2012 Olympics Track and Field: Top American Gold Medal Hopes in the Sprints
Four years ago, this country united against a brash group of Frenchmen most of us had never heard of just a mere week before.
Those men? Four swimmers on a relay that dared to prematurely end Michael Phelps' record-breaking gold medal spree, and even worse, had the audacity to boast about it beforehand.
Of course, we can recall the epic triumph for the Americans that followed. I can only count on one hand the times I have been more fired up than I was after that startling comeback.
There's just something special about the nationalistic fervor that rises to insane heights at the Olympics.
Fortunately for Americans, we are blessed with a competitive team in one of the marquee events of the Olympics, track and field.
In this multi-part series, I will examine the best US hope for a Gold Medal in each running event.
To start us off, let's take a look at the men's sprints, events where this nation has been traditionally strong.
100 Meters: Tyson Gay
Stu Forster/Getty Images
Personal Best: 9.69
Best Major Championship Result: Gold (2007 World Championships)
My Betting Odds: 10:1
Tyson Gay, unfortunately, is just one of those athletes to which we must affix the dreaded label at the beginning or end of every sentence: "If he's healthy."
However, since his first major injury problem in 2008, he has struggled mightily to consistently replicate the health and form that saw him sweep the sprints in the 2007 World Championships.
If he's healthy (OK, there we go), he is the American to challenge Usain Bolt at the 100. At his best, he can gain an advantage on Bolt in the opening strides.
Moreover, even the fear of this scenario is one that can push Bolt to get hasty in the blocks as we saw in 2011. There, he infamously disqualified himself in the premier event of the Championships with an inexcusable false start.
Since 2008 and Beijing, it has never appeared that any human being could run with an in-form Bolt in the last 60 meters of a championship sprinting event. Gay, however, has the requisite confident, but not cocky, demeanor, the steely determination and the genuine belief he can do it.
Given a shaky Bolt start and a chance to pull off one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history, I give the former Razorback a fighting chance. And a fighter he has been his entire career, which has seen him grind his way to the top of US sprinting.
It will require the start of his life and ruthless execution to force Bolt into pressing and looking nothing like he has ever looked—human.
If Gay can methodically conquer the injury woes that destroyed his season last year and in the last Olympic year, it will be a joy to watch him line up vs. Bolt and the precocious Yohan Blake.
Other American Hopes: Walter Dix, Justin Gatlin
World Challengers: Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell, Richard Thompson
200 Meters: Walter Dix
Michael Steele/Getty Images
Personal Best: 19.53
Best Major Championship Performance: Silver (2009 World Championships)
My Betting Odds: 25:1
You can have incredible confidence in one thing with Walter Dix: He will produce his best performances at major championships.
Ever since his college days as a Seminole, he has been able to shake off injuries and lackadaisical performances to win hardware in the clutch.
2011 was a breakthrough campaign for Dix, as he won two silvers at the World Championship and became the fourth fastest man of all time at 200. Even scarier is the fact that Dix noticeably eased up in the last 40 meters or so of that scorching race.
That is something you will never see out of him in a major final where his final strides are often his best—the difference between a so-so fourth or fifth and a medal.
Scary for him, however, was the sight of Yohan Blake flying away in majestic style to run a staggering 19.26 just a lane to his right. Dix even led the race as late as 100 meters. That was before Blake ran a closing 100 for the ages.
The young Jamaican and his seemingly unbeatable compatriot, Bolt, form a murderer's row in both the 100 and 200.
Dix, however, does have some things going for him. For one, he is more experienced and consistent in his 200-meter running than the neophyte Blake, who has never competed at the distance in a major championship.
For another, he goes into the event with less pressure and expectations on his shoulders than Bolt or even his countryman, Tyson Gay. In addition to Gay's injury woes, Bolt also has had injury problems plague him the last two years.*
With such incredible talent facing him, though, the task is truly monumental. The sole comforting fact remains—we can realistically expect Walter Dix to run the best race he's ever run.
Other American Hopes: Wallace Spearmon, Tyson Gay
World Challengers: Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Christophe Lemaitre
*We can all readily admit that we are grasping at truly distant straws to pick a reason Bolt would not win given his show-stopping performances at championship events.
400 Meters: LaShawn Merritt
Mark Dadswell/Getty Images
Personal Best: 43.75
Best Major Championships Result: Gold (2008 Olympics, 2007 & 2009 World Championships)
Betting Odds: 1:1
LaShawn Merritt nearly pulled off a truly startling comeback in an abrupt and truncated return in 2011. After serving a two-year suspension for a bizarre doping violation*, the 2008 Olympic Champion burst onto the scene and ran the fastest time of the year in the immaterial first round of competition at Worlds!
Unheard-of stuff, and probably unwise, considering he ran out of gas in the closing strides of the finals a few days later.
The man, or more accurately boy, who conquered him there for the gold medal was now-19-year-old Grenadian Kirani James. James should likely again provide Merritt with his greatest competition in a thinning 400 meter field.
While mid-44 clockings once were barely sufficient to sniff the medals, they now constitute gold-medal-caliber performances. That is how Merritt, with an abbreviated season and a lengthy layoff, was meters away from returning with a gold.
Now, blessed with a full build-up and likely more intelligent and less excitable maneuvering in the early rounds, he is poised to defend his Olympic gold and break the 44-second barrier once again.
So, why only 1:1 odds? That's because Kirani James is a youngster with supreme talent and confidence who will only get better. Without the commitments of a collegiate season, his preparation and focus should improve.
He also forms a strong running style to combat Merritt's exceptional 200-300 burst, with his consistently superb last 100 meters. If he has contact with Merritt on the final straight, the race has the potential to be an instant classic much like last year's duel.
Other American Hopes: Jeremy Wariner
World Challengers: Borlee Twins, Jermaine Gonzales
*Merritt tested positive for a substance found in Extenze. He freely admitted it was that, and his story was backed up by a local 7-11 clerk. The USADA and body that tried him completely bought his testimony, too, and backed him up by saying his samples matched what would be found after taking the male-enhancement drug.
Mark Dadswell/Getty Images
In 2004, the US pulled off the vaunted gold-medal sweep in the sprints.
The emergence of Usain Bolt in 2008 and the wave of electrifying Caribbean sprinters make that sort of crowning achievement seem unlikely, if not impossible.
Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Kirani James form extremely strong competition, even for America's pipeline of accomplished sprinters. I've listed the favorites, but could emerging young nationals like Jeffrey Demps, Michael Berry, or Maurice Mitchell spring a surprise? Absolutely, in my view.
With Olympic track and field, you truly never know who will go from being someone you've never heard of to a person sparking a near-riot with a signature performance on your TV.
Thanks for checking this out, I hope to cover middle distance events for men soon. If you want to read an older piece by me, check out this editorial about Oscar Pistorius.