There is no other nation that can match the depth and talent of the United States men’s track and field team, but one area that has been weak for the U.S. for many years is their distance running team, a fact that has been especially true at the Olympic Games.
At this year’s Games, however, the U.S. men’s distance runners are having a tremendous performance thus far, and putting their nation back on the map in track and field’s four major distance races: the 1,500-meter run, 5,000-meter run, 10,000-meter run and 3,000-meter steeplechase.
The U.S. distance running effort got off to a tremendous effort in the 10,000 on Saturday, when Galen Rupp became the first U.S. male to medal in that race since Billy Mills won gold in 1964. Rupp earned a silver medal, finishing second to Great Britain’s Mo Farah with a time of 27 minutes, 30.90 seconds.
The U.S. had another strong showing in the 3,000-meter steeplechase on Sunday, with Evan Jager placing sixth in 8:23.87, and Donn Cabral eighth in 8:25.91. This was the first time since 1984, and only the second time since 1936, that the U.S. placed two men in the top 10 places of the steeplechase final.
Tuesday’s 1,500 was another major breakthrough for U.S. distance running. By placing second with a time of 3:34.79, Leo Manzano became the first U.S. runner to medal in the 1,500 since Jim Ryun also earned silver in 1968. Fellow U.S. runner Matt Centrowitz placed fourth with a time of 3:35.17, marking the first time since 1936 that the U.S. placed two runners in the top four of the 1,500.
The U.S. distance runners continued making history in Wednesday’s first round of the 5,000. For the first time since 1932, all three U.S. runners—Bernard Lagat, Rupp and Lopez Lomong—qualified for the 5,000 final which will be held Saturday.
With three runners in the 5,000 final, the U.S. has a very legitimate shot of earning another Olympic medal in that event. Lagat, who qualified with the fourth-fastest time, and Rupp, who had the sixth-fastest time in Round 1, are both serious medal contenders in the event.
If the U.S. earns a medal in the 5,000, it will be their first medal in that event since Bob Schul and Bill Dellinger both earned medals in 1964. However, even if the U.S. fails to medal in that event, this Games will still be a success of historic proportion for the national men’s distance running program.
Will the U.S. medal in the 5,000?
The U.S. has earned two medals in three distance events, which is tied with Kenya for the most thus far, and is one medal more than the other traditional distance running power, Ethiopia. For the U.S., a nation that had not earned a single medal in any of the four races since 1984, this is already a tremendous feat.
The U.S. men’s distance running program had not made any sort of significant international impact for decades at the Olympics, but in 2012, that has finally changed. U.S. men’s distance running is back, and with young stars like 26-year-old Rupp, 22-year-old Centrowitz and 23-year-old Jager, they appear to be here to stay.
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Dan Hope is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist covering the 2012 Olympic Games. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.