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Soon enough there will be no more Usain Bolt running sprints in the sport of track and field. There will be no more improv skits before the start of races and no more dances, endless victory laps and iconic poses at the finish. There will be no more of the big man’s long stride, swallowing up other sprinters as if they are schoolchildren and he is their gym teacher. The Rio Olympics will be Bolt’s last Games, and he will retire next summer at 30 after competing in only the 100 meters in the world championships in London. And when that is over, long before the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, track and field will turn a page unlike any other in its history. It will try to replace a star who cannot be replaced.
The sport has plenty of other problems too. The Russian contingent, not only historically powerful but also a useful foil for the U.S.A. left over from Cold War days, will not compete as a team because it conducted a sham antidoping program. Similar accusations have been levied against Kenya, Ethiopia and even Bolt’s Jamaica, although none of those countries have been sanctioned yet. Lamine Diack of Senegal, president of the IAAF, track’s international governing body, resigned in the face of accusations of taking bribes and running a corrupt organization; he was replaced by storied Olympian Sebastian Coe of Great Britain, even though he was highly ranked in that same corrupt organization. In the United States athletes are in open rebellion against a primitive compensation system that leaves all power concentrated in the hands of the shoe and apparel companies. Bolt has not prevented any of the sport’s problems, but he has provided effective and joyful distraction.
There is hope however. Even as it struggles, track has proved itself resilient. The sport’s history is dotted with regular, generational shifts. Athletes age suddenly and—seemingly en masse—give way to a new crop. Such a shift was occurring at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials that took place over the first 10 days of July in Eugene, Ore. Goodbyes were said to some athletes and prepared for others. A swath of younger competitors stepped in to fill their places.
Some of the established stars could make noise on the way out the door. Thirty-four-year-old Justin Gatlin, the polarizing sprinter (having served a four-year doping ban from 2006 to ’10), ran a world-best 9.80 seconds at the trials, just as Bolt began his customary race against time with a hamstring injury. A year ago Gatlin was the fastest and fittest man on earth, but he wilted in the ’15 world championships against a diminished Bolt. “Against Bolt you need a Plan B,” says Gatlin. Now he will get one more chance to find that plan.
Behind Gatlin is Trayvon Bromell, 21, who left Baylor two years early in 2015 and turned professional. At just 5' 9" and 154 pounds, Bromell looks like he hasn’t yet found the weight room (or, a cynic would say, the drugs), but he ran a personal best of 9.84 at the trials, second in the world rankings behind Gatlin.
The women’s sprints saw a near-total overhaul at the top level. Gone is 2012 Olympic silver medalist Carmelita Jeter, who controversially got faster in her early 30s, but is now effectively retired. The U.S. champion is English Gardner, 24, from the University of Oregon by way of Willingboro, N.J., where she was raised by two pastors. She does her own preaching before and after races. “All I need you to do is set the table,” Gardner said, after winning the 100 meters. “Put the knives down, put the forks down, put the napkins down, pour me a glass of water. Because if you get me to the table, I promise you, I'll eat.” She talks like this all the time, with boundless energy and wide, intense eyes.
Her competition for at least another Olympiad will be Tori Bowie, 25, who finished third in the 100 meters behind veteran Tianna Bartoletta, 30, and then won the 200 meters in the race that eliminated the esteemed Allyson Felix, 30, the defending gold medalist. (Felix, who is recovering from an ankle injury, will run only the 400 meters, plus one or two relays, in Rio.) Bowie is as country as Gardner is city, having grown up in rural Sand Hill, Miss. Bowie is no less confident. Sitting at home and watching the 200 meters with family members in 2012, she said out loud, “I can beat those women.” Four years later she has beaten some of them and is positioned to beat more. The U.S. finishers behind Bowie—and in front of Felix—are Oregon Ducks present and past: Deajah Stevens from Queens and Jenna Prandini from California.
Breakout stars in track and field have historically been sprinters (Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Bolt), middle-distance runners (Jim Ryun, British stars Coe and Steve Ovett from the 1980s), marathoners (Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar) and, occasionally, hurdlers (Edwin Moses, Renaldo Nehemiah) or decathletes (Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey, Bruce Jenner, Dan O'Brien). In recent generations nearly all of those categories have been usurped by sprinters alone. Yet, in the rising generation of U.S. athletes are representatives in nearly all of the traditional categories.
Devon Allen, 21, is a football player at Oregon who last Saturday won the 110-meter hurdles at the trials in a personal best of 13.03 seconds, the third-fastest time in the world this year. Allen caught seven touchdown passes as a redshirt freshman for the Ducks in 2014, but tore an ACL in the semifinal game of the inaugural College Football Playoff. He has said that he plans to return to the Oregon football program after the Olympics, but he will face important financial decisions moving forward; Nike is historically enamored of Oregon athletes and might offer Allen a lucrative contract that would end his college football career. For now, though, the U.S. loves multisport athletes, and NBC will attach itself to Allen’s versatility. He is a medal threat, but not a medal certainty in a very tough event.
There are no guarantees for U.S. Olympians, even those who have made Olympic history. In 2012, Will Claye became the first athlete since 1936 (and the first American since 1904) to win medals in both the long jump and triple jump; this year he won the triple jump but didn’t make the team in the long jump. Seven U.S. women have combined to run the 19 fastest times of the year in the 100-meter hurdles, but with room for only three on the Olympic team, it was the single most difficult squad to make. Former U.S.-record holder Brianna Rollins, 24, won the trials in 12.34 seconds, the second-fastest performance of her life and a time bettered by only two other U.S. women. One of those two, Keni Harrison, who broke Rollins’s U.S. record when she ran 12.24 in late May and missed a 28-year-old world record by only .03 of a second, finished sixth and didn’t make the team. Rollins will be joined by Kristi Castlin and Nia Ali. This event was so deep at the trials that two-time Olympic medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson didn’t make the final. The U.S. will be favored to sweep the medals in Rio, but as Gail Devers or Lolo Jones could attest, there is still the matter of clearing all 10 hurdles on the night of the final.
The U.S. is only slightly less dominant—and the U.S. team nearly as difficult to make—in the women’s 400-meter hurdles. Coming out of the trials, five U.S. women have accounted for eight of the 10 fastest times in the world in 2016. The fastest of those times is the 52.88 that Dalilah Muhammad, 26, ran in winning the trials, the fastest time in the world in three years and the fastest by an American since LashindaDemus ran 52.77 to take the silver medal in London. Third at the trials was 16-year-old Sydney McLaughlin, a rising high school senior from Dunellen, N.J., with a time of 54.15. No woman has run faster at a younger age, and McLaughlin helped keep Shamier Little, who was ranked No. 1 in the world and won the ’15 world silver, off the U.S. team altogether.
New U.S. faces are creeping up the distance ladder, as well. Twenty-one-year-old Clayton Murphy, a carrot-topped, baby-faced assassin who won the NCAA 1,500-meter title this year, won the 800 meters at the trials, passing Boris Berian, 23, in the final strides. Berian and Murphy are a fascinating study in contrasts, the former a speedy front-runner and the latter a race-savvy kicker. They could impact the 800 for at least two Olympics, as Kenyan world-record holder David Rudisha approaches the end of his career. In the women’s 800, Kate Grace, 27, a Yale graduate, made her first Olympic team with a blistering final burst. The women’s 1,500 is one of the U.S.’s strongest teams, with former world champion Jenny Simpson, U.S.-record holder Shannon Rowbury and former world championship bronze medalist Brenda Martinez. However, in the 800—and possibly the 1,500—U.S. runners will face South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who looms as nearly unbeatable in both events.
One American is an equally prohibitive favorite: decathlete Ashton Eaton, the defending Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder. Eaton’s winning score at the trials was nearly 300 points lower than his world record (9,045, set last summer in Beijing at the world championships), yet also 145 points higher than any other athlete has scored this year. Eaton’s wife, Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton, is the gold medal favorite in the heptathlon, where American Barbara Nwaba has an outside chance at a medal in a strong field.
But of course these are the Olympic Games. The U.S. always sends the most powerful team in the world and the most difficult to make. Every field is stacked, every event is loaded. There are no certainties. Except Usain Bolt, and him only once more.
Bolt was already an accomplished 200-meter runner before Beijing, but his record-setting 100-meter victory in 2008 made him a household name.
Phelps became the youngest U.S. Olympic swimmer in 68 years when he debuted in 2000 at 15 years old, finishing fifth in the 200-meter butterfly.
As a 19-year-old in his Olympic debut, Uchimura took silver in the all-around in Beijing, Japan’s first medal in the event since Koji Gushiken’s gold in 1984.
The first man to win six golds in Olympic sprinting was named the IAAF’s World Athlete of the Year five times in six years, from 2008 through ’13.
Since 2000, he has won 77 Olympic, world championship and Pan-Pac medals. His 22 total medals and 18 Olympic golds are records.
The first gymnast to win every major all-around title between Olympiads, he won six straight world all-around competitions from 2009 to ’15.
After becoming the first modern Olympian to win back-to-back 100- and 200-meter golds in 2012, Bolt has a chance to break a tie with Carl Lewis for most world and Olympic gold medals.
Coming out of retirement in 2014—after a DUI arrest and a rehab stint—he is looking to become the oldest swimmer, 31, to win an individual gold, and the first to win individual golds 12 years apart apart.
In addition to becoming the first man since Japan’s Sawao Kato in 1972 to win successive all-around golds, Uchimura hopes to help Japan avenge two straight second-place finishes to China.