When looking for the biggest disappointment for the United States at the 2012 Olympics thus far, the men's 400-meter debacle has to unbelievably, bizarrely, inexplicably top the list.
After defending Olympic champion and gold medal favorite LaShawn Merritt pulled up lame in his preliminary heat, just two Americans were left as medal hopefuls. Now, after Tony McQuay and Bryshon Nellum failed to even make the event final, the United States is guaranteed to miss out on the 400-meter medal stand for the first time since 1920.
(Yes, the U.S. did not medal in 1980, but that was by boycott, not failure.)
While the swimming and basketball teams get much of the publicity when it comes to the United States' supremacy at the Olympics, the 400 meters has actually been America's most dominant event in history.
The U.S. has won the 400-meter gold medal in the last seven Olympics. From Alonzo Babers in 1984 to Steve Lewis, Quincy Watts, Michael Johnson (twice), Jeremy Wariner and then Merritt in 2008, the run of Olympic domination has come to a shocking end in London.
It hasn't just been gold either. Since 1984, the United States had won 16 of 21 medals in the 400 meters. Heading into the 2012 London Olympics, Team USA had swept the last two Summer Games and won eight of the last nine Olympic medals in the event, with only one person—Jeremy Wariner—repeating on the medal stand in that time.
The depth of the U.S. 400-meter team over the last 30 years, and the absolute authority at the Olympics over the previous three games, has been nothing short of incredible.
Wariner, who won gold in 2004 and silver in 2008, wasn't even fast enough to qualify for the 400-meter Olympic team this time around, finishing a disappointing sixth at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials.
Now, as the 400-meter final takes place without any Americans with so much as a chance to medal, USA Track and Field has to be left wondering what could—and should—have been.
After Merritt stopped with an injury during his preliminary heat, questions swirled about whether he should have pulled out of the race before it even began to give another American runner a chance to take his place. Merritt suffered a hamstring strain in his final tune-up for the Olympics, unable to finish a race on July 20 and putting his Olympic dream of defending the gold medal in jeopardy.
Did Merritt think he was healthy enough to run, or did pride get in the way of making a smart decision for the program? Just last week, American coach Andrew Valmon told reporters, "As long as he is able to get to the line, he is going to be OK."
Merritt got to the line. He was not OK.
Still, the hopes of the U.S. hinged on McQuay and Nellum, who qualified for the Olympics with times of 44.49 and 44.80, respectively. In the Olympic semifinal heats, on what people have called the fastest track of all time, neither American came close to his qualifying time. McQuay finished a distant fourth in his heat with a disappointing time of 45.31, tied for 14th of all semifinalists.
Nellum had the benefit of running in the final heat of the semifinals, giving him the chance to know the exact time he would need to qualify for the finals. He finished third in his heat—the top two automatically qualified for the finals—with a time of 45.02, three one-hundredths of a second from making the final as one of the fastest remaining runners on time.
Had either American runner posted anything close to a personal best, or even a seasonal best, he would have qualified for the finals with ease. McQuay's time in the semifinals of the U.S. Trials, let alone the final, would have put him easily into the Olympic final.
Still, one runner barely sneaking into the final is not what the United States would have expected heading into the London Games. The top Olympic semifinal time was nearly half a second ahead of the top U.S. time in that round.
In the 400 meters, half a second is an eternity, and it will feel like an eternity for the U.S. track team to get another chance to redeem itself and regain 400-meter Olympic dominance.
From track and field standards, missing out on the 400-meter final is an unqualified disaster for Team USA. The 4x400 team now has an enormous amount of pressure to respond later this week, no matter who is carrying the baton.