EUGENE, Ore. — For those who don't know any better, it would be easy to believe that the thrill of victory is still the most overwhelming emotion at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. You're fooled by those fascinating smiles on victory laps, or by ponytailed wunderkinds whose faces are painted in incomprehensible amazement and indescribable joy.
That's a predictable but totally inaccurate emotional snapshot. Here's the truth: Joy doesn't fuel these trials. Fear does.
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Dazzling, suffocating, motivating fear. It's the fear of knowing that of the more than 1,000 competitors who descended on the University of Oregon's Hayward Field, barely 130 will be rewarded with an Olympic berth to Beijing. It's those lousy odds that make for plenty of jagged nerves, anxious guts and unsettled wits. It's the fear that no matter who you are or how hard you've trained, your Olympic dream could end with abrupt and dispassionate cruelty.
On Saturday afternoon at Hayward Field, that fear became the exposed nerve of these trials when sprinting superstar Tyson Gay tumbled to the track in the first few steps of the 200-meter quarterfinal heat as if he'd just been shot in his leg. For more than a few frightening seconds, the Lexington native thought he had torn his hamstring muscle and destroyed his Olympic dream.
”I felt it on the curve,“ he said. ”After the first few steps, I knew something was wrong.“
Now put yourself in Gay's head for those alarming seconds and distressing minutes when he had no idea how badly he'd been hurt. There are at least three (maybe four) Olympic medals and untold millions riding on his legs. Had all his Olympic dreams and the mind-boggling, multimillion-dollar marketing investments that were riding on his potential gold-medal success cruelly unraveled?
Forty-five minutes later, Gay appeared to be OK. As he came limping out the back door of the Bowerman training facility under his own power and hopped onto the flatbed of a golf cart, Gay was a lot calmer, and so was his personal physiotherapist, Benny Vaughn. The initial fears of a pulled or torn hamstring had been downgraded to a severely cramped muscle.
”We may only need 48 hours to fix it,“ Vaughn said.
Only time will tell how much harm was done to Gay's chances of competing in the Beijing Olympics. But he has five weeks to nurse that ginger but intact muscle back into world-class condition. ”I'll be OK,“ he said. ”I'm just real disappointed right now.“
When someone asked whether he would be ready for Beijing, he shrugged: ”I hope so.“
So does everyone in the American track and field movement because Gay was supposed to be as big in Beijing as Carl Lewis had been in Los Angeles (1984) or Michael Johnson was in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000).
Seeing Gay lying on the track caused a far-reaching riptide of fear in everyone from the NBC television executive suites to adidas headquarters to a shocked fleet of sprinters watching the unsettling scene a few yards away.
John Capel, a 2000 Olympic finalist, was in the next heat. He saw a raw fear like he'd never seen it before. ”I looked at everybody in my heat, and their eyes got as big as saucers. They were saying, "Shoot, if that just happened to him, am I going to make it?' “
Once again, the U.S. trials continue to prove why so many American athletes say ”you can't have the trials without tribulations.“ The meet grinds up as much talent as it creates.
On paper, Gay is already the second-fastest man in the history of the 200 meters with a 19.62 personal best. He just came off an American record of 9.77 and a wind-aided 9.68 in winning (and surviving) last week's 100-meter competition.