The 2015 IAAF world track and field championships wrapped up last week, and the American squad found themselves in a rather unfamiliar position that I fear may become more the norm as time goes by.
The United States finished in first for overall medals with 18, but finished in third for gold medals with six, behind Jamaica and Kenya, both of which finished with seven. This was the United States’ lowest medal total since 2003, and the second consecutive time they have not finished first in the gold medal count.
With it being the lowest medal total in more than a decade, many American track fans (and yes, there are still some out there) are complaining about the decline of the sport. But I think that the leveling out of the medal distribution speaks louder volumes of the progress of other nations than it does about the Americans’ decline.
Kenya has long been acknowledged as the heavyweight in the world of distance running, and they backed that up by winning 14 of their 16 medals, which was the second most at the world championships at distances of 1500 meters and greater. But they also claimed medals in sprinting and throwing as well. Nicholas Bett took gold in the men’s 400-meter hurdles, and Julius Yego took the top spot in the men’s javelin throw. Those medals show the Kenyans are starting to emphasize training for athletes of disciplines besides distance, and that they are yielding results. It may just be two medals, but I see it as a sign that Kenya is a top to bottom program moving in the right direction, and I would not be surprised to see them continue to progress toward contending for medals in events that 30 years ago would have been amazing to see them in.
Jamaica is also starting to move away from their traditional event area. Once thought to be dominant in just the short flat sprints, the Jamaicans took a medal in the 100- and 110-meter hurdles, the women’s 400 and 4×400 and even took a bronze in the men’s shot put. Obviously Usain Bolt is the nation’s most visible athlete and will likely continue to be the face of Jamaican track long after his retirement, but it seems that his success has stirred an interest in more than just the 100- and 200-meter area. With their expansion into other event areas and a strong baseline of support, look for the gold and green from the Caribbean to continue to hang out around the top of the medal counts.
All this leads back to America and our supposed weakness. Though our medal count has dwindled and our gold count sits lower than we’d like, if you look at the list, we still have easily the most varied track and field program with legitimate medal contenders in every event area. This year, the United States pulled in a slew of sprint medals, as well as some hurdle medals, a pair of shot put medals, a long and triple jump champion and a medal in the women’s 10,000 meter run. And that’s not even including some near misses, like Galen Rupp finishing fifth in both the 10,000 and 5,000 or the men’s 4×100 that fumbled a handoff in the final after looking like a lock for the podium at some level. But the pinnacle of the American achievement at these championships, and what seems to signify that we are still at the top of the track world, is Ashton Eaton setting the world record in the decathlon with 9045 points. Eaton’s ability to dominate in a multi-disciplined event like this reminds us all that America still has the top coaches in nearly every area and the capability to continue to produce some of the top athletes in the world. I know the surge of the Jamaicans and Kenyans may have some worried, but until I see them able to take medals repeatedly in events far outside the scope of their more traditional areas, I will always consider America’s overall program to be the gold standard of international track and field.