LONDON — If the enduring image left by the U.S. track and field team from the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a loose baton rolling on the track, it’s different now.
For Team USA, the feeling coming out of the 2012 London Olympics is hope.
From where he sits in Track Town USA, Vin Lananna took quiet satisfaction.
“What started out as a flicker, turned into a flame,” Lananna said. “Now it’s raging.”
Lananna came to the University of Oregon in 2005 with a three-fold mission. The first was to reconnect the Oregon track team to its fan base. The second was to make Eugene relevant again as Track Town. The third was to expand the Track Town fervor outside the Willamette Valley.
He believed if Eugene returned to prominence, Team USA would follow suit.
As co-chair of the Lane Country Organizing Committee, Lananna helped stage two successful U.S. Olympic trials, which helped the sport regain its footing.
“When Hayward Field is full, and the crowd is screaming, you have a chance to gain momentum,” Lananna said.
And maybe that is one reason for what happened here. USA Track & Field set a goal of 30 medals for the London Olympics. If 2008 Olympic gold medalist LaShawn Merritt hadn’t pulled his hamstring, the U.S. team would have hit 30 on the nose.
That is a big step up from the 23 the U.S. brought home from Beijing. Team USA earned nine gold medals here, two more than 2008.
Even better, many of the high-profile athletes took advantage of the big stage with superlative performances.
Allyson Felix grabbed gold in the 200, and counting the two relays, became the first U.S. woman to go home from an Olympics with three gold medals since Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988. Sanya Richards-Ross will bring home gold in the 400 after a late cramp in Beijing cost her victory there.
Felix ran on the U.S. 4×100 that took down a 27-year-old world record set by the East Germans in the doping era that many believed forever unassailable. Felix and Richards-Ross were together on a 4×400 relay that won by 3 1/2 seconds and threatened a 24-year-old record held by the Soviet Union.
Aries Merritt and Jason Richardson went 1-2 in the 110-meter high hurdles. Ditto for Christian Taylor and Will Claye in the triple jump. Brittney Reese won the long jump.
Maybe the biggest improvement for the U.S. came in the mid-distances and distances.
Portland’s Galen Rupp was the first U.S. man to medal in the 10,000 since Billy Mills in 1964 with a silver-medal performance. Leo Manzano became the first U.S. man to medal in the 1,500 since Jim Ryun in 1968 when he took silver.
Former University of Oregon star Matthew Centrowitz just missed the 1,500 medal stand by finishing fourth.
Evan Jager of Oregon Track Club/Portland placed sixth in the steeplechase final in just his seventh steeple ever. Lopez Lomong of OTC/Portland led for a while in just his fourth 5,000 on the international level.
There are Oregon connections threaded all the way through the U.S. success, and it’s no accident.
Nike, the sports equipment and apparel giant, sits just outside the Portland city limits. It was founded by people who learned to compete and challenge their mental and physical limits as members of the UO track program.
The company refused to let U.S. track and field wither and die.
“What Nike has done,” Lananna said, “is put up.”
There are three elite training groups in Oregon, all Nike funded:
The Nike Oregon Project was founded by Alberto Salazar in 2001 to bring U.S. distance running back to life. Eleven years later, the Oregon Project has produced Rupp, Centrowitz, 10,000 finalist Dathan Ritzenhen, and Mo Farah, the Briton who successfully completed a golden 5,000/10,000 double in these Games.
Oregon Track Club/Portland is coached by Jerry Schumacher and founded in 2008. It includes Jager and Lomong, men’s 10,000 finalist Matt Tegenkamp, women’s 10,000 finalist Lisa Uhl, and Olympic marathoners Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher.
OTC/Eugene, coached by British Olympian Mark Rowland, produced Eaton, 800 finalist Nick Symmonds, 2011 world high jump champ Jesse Williams, Sally Kipyego, who won silver for Kenya in the 10,000, and steeplechase finalist Bridget Franek.
Nike not only sponsors the athletes, but also pays for coaching, training facilities and support staff.
“I think it’s important to have a professional group that trains together, works together, gets to see each other at least every other day every week for nine months a year,” Kipyego said. “That is a lot of time to be around people who are motivated to be the best in the world.
“You find yourself getting motivated and wanting to be the best in the world, too. You can’t help it.”
That is part of it. So are the breakthroughs by people like Manzano and Rupp.
“To see Leonel Manzano get a medal is inspiring to other people,” Kipyego said. “Or Shalane Flanagan getting a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics (in the 10,000), that is obviously inspiring.”
Rupp’s victory was the culmination of 11 years of faith, struggle and dogged determination by both Rupp and Salazar.
“Honestly, what we’re doing is working,” Rupp said. “We’ve got some really talented guys that work really hard.”
Success breeds imitation, which expands the pool, creates more competition and leads to more improvement. Who knows where this could go by the time the Summer Olympics reconvene in Rio de Janeiro four years hence?
Rupp and Salazar insist they won’t stand still.
“If we start saying what we’re doing now is good enough, we’re never going to get better,” Rupp said.
And that’s the challenge.
Team USA can’t declare victory, and relax.
U.S. men’s coach Andrew Valmon pointed to the U.S. coming up empty in the men’s 400. He suggested it is time to invest in the men’s sprints the way Nike has in the three Oregon groups, which — Eaton and Williams being notable exceptions — primarily comprise mid-distance and distance runners.
“We’ve put a lot of resources into a lot of events in terms of development,” Valmon said when asked about the 400. “We just can’t overlook that event.”
Early indications are good. The future appears bright, assuming the U.S. follows through.
“It can’t be just every four years,” Lananna said. “But I’m very optimistic. We have a lot of stakeholders who believe in this sport.”