Steve Prefontaine

The incredible Aries Merritt, and more

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A dozen musings on track and field, on the 2024 Summer Games bid race and more:

1. At a news conference Friday in Eugene, Oregon, before Saturday’s line-up of events at the 42nd annual Prefontaine Classic, the question went out to Aries Merritt, the 2012 London men’s 110-meter hurdles champion who is also the world record-holder, 12.8 seconds, in the event: on a scale of one to 10, where did he fall?

Heading toward the U.S. Trials in a month and, presumably, beyond to the Rio 2016 Summer Games, Merritt has probably the most unbelievable, incredible, authentic story in track and field. He had a degenerative kidney condition. With almost no kidney function, he somehow won a bronze medal in the hurdles at the 2015 world championships. Thereafter, with his sister as the donor, he underwent a kidney transplant. It required not just one but two surgeries.

Aries Merritt showing off his kidney transplant scar at a pre-Pre news conference

So — one to 10? “Ten,” he said. Which means that the hurdles, always one of the best events at the track, figures to be that much better. And, America and beyond — get ready, via NBC and every outlet out there, for the Aries Merritt story. He deserves every bit of good publicity he gets.

2. With all due respect to the sainted Steve Prefontaine — no snark or sarcasm intended, only a full measure of respect — a significant chunk of the problem with track and field in the United States is Steve Prefontaine.

Every sport needs heroes. Not just legends.

The elements of the Prefontaine story have been well-chronicled: the U.S. records at virtually every middle- and long distance event, the fourth in the 5k at the Munich 1972 Games, his life cut short in a car crash at 24.

The legend of Prefontaine, and appropriately, has had a longstanding hold on the U.S. track and field imagination.

Steve Prefontaine racing in London in September 1972 // Getty Images

But imagine if, say, baseball was stuck in the Roberto Clemente era. Or the NBA fixated on Reggie Lewis, Len Bias, Malik Sealy or, for that matter, Drazen Petrovic. Or the NFL on Junior Seau and others.

One of the major challenges with track and field now is that there is no 2016 version of larger-than-life Prefontaine. No one is that guy (or that woman). Ashton Eaton could be and maybe should be. But who else? Merritt? It's anyone's guess.

Most Americans, asked to name a track and field star, will answer: Carl Lewis.

It has been roughly 20 years since Lewis made any noise on the track itself, more than 40 since Prefontaine was alive. Meanwhile, fourth-graders all around the 50 states can readily debate (pick one) Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, whether Derek Jeter was the best Yankee ever, whether they would start an NBA team with (pick one) LeBron James or Steph Curry.

Every sport, to repeat, needs heroes. Not just legends.

3. Earlier this year, the former 800-meter world champion Caster Semenya made even hardened track geeks go, whoa. She raced, and won, three events — on the same day — at the South African national championships, the women’s 400 (personal-best 50.74), 800 (1:58.45) and 1500 (4:10.93, outside Olympic qualifying time).

So much for the theory — oft-advanced by track freaks who never bother to, say, watch swimming — that a world-class athlete can’t race, and win, multiple events on the same day.

From start to finish, Semenya ran the three races in about four hours.

She went 1:58.26 to win the Doha Diamond League meet in early May, winning by nearly an entire second.

On Sunday, and she wasn’t even really going all out, Semenya ran 1:56.64 for the win at the first IAAF Diamond League meet in Africa, in Rabat, Morocco. She won by more than a full second.

For comparison: on Friday night, on Day One of the 2016 Prefontaine Classic at historic Hayward Field, American Alysia Montaño-Johnson won the women's 800 in 2:00.78.

 Caster Semenya of South Africa celebrates her May 6 victory in the women's 800 at the Doha Diamond League event // Getty Images

Semenya doesn’t deserve to do anything but get to run, and run as fast as possible. At the 2009 world championships in Berlin, she ran away with the 800, in a crazy-fast 1:55.45. Then it was disclosed that she had elevated testosterone levels. The gender testing — and, more, the shaming — that she endured thereafter proved unconscionable.

The rules are the rules. The rules say she can run in women’s events.

The real question is: what should be the rules?

Because it’s perhaps not that difficult to explain why Semenya is — after silvers in the 800 at the 2011 worlds and 2012 Olympics and then injuries and subpar performances since — running so fast again now.

It’s all about testosterone levels.

Because of Semenya, track and field’s international governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, as well as the International Olympic Committee, put in place a new policy: you could run in women’s events if your testosterone levels fell under a threshold of 10 nanomoles (that’s what it’s called) per liter. In scientific jargon: 10 nmo/L.

Context: as the South African scientist and writer Ross Tucker points out in a brilliant Q&A on what is called “hyperandrogenism” with the activist Joanna Harper, 99 percent of female athletes registered testosterone levels below 3.08 nmo/L.

From the science department, part I: “hyper” is science talk for what in ordinary speech might be described as “way, way more.” The primary and probably most well-known “androgen” is testosterone.

Part II, simple math: the upper limit of 10 is more than three times higher than for 99 in 100 women.

Last year, in a decision that pleased human rights advocates but left knowledgable track observers puzzled (to say the least), sport’s top court, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, ruling in the case of sprinter Dutee Chand from India, said the IAAF (and IOC) could no longer enforce the testosterone limit.

In real life, and particularly as we look toward Rio, this means what?

The IAAF and IOC are trying to come up with a new policy.

In the meantime, Semenya, “plus a few others,” as Tucker writes, “have no restriction.” The erasure of the limit has “utterly transformed Semenya from an athlete who was struggling to run 2:01 to someone who is tactically running 1:56," Tucker goes on to say, adding, "My impression, having seen her live and now in the Diamond League, is that she could run 1:52, and if she wanted to, would run a low 48-second 400 meters and win that gold in Rio. too.”

He also writes that Semenya is “the unfortunate face of what is going to be a massive controversy in Rio” — my words here, not his, about who is a “female” and gets to run in “women’s” events. He writes, "It won’t be any consolation to Semenya, [that] the media, frankly, have no idea how to deal with this – nobody wants it to be about the athlete, and it certainly is not her fault.  However, it is a debate we must have, and I want to try to have it from the biological, sporting perspective, and steer clear of the minority bullying that so often punctuates these matters.”

Tucker is right. The debate — calm voices only, please — needs to be held, and in short order.

4. UCLA, per a report first from ESPN, landed the biggest college sports apparel deal ever, with Under Armour. Terms: 15 years, beginning in July 2017. The deal is believed to be worth $280 million.

Biggest-ever is likely to be relative, depending on what comes next.

Because, in recent months:

Michigan, 11 years (option to extend to 15), Nike, $169 million,

Texas, 15 years, Nike $250 million.

Ohio State, 15 years, Nike, $252 million.

Boosters of these schools, and others, typically tend to react with glee at these sorts of numbers.

Rhetorical question, part I: why, when USA Track & Field chief executive officer Max Siegel scores a $500 million, 23-year deal with Nike, do some number of track fans bemoan Nike’s influence as a death star of sorts and claim the federation is verging on stupidity if not recklessness?

Rhetorical question, part II: how is it that dismissive claims about the USATF/Nike deal become gospel among the disaffected when track athletes actually get paid to run for a living but college athletes, as UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen noted in a Tweet that quickly got deleted, don’t — and likely won’t —get to see a dime of any of those millions?

Just a thought here: maybe Siegel was, you know, ahead of the power curve.

5. More on USATF, now on the dismissal this week per 11-1 vote of the federation’s board of directors of the Youth Executive Committee and its chairman, Lionel Leach:

Many, many things could be said here about Leach and the conduct that led to this action.

For now, this will suffice:

This is a movie whose ending we can all know, and now.

Why?

Because it’s a re-run.

What’s at issue, at the core, is a power struggle between the volunteers and professional staff.

Here’s news: the professional staff is going to win. As it should.

It used to be that the U.S. Olympic Committee found itself consumed by precisely this sort of petty, personalized politics. That changed when governance reforms became real; when the board empowered the chief executive to run the show; and when the chief executive proved professional and hugely competent (USOC: Scott Blackmun, USATF: Siegel).

It's a fact that USATF has a long and contentious history. But this is a fact, too: Siegel's first four years have shown dramatic, and consequential, improvement for the federation, and the sport.

6. Moving along, to an international sports federation president who also gets it, even if the IOC often doesn't want to admit so: Marius Vizer, president of the International Judo Federation.

Vizer, in advance of the start Friday of a major IJF event in Guadalajara, Mexico, spent about two hours doing a live Q&A on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/MariusVizer/status/736270089708703744

Imagine: actually doing exactly what the IOC says it wants to do, to reach out to young people in those ways, like Twitter, by which young people connect with each other.

Far too many federation presidents might have something resembling a panic attack at the thought of entertaining questions about whatever from whoever. Vizer, who has never had anything to hide and has consistently been a forceful voice for accountability and change (to the IOC's chagrin), made it plain: bring it on.

Indeed, Vizer ended by saying more such Q&A's would be forthcoming.

https://twitter.com/MariusVizer/status/736291453161246722

7. Switching to 2024 bid news:

If you might be tempted to look past those potentially significant developments related to the allegations of Russian doping — first, a potential U.S. Justice Department inquiry and, second, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart’s bombshell of an op-ed in the New York Times — it was otherwise a good week for the LA24 bid committee, at least for those things it could and can control.

Los Angeles, behind a bid headed by Casey Wasserman, who is also in charge of LA24, won the right to stage the 2021 Super Bowl.

Plus, a rail line from downtown to Santa Monica opened, to real excitement and big crowds. Roll that around in your head: LA. Rail. It’s real. Really.

8. Still a long way to go in the 2024 race, which the IOC will decide by secret ballot in September 2017 at a meeting in Lima, Peru. Three others are in the race: Paris, Rome, Budapest.

It’s a proven that what wins Olympic elections are, first, relationships, and two, telling a story that will move IOC members emotionally.

Right now, only two of the four are telling a real story: Los Angeles. And Budapest.

9. Turning to the 2020 Summer Games campaign, won by Tokyo:

The Japanese Olympic Committee announces a three-person investigation of allegations of bribery. This from the same place that brought you the burning of the Nagano 1998 books so as to avoid embarrassing the IOC.

Let’s all wish for really good luck in getting a genuine answer.

Why in the world would you need to send $2 million to Ian Tan Hong Han, a consultant based in Singapore, who is close friends with Papa Massata Diack, son of Lamine Diack, the then-president of the IAAF, when virtually no one in the Singapore international sports community knew of Han or his firm, Black Tidings?

Black Tidings had precisely what know-how to provide such high-level consultancy services?

More: those who were there for the Singapore 2010 Youth Games know there had to be external help when Singapore was bidding for YOG. Curious.

10. Russia uses sports as an instrument of what’s called “soft power,” meaning president Vladimir Putin has sought to use sports to project a Russian image of strength, not only abroad but, crucially, within Russia itself.

The United States, which under President Obama has clashed with the Kremlin over issues ranging from the disclosures of the activist Edward Snowden to the composition of the formal U.S. delegation to the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, has if not unparalleled then at least significant resource available to its spy agencies.

How is it that Sochi 2014 lab director Gregoriy Rodchenkov could flee Russia and end up so quickly in the United States? No one in the American spy apparatus would want to embarrass the Russians, would they?

Again: just curious.

11. What a surprise! The London 2012 doping re-test positives became public on a Friday!

The numbers: 23 athletes from five sports and six countries, based on 265 re-tests

More numbers, 32 doping cases from London 2012, 57 for Beijing 2008. Previous high, according to IOC figures: 26, Athens 2004.

To reiterate a central point: you have to be frighteningly stupid to get caught doping at the Olympic Games themselves.

It’s one thing to be caught in no-notice, out-of-competition testing. But at the Games?

You know there are going to be drug tests. You know the samples are going to be kept in the freezer for (at least) 10 years to allow for advances in testing.

It has been said many times but is still worth repeating: failing a drug test at the Olympics is like failing an IQ test.

Stupid.

12. If you’re thinking of going to Rio, don’t. Sorry to say so but — don’t. Watch on TV.

The pictures will be beautiful and the only danger in overloading on TV is breathing in that funky orange-red Doritos powder.

In Brazil, meanwhile:

The case of the Spanish sailors getting held-up at gunpoint, lucky to escape with their lives, underscores the No. 1 challenge ahead of these Games. More than dirty water, or maybe even Zika, or presidential politics, or corruption scandals. More than anything. To compete, or to be at, the Games in Rio, you have to deal with life in Rio as it is. Maybe — maybe even probably — it will be fine. But one wrong misstep, even with no fault, and you might well find yourselves in a scene evoking Tom Wolfe’s 1987 masterpiece, “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Who wants that? Be a master of your TV universe.

 

Can Justin Gatlin be a hero?

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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 LetsRun.com 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 // LetsRun.com

“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.”

Distance Night at the Prefontaine Classic

EUGENE, Ore. -- Last year, Chris Solinsky ran his first-ever 10,000 meter race on the track. What a debut. He became the first American to break 27 minutes, finishing in 26:59.60. So when meet organizers let it drop earlier this week that Solinsky would be joining what was already an incredible field for the Pre Classic 10k here Friday night, the American track cognoscenti got all geeked up. And for good reason.

Maybe, just maybe, there might be a new American record. And at venerable Hayward Field, no less.

But no.

Instead, what was offered was yet another lesson in the vagaries of distance running, and how both difficult and beautiful it is.

Britain's Mo Farah won the race, in 26:46.57, breaking the European record for the 10k. (To show you how truly, profoundly difficult a sport track and field can be to keep straight: On the official computer board, Farah's record is called an "AR." That doesn't stand for "American record." That means "area record." Which means "European record" and, presumably, "British record," too. Which, of course, he set while running on American soil.)

Twenty-six guys started the race; nine broke 27 minutes. That is a crazy, crazy fast field.

Solinsky was not one of those nine guys.

He dropped out with 18 laps to go. He made a solitary figure walking off the red track as the others whipped by.

By the end, 14 guys in the race would set personal-best times. The 2004 Athens Games bronze medalist, Zersenay Tadesse of Eritrea, who finished fifth Friday night, in 26:51.09 -- he did not set a personal-best time. The 2004 and 2008 Games silver medalist, Sileshi Sihine of Ethiopia, sixth here Friday in 26:52.84 -- again, not a personal-best.

Imane Merga of Ethiopia, ranked No. 1 in the world last year in the 5k, finished second -- a personal-best Friday, 26:48.35. Josphat Bipkoech Bett of Kenya, just 20 years old, the 2008 world 10k junior champion, 26:48.99 for third -- a personal-best.

As he emerged later from under the Hayward grandstands, Solinsky, 26, sighed.

He so wanted to race this race, against this kind of field, because last year proved he could do it.

That's why he dropped into the race in the first instance.

But what he hadn't broadcast beforehand was that he'd been battling a wobbly left hamstring. He thought he could hang in there. But he couldn't. His hamstring, he said, is about a week away from being right.

At least he made it to the starting line.

The other top American expected to challenge Friday night, Galen Rupp, didn't start, apparently because of high pollen counts. It happens here in Eugene.

Solinsky not only started but was hanging in there, turning splits in roughly 64 seconds, when he decided, with about 18 laps to go, that there was no point in risking more. The nationals are in three weeks, back here at Hayward. The world championships, in Daegu, South Korea, are at the end of the summer.

"I'm very incredibly angry at myself to give away an opportunity to run with the best in the world," he said.

"It's the Pre Classic," he said. "I didn't want to miss the Pre Classic," this stop on track and field's calendar named for Steve Prefontaine, the middle-distance running icon -- and University of Oregon legend -- who died in 1975  at age 24 in a car accident.

He said, and this is why Chris Solinsky is going to be fine, "I just wanted to compete."