The high points of U.S. distance running at the just-concluded Olympic Games were easy to spot: the silver medals earned by Galen Rupp and Leo Manzano at 5000 meters and 1500 meters, respectively.
The low points weren’t hard to pick out, either: A trio of DNFs in the marathon and Morgan Uceny’s rip-your-heart-out fall in the women’s 1500 meters.
But overall, how did the 2012 distance team stack up to recent editions? Stunningly well. An event-by-event breakdown of events from 1500 meters to the marathon shows that this was the best showing by a U.S. team since the earliest editions of the Games, when only a relative handful of countries were represented.
A closer look:
1500 meters: From 1996 to 2008, a total of only five U.S. athletes made the Olympic final: Regina Jacobs in 2000; Jason Pyrah, Marla Runyan, and Suzy Favor Hamilton in 2000; and Shannon Rowbury in 2008, with Rowbury’s seventh-place finish the best of the lot. In 2012, four U.S. athletes made the final, with Manzano bringing home a medal. Despite the heartbreak of Morgan Uceny’s fall on the bell lap that left her pounding the track in frustration, Matthew Centrowitz and Rowbury’s fourth and sixth places, respectively, means that the U.S. placed more runners in the top six than any other country in the world. Rowbury’s finish was the best ever by an American woman, and not since 1936, when Glenn Cunningham won silver and Archie San Romani finished fourth, has the U.S. put two men in the top four at the Games.
5000 meters: With Bernard Lagat, Rupp, and Lopez Lomong going 4-7-10, the U.S. men gave their best performance at this distance since 1964, when Bob Schul won the gold medal and Bill Dellinger the bronze. You have to go back to 1972 to find a U.S. man finishing as high as fourth, and that would be the legendary Steve Prefontaine.
10,000 meters: No American man had finished higher than fifth at this distance since Frank Shorter did it in 1972 before winning the marathon gold medal later in the Games, and none had won a medal since Billy Mills took surprise gold in 1964. Before Rupp’s silver medal in London, only one other male U.S. athlete—Louis Tewanima, who won silver in 1912—has ever finished in the top five.
Marathon: The DNFs due to injury of Ryan Hall, Abdi Abdirahman and Desiree Davila sting, but Meb Keflezighi’s brilliantly executed fourth-place finish was only the second time since his own silver-medal performance in 2004 that the U.S. has placed a man in the top five since Shorter earned silver in 1976. And while Shalane Flanagan’s 10th and Kara Goucher’s 11th were not what the training partners had hoped for, there is a bright side: even when Deena Kastor won bronze in 2004, the next-best U.S. woman was 34th, and when Joan Benoit won her gold in 1984, the second U.S. woman was 36th.
3000-meter Steeplechase: Because this has been an Olympic event for women only since 2008, we’ll skip them here, but the duo of Evan Jager, in sixth, and Donn Cabral, in eighth, put two U.S. men in the top eight for the first time since the boycott year of 1984 in Los Angeles, when Brian Diemer and Henry Marsh went 3-4. The U.S. hadn’t even put two men in the final of this event since 1996.
Had we chosen to start our breakdown at 800 meters, the U.S. men would have fared even better. With their fourth- and fifth-place showings, Duane Solomon (1:42.82) and Nick Symmonds (1:42.95) moved up to #2 and #3 on the U.S. all-time list behind American record-holder Johnny Gray.