On the opening day of competition, Galen Rupp won an Olympic silver medal at 10,000 meters, the first for an American since Billy Mills won gold in 1964. Then, on Tuesday, Leo Manzano took another silver for the U.S., this time at 1500 meters, for the first U.S. medal at that distance since Jim Ryun won silver in 1968. That’s two generations. Are Rupp and Manzano monumental exceptions to the rule, or does the combination of hardware demand the end to all of those “Death of U.S. Distance Running” stories and the delete button for the endless forum chatter? Is the U.S. back, once and for all, at distances from 1500 meters and up? Going Head to Head are Barbara Huebner, a former sportswriter for the Boston Globe, and Frank Litsky, former sports reporter for the New York Times who covered track and field for decades.
Barbara Huebner: I do indeed believe that it’s the turning point we’ve been waiting for. When Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor won their Olympic Marathon medals in 2004, they laid down the foundation for a resurgence in U.S. distance running merely by proving that it was still possible to make the podium at an international event. Since then, the U.S. has won more medals at the Olympics and World Championships—Kara Goucher, Bernard Lagat, Shalane Flanagan, Shannon Rowbury, Jenny Simpson—but somehow the Rupp-Manzano combo feels like critical mass to me. Maybe it’s because Olympic medals in the 10,000 and 1500 have been so long in coming. 1968? I hadn’t even started arguing with my father about the Vietnam War yet in 1968.
Frank Litsky: You make good arguments, Barbara. You cite such people as Deena and Meb for opening the door for future American stars. But those two are distinguished for something more important. They were not short-term wonders. They spent many years on the top rung. My whole argument is this: door-openers are great. One-shot or even-short-term wonders are great. But what if the door opens and no one, or just a handful, goes through? Billy Mills’s great victory in the 10,000 meters in the 1964 Olympics was one of the marvelous moments in track history, but it took 48 years before another American medaled at that distance. Although Buddy Edelen set a world record in the marathon in 1963 and finished sixth in the Olympics in 1964, it took years before such Americans as Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers rose to the top tier.
BH: If no one had gone through the door that Deena and Meb opened, I might agree. But Kara did, and then Shalane, and then Matthew Centrowitz, and now Galen and Leo. World or Olympic medals in 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012; two of ‘em this time and counting. With Deena and Meb holding the door open, these guys have been dropping by for the past five years, taking their hosts up on their offer to make themselves comfortable and stay awhile. The marathon medal duo from 2004 made people believe again. A lot of people. Not all of them WILL win medals or major marathons, but they believe they CAN. Every U.S. medal reinforces that belief. But a silver medal at the Olympics at 10,000 meters, an event so completely dominated by the Africans for so long? Rupp threatens to ignite so much belief that high school tracks around the country will suddenly be declared fire hazards.
FL: Granted, Rupp’s silver medal in the 10k this week was stunning and monumental and more. But even if he repeats in the 5000 final, would that mean that the U.S. is back in business, that the glory years have passed for the Kenyans, Ethiopians, etc.? I don’t think so. True, Manzano and Centrowitz have joined the 1,500/mile elite. They are wise tacticians who may lack the raw speed of some Africans, but they know how to race fast or slowly and they know how to stay out of trouble. You can argue that their recent success will result in more American milers running faster times, but when Jim Ryun and later Steve Scott dominated the mile and opened the door to fellow Americans, there was no overcrowding. And speaking of overcrowding, Barbara, don’t worry that a rush for space on high school tracks will create fire hazards. Thank goodness, the tracks are already well populated. What we need are more Galen Rupps to attract future Galen Rupps to those tracks. We’re not there yet.
BH: You raise an excellent point. According to the latest report from the catchily named National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,054,567 U.S. high school students participated in outdoor track and field in 2010-2011—once again the most in any sport, and that’s before including the cross-country tally. Numbers are not the problem. Talent isn’t even the problem. Vision, confidence, evidence that success is attainable: Those are the problems, or have been. Alberto Salazar had the vision to look at a scrawny baby-faced high school freshman soccer player and see an Olympic distance medal 12 years down the road. Turns out his eyesight is pretty good. Maybe he needs to pass along the name of his optometrist to more cross country and track coaches, who can now hold up 2012 medal-stand photos of Rupp and Manzano on the first day of practice and say “this can be you.” And speaking of numbers, what will Manzano’s medal do for Hispanic participation in the sport? It surely isn’t going to hurt.
FL: As far as Manzano's performance in the 1500 final goes, yes, it should inspire Hispanic youth, steering a few more to track than to soccer or football or whatever. But those other sports (well, maybe not succor) offer something track and field does not: steady big money for many athletes, not just for Usain Bolt and a few marathoners. So don't count on a Hispanic rush to join the high school track team. A few youngsters will be inspired. Good. Let's enjoy these stunning Olympic medal runs. Let's hope Galen will run the 5k final as smartly and as successfully as he did the 10k. Let's revel in what we have. Let's enjoy the day. U.S. distance running will reach glory sooner or later, probably later, but let's not hold our breath. When it does, we can point to the Rupp/Manzano success as a key moment.
In Photo: Billy Mills winning the 1964 Olympic gold medal. Photo: U.S. Marine Corps