shocker: 21-year-old Canada’s Shawn Barber, the 2015 Pan-Am Games champion who attends the University of Akron, winning with a jump of 5.90 meters, or 19 4-1/4. Germany’s Raphael Holzdeppe, the Moscow 2013 champion, took second, at the same height. Renaud Lavillenie of France, who has for the past several years dominated the event, finished in a three-way tie for third, at 5.80, or 19 0-1/4.

And, finally, in the women’s 100, the stellar Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, twice an Olympic champion, the reigning world champion at 60 meters, 100, 200 and in the 4x100 relay, did it again. She overpowered a strong field to win in 10.76, green hair flowing behind her, right arm up in triumph as she crossed the line.

The former heptathlon standout Dafne Schippers of Holland took second, in a national-record 10.81. American Tori Bowie got third, in 10.86.

Fraser-Pryce in the 100 at major championships: 2008, 1. 2009, 1. 2011, 4. 2012, 1. 2013, 1. 2015, 1.

"My message always is: no matter where you are from, no matter which past you have, it is all about your future and your goals," Fraser-Pryce said afterward.

A few moments later, she said, "When I ran the heats, I remembered when back in 2008 at the Olympic Games, I was 21 years old -- I expected nothing then. And I came out here tonight -- with a gold medal. Every championship is different. I am really excited."

Two notes of intrigue from the field in that women’s 100: the Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown, with seven medals across four Olympics, including three golds, finished fourth, in 10.91. And Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare, who excels in both the sprints and the long jump, ended up last, in 11.02.

In the American camp, meanwhile, there had been such considerable hope before the men’s steeplechase that Monday, finally, be the night.

Some history:

With the exception of two wins — Paris 2003, Helsinki 2005 — by Saif Saaeed Shaheen representing Qatar, a Kenyan runner has won every worlds steeplechase since Tokyo 1991.

For those not up to speed on the details of the sport, Shaheen was born in — Keiyo District, Kenya. As Stephen Cherono, he ran for Kenya until 2002; he still holds the world record, 7:53.63, set in September 2004 in Brussels.

Every year, worlds or Olympics, the Kenyans seemingly just re-load.

Jairus Birech came into Monday night’s final as the world No. 1, winner of the final six Diamond League steeples in 2014 and three more this year. He has a 7:58.83 to his name.

Consensus Kipruto, the Moscow 2013 silver medalist, had been the only guy to have beaten Birech this summer — in London on July 25. He’s only 20 years old.

Brimin Kipruto is the 2008 Olympic champion (he fell on the sixth lap in London in 2012). Four years ago, at the Monaco Diamond League meet, he missed the world record by one-hundredth of a second. This year, he had run 8:10.09, No. 5 in the world.

And then there is Kemboi.

Kemboi is now 33. He used to be Shaheen’s apprentice.

But for nearly a decade he has been the master of the steeplechase.

Kemboi finished second at the worlds, behind Shaneen, at Helsinki and Paris and then again, behind another Kenyan, Brimin Kipruto, at the Osaka 2007 worlds.

He won at the 2004 Athens Olympics (8:05.81, a Kenyan sweep, Kemboi, Brimin Kipruto, Paul Kipsiele Koech).

Kemboi finished seventh in 2008 here at the Bird’s Nest, his worst international performance.

At major meets since, Kemboi has since been virtually unchallenged — winning the last three world championships, in Berlin 2009 (8:00.43), Daegu 2011 (8:14.85) and Moscow 2013 (8:06.01).

He also won at the London 2012 Summer Games (8:18.56).

Kemboi is not just a winner. He is what you might gently call a character.

After he won in Moscow, for instance, amid a dance-filled victory lap, he showed off his Mohawk haircut and a message on his T-shirt that said his victory was dedicated to the Kenyan president and deputy, “my heroes/my kings/I love Kenya.”

Kemboi in winning form in Moscow two years ago // Getty Images

In Daegu, he partially shaved his hair. After he won, he threw his singlet into the stands and took his victory lap with the Kenyan flag tied, sweatshirt-style, around his waist.

In 2002, after winning his first major medal, a silver at the Commonwealth Games, Kemboi was so moved that he named his son (he is now the father of two boys) after the venue: Manchester.

And so on.

As a retort of sorts, Jager has a blonde man-bun.

The Kenyan domination over the years in the steeplechase has been matched, if you will, by American futility.

The American medal record in the steeplechase at the Olympics — in all, five:

Silver, 1920 (Patrick Flynn); bronze, 1932 (Joe McCluskey, and a historical note, in 1932 the race was 3460 meters long, not 3000); gold, 1952 (Horace Ashenfelter, who worked for the FBI and beat the Soviet Vladimir Kazantsev for the win, the only U.S. gold in the event); bronze, 1968 (George Young, behind two Kenyans); and bronze, 1984 (Brian Diemer, the winner, Julius Korir, of course Kenyan).

The American medal record at the world championships: zero.

Again, dating to the first world championships in Helsinki in 1983: zero.

Diemer took fourth at the edition in Rome in 1987.

Overall, before Monday night, Kenya at the worlds: 25 of 42 medals. United States: only seven guys to finish, ever, in the top eight.

As recently as four years ago, the United States did not qualify a single guy for the steeplechase final at Daegu.

Three guys then emerged:

Donn Cabral, the 2011 NCAA champ from Princeton; the next year, he dropped 12 seconds off his personal-best.

Dan Huling, 10 seconds off the final time qualifier in Daegu, endured a dismal two years — he didn’t break 8:20 from 2011 to 2013 — but came back strong this year. His last two races: 8:14 and 8:15.

Two years ago in Moscow, meanwhile, Jager took fifth.

In Paris earlier this summer, Jager set an American record, 8:00.45; he looked set to break eight minutes, saying afterward he thought he was on 7:56 pace, but while ahead fell over the last barrier.

The race is designed to be a physical and mental test. There are 28 hurdles, four each lap, and seven water jumps, one per lap. For those super-interested in the IAAF technical manual, the water depth at the barrier must — repeat, must — be 50 to 70 centimeters, 19.7 to 27.6 inches.

Why is the race called the “steeplechase”? Because, as the story goes, it was first run from the church steeple in one village to the church steeple in the next village.

Saturday’s heats underscored the different ways the race can play out — fast, slow, tactical or not.

— One, Conselsus Kipruto won in 8:41.41. Jager, fifth off the final turn, had to turn on the burners to finish second, one-tenth back. The European champion, France’s Yoann Kowal, took fourth — out of the finals.

If Jager had run just 15-hundredths of a second slower, he would have been out — watching the final on TV or somewhere.

— Two, a much-faster heat. The leaders reached two kilometers in 5:43.18, more than 20 seconds faster than heat one. Birech won, in 8:25.77, followed by Bilal Tabti of Algeria and Cabral.

— Three, Kemboi sat back and waited until the last 200 meters, then kicked to victory in 8:24.75, followed by Brahim Taleb of Morocco and Brimin Kipruto.

The strategy going into the final looked straightforward: four Kenyans against the one American, Jager.

They went through the first 1k in 2:49, Cabral second, Jager fourth, Conselsus Kipruto in front.

At 2k, it was Conselsus Kiputo at 5:36.77, Cabral 12th, Jager cruising along in the pack at 10th.

At the bell lap, it was 7:14.07, and Jager in front.

And then the Kenyans took off, as if lit by rocket fuel, and Jager faded.

Kemboi’s last lap made for what would have been an incredible stand-alone 400 hurdles. He sprinted to the finish in 8:11.28.

Consensus Kipruto took second, a tenth of a second back.

Sixteen-hundredths behind that, Brimin Kipruto.

Fourth: Birech, eight-hundredths out of the medals.

Jager could not keep up the pace. He slipped to sixth, 8:15.47.

Huling passed him down the homestretch. He grabbed fifth, in 8:14.39.

Afterward, Kemboi again wrapped the Kenyan flag around his waist and danced. Ever-so-briefly. And he kept his shirt on.

Kemboi, left, after winning again in Beijing // Getty Images

Kemboi now in major meets: 2003, 2. 2004, 1. 2005, 2. 2007, 2. 2008, 7. 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015: 1.

Huling would say later that his race aim was “sixth or seventh,” a medal “probably outside my talent level, my fitness level, obviously.

“So I wanted to run for sixth to seventh and if I did that and it gave me the opportunity to pick off someone, unfortunately, like Evan. I’m really gutted for him, I really wanted for him to get a medal. He probably spent a lot more energy to try and get a medal today. He probably had a better race than me.”

Jager, referring to the Kenyans, said, “Those guys are so freaking tough over the last lap, running extremely fast over barriers. It’s something that I haven’t figured out yet; I’m working on my entire career how to handle that. It’s definitely different than having a fast last lap in the flat race. It’s just a different element to it. There’s a reason why the Kenyans have won every single steeple world championships they’ve competed in the last 12-13 years. So it’s really tough. I have to figure out something for myself.”

He also said, "I’ll go back to the drawing board.”

Kemboi, meanwhile, got to bask in victory, as ever: “I am so happy about my fourth consecutive world title. It was a strong race. We maintained the pace but I never went in front — only [over] the last 400 meters.”

He also said about that killer kick, “On the last lap nobody could follow me. I will be celebrating tonight with my teammates.”

Can Justin Gatlin be a hero?


EUGENE, Oregon — It was 40 years ago Saturday — May 30, 1975 — that Steve Prefontaine crashed his gold 1973 MGB convertible on a curve here on Skyline Boulevard and died. He is by now legend, myth, icon and the man that America wants its track heroes to be. By all rights, amid this year’s running of the Prefontaine Classic, the guy who should be America’s track and field hero is Justin Gatlin. He won the 200 meters here Saturday in 19.68, eighth-fastest in history, a meet record. Gatlin’s challenge is not what he does between the lines. It’s what he says when he’s not performing. And how he handles himself, and his doping-related past.

This is all a reminder that this hero business is hard. And yet not so. A little humility and accountability, and knowing what to say at the right time, can go a long way.

Americans can be so forgiving. There is a deep well of forgiveness just waiting for Justin Gatlin if he can find it in himself to get to that place of honest redemption. When he was introduced here before the start of the 200, there were cheers, not boos. After the race, he spent a half-hour signing autographs and had to be dragged away to talk to reporters on deadline.

Is Justin Gatlin a hero? Can he be? What would it take to really, truly get him there?

Justin Gatlin running away with Saturday's 200 at Hayward Field // photo courtesy USATF

What went down here in Eugene over the weekend is also a reminder of track and field’s niche role in the American scene, and how even an amazing meet like this year’s Pre Classic — which seemingly featured virtually every great track star in the world save Jamaica's Usain Bolt and Kenya's David Rudisha — is but a starting block.

Track and field has to be — and this is the aim of the organizers of the 2021 world championships in Eugene — a sport that goes through the winter and spring and into the summer and captures the public imagination, well beyond Hayward Field, beyond Eugene, beyond Portland, beyond Oregon.

It needs stories and stars.

On Saturday, a sell-out crowd of 13,278 at Hayward Field saw the likes of France’s Renaud Lavillenie, who tried three times Saturday to break the world record in the pole vault — 20 feet, 2 1/2 inches — on an injured shoulder, only to come up just short;  American Allyson Felix, who ran a sophisticated 50.05 to win the women’s 400; Granada’s Kirani James, who ran a breathtaking 43.95 to win the men’s 400; and, of course, the incomparable Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, the multiple Olympic champion in the sprints, who won the women’s 100 in 10.81.

The field heads into the first turn in Saturday's  Bowerman Mile

It needs the likes of Justin Gatlin.

Gatlin ought to be huge. Not just in track and field but as a breakout star. Like Prefontaine.

Last year, Gatlin did not lose a race. He is the 2004 100-meter champion. He is now back, at age 33, and running ridiculously fast.

At a Diamond League meet a few weeks ago, he ran a 9.74 in the 100 — his best-ever, and the fourth-fastest time of all time. Only Bolt (9.58 in 2009), American Tyson Gay (9.69, 2009), Jamaica's Yohan Blake (9.69, 2012) and another Jamaican, Asafa Powell (9.72, 2008), have run faster.

At the World Relays in the Bahamas earlier this month, Gatlin’s second leg in the 4x100 was so quick that even Bolt, running anchor, had no chance to catch Ryan Bailey, who took it home for the Americans.

You want to know why Nike recently gave Gatlin a new contract?

He wins.

Gatlin is a serious, legitimate, for-real threat to take out Bolt this August at the world championships in August and next year at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Bolt — just for the record — runs for Puma.

All this has come for Gatlin, again, at age 33. He has two doping run-ins in his history. The first, in 2001, a positive test for amphetamines, would have led to a two-year ban; Gatlin proved, though, that since childhood he had been taking meds for attention deficit disorder. Then he served a four-year ban, from 2006 to 2010 for a failed test for testosterone — which Gatlin has claimed was due to a massage therapist, Chris Whetstine, who rubbed the cream onto his legs without his knowledge.

This has always struck some as the kind of story that would make for an excellent subject for cross-examination under oath in federal court.

Meanwhile, as the South African scientist Ross Tucker pointed out in an excellent column, Gatlin has to confront “three strikes” in a “world of unprecedented skepticism — he is a former doper, dominating a historically doped event, while running faster than his previously doped self.”

At the same time, it’s also the case that the doping rules are what they are. Gatlin gets to run again.

Also, and particularly in the United States, everyone gets a second chance.

Since the days of the Pilgrims, that is the narrative of our nation. All you history majors: you can look it up. Everyone gets a second chance.

By now, the rules, as even Gatlin himself understands, because he articulated them after Saturday’s race, are quite simple and elegant. You apologize in public, owning what you did, and we all move on.

Gay, for instance, recently served a one-year ban. At the Relays, he apologized. He won Saturday’s 100 in 9.88. (Gatlin did not run the 100 here.)

“You know," Gatlin said, referring to Gay, "I mean, what more can you do? He came out and he publicly apologized for his incident. You know, he asked for forgiveness [from] his fans and his teammates, which is us. You know, what more can you do? He gave back his [2012 Olympic] medal. He gave back money. He’s back in the sport, working hard, just to feed his family, like anybody else in the sport.

“So, you know, I can’t do nothing but forgive him … because I have to focus on my race and my aspects and try to get on the podium myself.”

All of which makes the sustained back-and-forth that erupted at Friday’s pre-race news conference all the more difficult to comprehend.

First it was Gatlin and Jean Denis Coquard of the French newspaper L’Equipe.

The reporter asked Gatlin about a study that asked whether he could benefit — even if he was clean now — about the long-term benefit of steroids:

“I think it’s ridiculous. My situation was 2006. That was a decade ago. If anybody says that can happen a whole decade later, they need to go and see what’s happening in the medical world. Don’t come to me with that, you know. I have been in the sport, I have been injured since then, I have been out of the sport, now I am back in the sport and I am running very well, a lot of people have also been in the same situation I have, so those are the people you need to go ask those questions to.”

Then came a question — referenced in Tucker’s blog as well — about the possibility, suggested in a study on mice, that the positive effects of doping can linger long after doping ends.

Gatlin: “I don’t understand why you would match a laboratory mouse to a human being. That’s unfathomable to me. I don’t understand that. So that’s OK.”

A couple moments later, Weldon Johnson of entered the fray.

Johnson wanted to ask the same question he had at the Relays: “I asked a question to you and Tyson …”

Gatlin, knowing full well what the question was — how do you assure people you are competing clean? — interrupted, saying, “I think Tyson covered that question,” meaning with the apology.

“I wanted to see if you would answer it.”

“He answered all the questions.”

“I think a lot of people would have more like — you haven’t really come clean about what happened in 2006 …

“There’s no comments. There’s no more comments. There’s no more comments. Do you have a question?” Gatlin pointed to his left. “I said everything I had to say on that. There’s no comment. You can read all the articles.”

“Will you admit to taking performance-enhancing drugs?”

By now the two were talking just not at but over each other.


A screenshot of Gatlin at Friday's news conference. In the background is Franco Fava, a longtime Italian reporter //

“There’s no admitting to it. There’s articles. I had the articles. There’s no admitting to it. You can go back and read it. If you’re a history major, you can go back in the archives, go read those articles …

“So you still stick to the same story, that you’re the one guy …”

“Why do I need to change it? What is there to change?”

“That Chris Whetstine is the one who …”

“What does there need to be to change? Go ask Chris Whetstine?”

“He lives here, right?”

“I don’t know. Does he? You’re the reporter.”

“I’m trying to find out.”

“OK, go do that then. Until then, I’m going to answer these questions over here.” Again, Gatlin pointed to his left.

Johnson, undeterred, tried a new tack, referring to Trevor Graham, the coach implicated in the BALCO scandal: “Did you see anyone else in Trevor’s group doping?”

“… I don’t know anybody in those situations.”

“Do you understand how some of the public might be …”

Again, Gatlin interrupted: “Until then, I’m going to deal with the 200 meters in the Prefontaine.”

“I get that. And it’s amazing what you’ve done after four years off. But …”

“Well, if you get that, then why are you asking these questions that happened a decade ago? You’re not a history major, are you?”

Johnson: “… Because a lot of people don’t believe your story.”

Gatlin: “Are you a history major?

Johnson: “I was a history major, actually,” a 1996 Yale graduate whose thesis, “Female Labor Force Participation in 1880,” won the Charles Heber Dickerman Memorial Prize, awarded to one or more seniors presenting the best departmental essay.

Gatlin, who obviously had no knowledge of any such thing: “Good. Really? Good. Because maybe you should go do that, in a museum, or something. Because I am running track and field today. And tomorrow. And the next day after that. Which is the future. That’s why I’m here.”

At that, he turned around to the rest of the ladies and gentlemen of the press, and said, “Any questions? Any more?”

The Pre — with due respect to organizers of the other Diamond League meet in a few weeks in New York — is the premier international track meet in the United States. Gatlin, and his entourage, have to know coming in that he is going to get these kinds of questions. It’s not just L’Equipe that was here. The BBC was, too. And others.

How hard is it to be patient and polite and say, “I understand everyone’s curiosity but I ask for your understanding and patience. I have moved on and I hope you will, too.”

Or, better yet, to do some deep soul-searching and do what Gay did in the Bahamas.

What a good number of people close to the sport really want from Gatlin is a full accounting. There is a sense — and of course this is going to be hard for him to confront — that the truth remains elusive. That’s why there is such restlessness.

What’s difficult to comprehend, meanwhile, is that Gatlin is surrounded by good people. His agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, and his coach, Dennis Mitchell, are stand-up guys. If you have only a glancing knowledge of the sport, particularly in regard to Mitchell, you might not believe this is the case. But it is so.

Winning Saturday seemed a salve. At least for a while.

“I love the fans,” Gatlin said after the race. “I love that the fans love to see a race. Not just a Justin Gatlin race but just to see track and field, you know. We are not the most popular sport in the U.S. so to see the stands packed out here, you want to give back as much as you can to these fans. They come out to see a race that has action for nine seconds or 19 seconds.

“So a lot of people think, OK, they’re sitting on the stands or they’re sitting courtside for two hours or four quarters. Ours is over really quickly. So you want to give them something.”

He also said, “These fans, this is the home of Prefontaine. He’s a distance runner at the best. For them to be excited to see a sprint race, you know, these are true fans and I’m glad to be able to run out here for these fans every year.”

Track and field: 'soul' and 'heart' of the Games


MONACO — It was 15 years ago Wednesday that Senegal’s Lamine Diack took over as president of the IAAF, the international track and field federation, just 12 days after the death of Italy’s Primo Nebiolo. Diack is now 81, and here Friday he grew reflective looking both back and out at the last few months of his presidency, due to end next August. “We must never relax, be relaxed,” he said, “about our place in the world of sport.”

In a speech immediately preceding the announcement to the press of the IAAF’s athlete of the year awards, won by New Zealand shot-putter Valerie Adams and French pole-vaulter Renaud Lavillenie, Diack said it was a “pleasure” to celebrate both so that they, and like-minded others, “can continue to fight for our values.”

Announcing the IAAF athlete of the year awards, left to right: IAAF press deputy Laura Arcoleo, New Zealand shot-putter Valerie Adams, IAAF president Lamine Diack, French pole-vaulter Renaud Lavillenie // photo courtesy IAAF

Track and field, he said, is “helping to shape” the International Olympic Committee’s “Agenda 2020” potential reform project. At the same time, he made clear, track “is the soul” of the Games and while new sports “may be coming and so on, athletics,” using the word in wide use outside the United States for track and field, is not just the soul but also “the heart” of the Games.

In all, Diack's remarks marked the sort of valedictory one might have expected come next August in Beijing, upon the occasion of both the 2015 world championships, when the vote to succeed him will take place. The vote is Aug. 19; the meet itself runs Aug. 22-30.

Britain’s Sebastian Coe and Ukraine’s Sergey Bubka are expected to vie for the presidency. Neither has publicly declared.

Diack’s comments Friday turned into a reminder of how track and field’s leaders see the sport as the undisputed No. 1 Olympic event, combined with a pointed political rejoinder — conflated with the selection of both Adams and Lavillenie — of the import not just of track but of field as well, and of two marquee athletes widely believed to be doping-free.

In a year in which the U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin — who has been busted twice for doping — dominated the sprints and was included in the initial nominations for athlete of the year, which caused considerable controversy within track circles, Adams and Lavillenie stand, for many, as portraits of The Anti-Gatlin.

Adams becomes the first female thrower to win athlete of the year, Lavillenie the first male pole vaulter.

Not even Bubka won the award, which was established in 1988.

Beyond the drama sparked by someone like Gatlin, a year like 2014 makes for an intriguing set piece for end-of-year awards. Usain Bolt did not run, or at least much. There were no outdoor world championships and no Olympic Games. Different athletes, from wherever in the world, can find themselves working on different things — witness decathlon champion Ashton Eaton’s foray into the 400-meter hurdles.

Lavillenie, in mid-February, jumping in Donetsk, Ukraine, before an audience that included Bubka, broke Bubka’s 21-year-old world-record in the vault. The old mark: 6.15 meters, 20 feet-2 1/4 inches. The new: 6.16, 20-2 1/2.

“Everything came faster than I planned,” he said of breaking Bubka’s record, explaining that he “was more for maybe breaking it in 2015 or ’16.”

He went on, “This is the beauty of sport. You can’t plan everything. It was really amazing for me.”

Lavillenie is of course the 2012 Olympic champion. He had only one blemish on his 2014 season — he no-heighted at the Diamond League meet in Stockholm, meaning he lost in but one of 22 outings. "This," he said, "is not bad."

Adams is, right now, like the U.S. baseball star Joe DiMaggio. She has not lost in 56 straight meets.

Over the past two years, she has undergone four surgeries. She came to Monaco nursing the effects of work on a shoulder and an elbow, looking out not just toward 2015 but to Rio and the 2016 Olympics and the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.

“It takes lots of guts, four operations, lots of pain, lots of suffering, but if you have the passion firing, it makes the difference,” she said, adding, “When you want to do something, it becomes easier for you.”

Adams is now 30. She also said, “I’m not 21 anymore. I have to manage these things. I have that fighting fire within me. I’m mentally strong and my pain threshold is high.”

Adams has long been an outspoken advocate for competing clean, and in an event marked by notorious episodes of doping. She has two Olympic golds, in 2008 and 2012; four outdoor world titles; and three world indoor golds.

“The only drugs I’m on is some kiwi fruit, some lamb from New Zealand and some cows,” she quipped. “And good genes.”

As an example: one of her many brothers, Steven, was a 2013 first-round draft pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder; he is currently averaging 8.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

She also is an extraordinarily proud New Zealander, saying Friday, “We have four million people and 16 million sheep. Go Kiwis!”

Make no mistake: a focus of the IOC’s Agenda 2020 plan is a shift in the Olympic program from sports to events. The idea is to try to get new events in such as surfing, skateboarding, climbing. To do that, though, while keeping within the IOC’s self-proclaimed cap of 10,500 athletes is going to mean that cuts are going to have to come from somewhere, and that means track and field is going to be approached.

Race walking? For all those who consider it goofy: look at the diverse range of countries that have won medals or competed for real in just the past few editions of the Games, especially in the women's events; isn't the IOC purportedly big on universality? Was it mere coincidence that among the IAAF's Hall of Fame inductees Friday was the Polish race-walking star Robert Korzeniowski, winner of four Olympic gold medals and, at the world championships, three golds and a bronze?

Hammer throw? What about tradition and history? In the Summer Games since 1900? What about IOC activist Koji Murofushi of Japan, the 2004 Athens gold medalist?

Shot put? Especially the women’s shot? Adams is in every regard a deserving IAAF athlete of the year winner in 2014. She was nominated for the same award in 2013, when the Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce prevailed.

Again, looking toward the IOC’s vote on Agenda 2020 back here in Monaco in just two weeks, what  -- if anything -- is to be read into the selection of Valerie Adams as your 2014 IAAF female athlete of the year?

“It’s always difficult to compete against the glamor events on the track,” Adams said, adding of the throwers, “We train just as hard as everyone else,” and, “It’s not just a track event, it’s a track and field event.”

Diack may be 81 but many over the years have foundered in underestimating his political skill and resolve. Just moments before, he had said, “I always knew there were many challenges and many things to do.

“I am happy to say that I still have nine months to go. In the past I was counting years. Now I am even counting days. I soon will be transmitting my stick to somebody who will be able to carry it even better than me. This evening’s gala,” referring to the formal announcement of the winners, “must be beautiful for all those who love our sport.

“…This,” he said, “is what I wanted to say.”

IAAF 2019, IOC 2022: why so different?


The International Olympic Committee’s Winter Games bid 2022 process is, to put it charitably, struggling. Six cities have dropped out. Just two are left, Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. At the very same time, the IAAF’s bid contest for the 2019 track and field world championship seemingly couldn’t be going better. On Friday, an evaluation commission, headed by Sebastian Coe, the 1980s track star who is an IAAF vice president and of course oversaw the 2012 London Summer Games, wrapped up a worldwide tour that took it across the world to the three cities in the race: Barcelona; Eugene, Oregon; and Doha, Qatar.

It’s almost impossible not to compare and contrast, and to wonder what the IAAF is obviously doing so right.

Because it’s not just 2019.

On scene in Doha with the IAAF evaluation commission // photo courtesy Doha 2019

The 2013 world championships were in Moscow, at Luzhhniki Stadium, site of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1980 Summer Olympics; 2015 will be in Beijing, back at the Bird’s Nest; 2017 in London, at Olympic Stadium. There’s a good case to be made that the 2021 worlds will likely fall in Tokyo, to make use of the new Olympic Stadium there after the 2020 Games.

Absolutely, the IAAF is not perfect. Far from it. The 2013 worlds, in particular, were marked by attendance woes early in the championships. The 2011 worlds were in Daegu, South Korea, hardly one of your must-see tourist hot spots.

But even significant glitches such as these have hardly stopped some of the world’s great cities from lining up to bid for what is, after the Summer Games and FIFA’s World Cup, indisputably one of Olympic sport’s glamour events — a nine-day run featuring some of sport’s great stars, including the likes of sprinters Usain Bolt of Jamaica and American Allyson Felix and the French pole-vaulter Renaud Lavillenie.

If 2011 was in Daegu, remember, 2009 was in Berlin, at historic Olympic Stadium. And it was in 2009 in Berlin, on the blue track, that Bolt ran his signature world records: 9.58 in the 100, 19.19 in the 200.

Even the United States wants in for 2019, with Eugene launching the first American bid since Stanford’s 1999 and 2001 unsuccessful efforts.

No way Eugene is one of the world’s great cities. Absolutely it is one of the world's great college towns. It is also home to one of the most famous track facilities anywhere, venerable Hayward Field. This summer, it put on the IAAF junior championships.

Barcelona of course staged the 1992 Summer Olympics. More recently and relevantly, it played host to the 2010 European track and field championships and the 2012 IAAF juniors.

Doha put on the 2010 IAAF world indoors. It finished second, behind London, in the race for the 2017 outdoor worlds, and is due in the coming months and years to host any number of other championships, including short-course swimming (December), team handball (early 2015), gymnastics (2018) and, certainly, soccer’s World Cup in 2022.

Barcelona assuredly can count on support from track and field’s European center; Eugene would refurbish “iconic” Hayward; Doha would present the championships not in August but in late September and early October and, moreover, run the marathon at night under floodlights, conjuring up memories of Abebe Bikila at the Rome 1960 Summer Games.

To be clear, there are manifest differences between an Olympic Games and a track and field world championships.

An Olympics features multiple world championships all going on at the same time; an IAAF worlds is just one. An Olympics runs for 17 days; an IAAF worlds, only the nine. And so on.

Even so, an IAAF worlds — especially in comparison to a Winter Games — is still a pretty darn big deal. There were roughly 2,850 athletes from 89 countries at the Sochi 2014 Olympics. Moscow 2013, meanwhile, saw 1,974 athletes from 206 nations.

To underscore: a track world championships typically means an assembly of more nations than anywhere but a Summer Olympics.

The track championships are hugely international but manageable, not the sort of thing that requires a city or nation to undergo a perceived onerous investment. In short, it doesn’t cost, just to pick a number out of the blue sky, $51 billion.

Which everyone knows is what a Winter Games costs, right?

Oh, wait.

The IOC now stands poised in Monaco at an all-members session in December to assess president Thomas Bach’s review and potential reform session, dubbed “Agenda 2020.” That $51 billion figure, widely associated with the Sochi Games, is the number believed to have played a role, big or small, in scaring off the six cities now out of 2022 — Lviv, Stockholm, St. Moritz/Davos, Krakow, Munich and, most recently, Oslo.

Of course It’s more than that.

It is absolutely the case that in this last year of his presidency, the IAAF, under Lamine Diack, is in something of a holding pattern. It is also undeniably true that over the past 15 years track and field has seen more than its fair share of doping-related scandals, some involving its biggest stars.

The latest, which dropped Friday: a reported positive A test for Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo, winner the last two years of both the Boston and Chicago marathons.

None of this, however, has stopped cities from wanting its biggest event — including the robust campaign going on now for 2019.

Why? Because for all its flaws, and there are many, track and field is and forever will be the sport, the one nearly everyone can do, the one that despite its highly professionalized nature remains the “vintage” sport — if you will — of the movement.

It is, despite everything, elemental.

All of this is part and parcel of the underlying contest within the 2019 contest, which all involved with track and field are keenly aware — one for 2019, the other the looming contest for the IAAF top job.

Coe has been the point man for the evaluation commission.

Meanwhile, his presumed rival for the IAAF presidency, Ukraine’s Sergey Bubka, the 1980s and ‘90s pole vault star, himself another IAAF vice president who is also a member of the IOC executive board, has been simultaneously traveling the world.

While Coe was in Doha, there was Bubka in Algeria, meeting with top African Olympic and track officials and tweeting about it.

When Diack -- who is from Senegal -- approached Coe to head the evaluation commission, meantime, close observers took that as an unmistakable signal about what in the world of track and field is what. For his part, through the October tour of Spain, Oregon and Qatar, Coe has stressed time and again that he is fulfilling this role in service to the IAAF.

For those who wondered if this world tour was going to be all about Coe -- no. To reframe Meghan Trainor’s hit song — it’s all about the bids.

To be honest, Coe has to do it this way, all the while being completely upbeat about all three cities — because, at the 2019 election Nov. 18 in Monaco, there is going to be one winner and two who go home empty-handed. Any perceived negativity anytime, anywhere — that wouldn’t serve anyone in that position well for the presidential election next August in Beijing.

This shadow dance is reaching a stage where the two undeclared candidates, Coe and Bubka, should soon be publicly forthcoming about their intentions — perhaps at the IAAF gala in Monaco in November, the same week as the 2019 elections, or soon thereafter.

Which leads back to the IOC.

The fix the IOC has got itself in has to be seen big picture.

When Juan Antonio Samaranch was president, from 1980 until 2001, one of the most clever — and under-appreciated — aspects of his tenure was to “hide” the Games themselves behind the concept of the movement.

The movement was all. The Games, while essential, were simply part of the overarching movement.

Under Jacques Rogge, whose term stretched from 2001 until 2013, this scenario switched.

The Games achieved primacy.

The unintended consequence:

By putting the Games first, the IOC is now increasingly seen worldwide as an event-maker — to take it further, an event-maker in a business where money, not the stories of the athletes, has become a central concern.

This was perhaps unavoidable after Games in Beijing ($40 billion-plus) and Sochi ($51 billion).

Regardless — it is profoundly unfortunate.

Money, though necessary, is not at all the IOC’s mission: it is to move the world forward, little by little, piece by piece, day by day, through one-to-one change via the athletes and the young people of the world. The shorthand for all this is expressed through the key Olympic values: friendship, excellence, respect.

A few voices would be eager — who are even now trying — to say what the IOC is truly about.

Why are those voices not being heard? Because the IOC is an easy target. And because the IOC is not telling its side of the story clearly, concisely or even well.

In politics, especially sports politics, it’s a raw truth that the truth matters — but what matters more is perception.

Perception is what is dragging at the IOC.

The IOC has a chance to effect significant change at that Monaco session, though with Bach announcing recently that bid-city visits by the members won’t be considered anew it’s not clear how far any real reform might stretch.

In the meantime, the IAAF — despite its figurative hurdles — heads into its November election for 2019 in a position of considerable strength. And seemingly poised, with a new generation of leadership at the ready, to grow the sport further.

At the closing news conference Friday in Doha, Coe was naturally asked about 2022, and the many allegations around the soccer tournament there.

“We came here to make a judgment about the worthiness of the city to stage a track and field championships,” he said, “so our focus has been entirely of this city and the other two cities to deliver this championships.

“We haven’t spent, and nor should we spend, any time worrying about other sports and other situations."

Coe praised each of the three 2019 cities. He also said the one that wins will be “the one in position to present the sport in the best possible light,” adding, “We are looking for a city that understands why it wants to host [the championships]."


Where track and field is sexy and knows it

DONETSK, Ukraine -- In his time, it was enough that Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. People cared, and a lot. Back then, track and field mattered. In their day, the likes of Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis, Florence Griffth-Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee could just run fast and jump far. A great many people found track and field itself relevant and interesting.

Now, track and field lives on the margins of professional sport, especially in the United States, except for one week every four years at the Summer Olympics, when it commands Super Bowl-like attention. As ratings and attendance figures at other times have demonstrated conclusively, it's not enough anymore to just to run and jump -- or even throw.

So when Kylie Hutson, a rising American pole vaulter, took her runs Saturday night here at the 23rd annual running of the "Pole Vault Stars" to the strains of LMFAO's  "Sexy and I Know It," playing to the crowd because she's sexy and she knows it -- hey, it was showtime.

Brad Walker, the 2007 world champion, ran the runway to perhaps the one G-rated sentence in the song "Move Bitch" from Ludacris. The noise shook the roof. The crowd roared.

Traditionalists may cringe. But this is the direction track and field inevitably has to move, a combination of sport and entertainment, if it wants to engage the paying public.

The Druzhba sports hall in Donetsk holds roughly 4,000. To get there, fans had to brave temperatures of minus-20 centigrade, or minus-4 Fahrenheit. The place was packed; at the start, the lines at the concession stands were three deep. The show went on for three hours, the vaulters going off on brown runways set off against a blue background, one of the guys, then one of the women, at the height of the action a vaulter going off every 90 seconds, all the time the music kicking. For three solid hours the Druzhba was an all-in track-and-field house party.

Generally, a standard-issue track meet comes off like an out-of-control circus. For the average fan, there's too much going on, all of it seemingly at one time. The genius of an event like Pole Vault Stars is that it's a break-out deal, pole-vaulting only; there aren't any competing distractions on a surrounding track; moreover, you don't have to be a track and field geek to understand what's going on.

That's what makes the concept so easily transferrable:

Why not lithe female high jumpers in Las Vegas? Studly male shot putters in downtown Manhattan?  (On Wall Street?) Why not street races down Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Bourbon Street in New Orleans?

In England, they already hold a street race in Manchester. At the Diamond League meet in Zurich last September, the shot put events -- men's and women's -- were held in the entrance hall of the main train station.

Track and field has to think like this, out of the box, to get to the ultimate goal: to make the sport once again not only relevant and interesting to the average fan. That is, must-see. For American supporters, the aim has to be to pack a place like Cowboys Stadium -- with that big-screen TV -- by the 2020 or 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials, and one day to bring the world championships to the United States.

It can be done. Usain Bolt has shown that there is space in a crowded sports landscape for a single track and field personality.

At the same time, there is much to overcome.

Moving beyond the sport's well-documented doping issues -- for decades, track and field has ceded the show to other sports.

The NBA, for instance, is Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee and, to invoke the legendary voice of Lawrence Tanter announcing the obvious between breaks at Staples Center, Laker Girls.

Name even one celebrity associated with recent editions of the U.S. Olympic track trials -- or, for that matter, the U.S. track and field season.

Still waiting …

During the Major League Baseball season, they put on sausage races at Miller Park in Milwaukee, and people care. No, really! They care so much that "Famous Racing Sausages" is trademarked.

The NFL, of course, offers up military flyovers and cheerleaders and, at the Super Bowl itself, the halftime rock-and-roll spectacle. Why wouldn't track and field want to be more like the NFL?

Or, for that matter, the UFC?

Who, a few years ago, had even heard of the UFC?

"Look at the UFC and what Dana White has done. He has marketed the hell out of his athletes," Walker said here late Saturday night. "We have tremendous athletes. Nobody knows who any of us are."

Added Jeff Hartwig, the 1996 and 2008 Olympian who was in Donetsk representing Hutson, "You can make the general public fall in love with you if you put money and time into it, and we," meaning track and field, "don't do either."

Track and field's credibility as a would-be major sport is not just limited to the United States -- though it is there that it may be most on the line. As just one example: The Millrose Games moved out of Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, a number of European indoor meets this winter disappeared, including the seeming fixture in Stuttgart.

Mind you -- this is an Olympic year.

"A lot of competitions are dead," said Germany's Björn Otto, who finished a strong second here.

He added at a news conference, referring to Pole Vault Stars, "We need these competitions. It's promoting track and field as attractive for the world. And spectators can see that."

This meet began in 1990, started by Sergey Bubka, the 1988 Seoul Games pole-vault gold medalist who went to high school in Donetsk. "For me," Bubka said, "we must offer sport as a combination -- with excitement, sport as a show. It gives a different impact. When you do this, the people love it."

Bubka is now a vice-president of track and field's international governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, and is on a short list of those believed to be positioning themselves for the succession -- whenever it might occur -- of the elderly IAAF president, Lamine Diack. Bubka is also an International Olympic Committee member and president of the national Olympic committee of Ukraine.

Asked if the pole-vault meet might be a play to advance his political interests, Bubka demurred. "What kind of promotion for myself? I didn't need that. I dreamed to do well, to promote my city. It was Soviet times. It was my dream to give the people two to three hours of entertainment."

Which has shown staying power. Samsung has become the title sponsor. Coca-Cola and others are also in, their executives saying they were happy to be on board because the Donetsk event delivers a family friendly audience.

Bubka, meanwhile, is forever tinkering with the format: "It's my baby and every year we try to do something different."

The show Saturday night featured mock-ups of both the Parthenon and Big Ben, tributes to the Olympic Games' Greek heritage and this summer's London Games, and a dance-number opening ceremony.

In all, 24 athletes took part, including the two Americans.

There were vaulters from Cuba, Brazil and all over Europe. Each of the vaulters got to choose his or her own music. Four picked the French artist David Guetta; in a sign of the opportunity just waiting there, virtually everyone else chose an American artist or a U.S.-based musical act, the choices ranging from Eminem to Rihanna to Jennifer Lopez.

This was a no-slouch field.

Renaud Lavillenie of France, the 2009 and 2011 world championships bronze medalist, won the men's competition at 5.82 meters, or 19 feet, 1 inch. Otto, recovering from Achilles' injuries, made the same height but took second on count backs.

Germany's Malte Mohr, the 2010 world indoor silver medalist, came in third.

In recent years, Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva, the Beijing 2008 gold medalist, had ruled the women's competition in Donetsk -- indeed, setting eight world records here from 2004 to 2009. She was a no-show this year, having jumped at a meet just three days before in Bydgoszcz, Poland -- going 4.68, or 15-4 1/4.

That opened it up for Jiřina Ptáčníková of the Czech Republic, fifth at the 2010 world indoors, who jumped 4.70, or 15-5, a personal-best and a national indoor record.

"I like music," she said afterward. "It's special -- to have a track and field meeting set to music is special."

Cuba's Yarisley Silva, her silver navel piercing shaking with every step, took second, at 4.60, or 15-1, also a national record. Hanna Shelekh, a local, just 18, the third-place finisher at the Singapore 2010 Youth Games, took third Saturday, also at 4.60, a Ukrainian record.

Hutson finished fifth in the women's competition at 4.50, or 14-9; Walker, sixth in the men's field at 5.62, or 18-5 1/4.

"When you see its in person, you see how successful it can be," Walker said afterward, "it clicks."