In the aftermath of the 13th IAAF World Athletics Championships, I’m going to go over several Worlds topics in the next few days. Today I’m looking at the performance of the United States’ team as a whole.
There weren’t big expectations placed on Team USA before the Worlds began. The Chicago Tribune’s Philip Hersh asked Could U.S. men fail to win gold at world track? That was never a serious possibility, and the U.S. men came away with six golds. But that Hersh was not laughed out of Korea for writing this indicates that few thought this was going to be a powerful team.
Speaking of which, the leading method of evaluating the performance of national teams is via medal count. Team USA was one medal short of tieing its record of 26 (in 1991 and 2007), and two short of its record gold medal count of 14 (also 2007). All very good.
By my reckoning, though, there are other ways to look at national team performance, and those are possibly even more encouraging. The IAAF has a placing table which totals up top-eight finishes with points. This shouldn’t be terribly unfamiliar to Americans; it’s basically the same way we score high school and college meets. So I went back and scored Team USA performance at every World Championships and Olympic Games over the last 20 years, using the familiar 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 system.
Before I get on to that, you might be asking why is this important? The big reason for any track fan in the USA is that mass media attention to track and field is closely related to the national team’s performance at these big meets. Moreover, events get ignored when Americans aren’t in contention. For example, the men’s triple jump got a lot more air time on NBC last weekend than it has in many years.
Overall team performance
Here are the top five scores for Team USA over the last 20 years.
301 1992 Olympic Games
289 1993 World Championships
285 2005 World Championships
283 2011 World Championships
278 2007 World Championships
Very good, but not the best. Back in ’92-93, though, there was no Usain Bolt to deal with, and Michael Johnson was moving up the ranks and Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee were over the hill but still productive. Those last three names are on the short list of the greatest tracksters of the last half century, so that the 2011 team is even in the same ballpark with that group is fantastic.
How did we do it? By being among the most broad-based team we’ve ever had. The 2011 team scored top-eight finishes in 30 of the 47 disciplines, which ties for the most ever (with ’92 and ’93).
In my opinion, the events in which Team USA performance most exceeded its average over the last 20 years…
1. Women’s 1500 meters. The U.S. won its first gold since 1983, and very well could have won another medal if Uceny hadn’t tripped and fallen. The only other medals won in the last 20 years were by Regina Jacobs, who almost certainly did it with the pharmaceutical help of Victor Conte.
2. Men’s triple jump. This was not Team USA’s best single performance in the post-Soviet period; that was a gold-silver sweep at the ’92 Olympics. But this was so unexpected, and the two medal winners are so young, that it rates very high.
3. Women’s 800 meters. This is historically a very weak event for the USA. Finishing fourth and sixth garners eight points, the most for the U.S. in the post-Soviet period.
4. Women’s shot put. Team USA took bronze, its first World/Olympic medal in this event since 1960.
5. Women’s long jump. A first-sixth combo is the best result in U.S. history.
6. Men’s high jump
7. Women’s 400 meters
8. Men’s 5000 meters
9. Men’s 1500 meters
10. Men’s decathlon
Not weakest in general, but weakest by U.S. standards of the last 20 years.
1. Men’s pole vault. 2011 was only the second time ever that the USA did not have a top-eight finish in this event. Unfortunately, the other time was 2009. Not a good trend.
2. Men’s 400 meters. Second and nothing else is very weak for the USA. The only worse result is 2001, where the U.S. won no medals at all (that is, if you ignore the retroactive DQs of Antonio Pettigrew and Jerome Young, which is a different issue entirely).
3. Men’s 400 hurdles. I don’t think there’s a lot of concern for the future here, with up-and-comers like Jeshua Anderson, but the present didn’t do much.
4. Men’s 200 meters. 2011 wasn’t our worst showing in this event (no medals at all in ’97, bronze only in ’01), but it was far below average.
5. Men’s 100 meters. Ditto here.
The performance of the men’s team was below average, mostly due to relatively weak showings in the sprints and hurdles. The performance of the women’s team was by far the best ever.
Despite being the only athletic powerhouse that legally mandates equal treatment of men’s and women’s sports at the developmental level, our women’s team performance has never been higher than the men’s. This year it was basically even in points scoring (men 144, women 139), tied in gold medals (six each), and almost even in total medals (men 13, women 12). It certainly appears that Title IX is having an effect.
Sprints, hurdles and relays were about average. The men were well below average and the women well above it. But that’s saying “average” when you take into account the vast number of doping-related DQs that took place in the late 90?s and early 00?s, mostly retroactive: Marion Jones, Kelli White, Jerome Young, Antonio Pettigrew, and more. This was a weak outing for U.S. sprints and hurdles, even taking the vastly-improved 4