They've done pretty well at the track this past week, these American kids whose faces and names we're still learning. For the longest time, we didn't need to constantly check the program to learn who was running and jumping for the United States. We didn't have to ask, "Is that Justin Gatlin or Shawn Crawford?" They were entirely familiar because they seemed to stay forever, whether we're talking about Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson or Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Gail Devers. They showed up big in the early 1980s, people like Ed Moses and Evelyn Ashford, and stayed competitive so long, and represented the United States in the Olympics so many times, even with a boycott in 1980, that the thought of breaking in a whole new generation seemed overwhelming.
But of the 24 track medals won by the United States, 21 are for individual events, and of those, 13 were won by athletes 26 or younger. Gatlin, the 100-meter gold medalist who attended the University of Tennessee, is 22 years old. Jeremy Wariner, the 400 gold medalist from Baylor, is 20. Lauryn Williams, the 100 silver medalist from the University of Miami, has another two weeks of being 20. Muna Lee, the LSU grad who runs the 200, is 22. Sheena Johnson, from Gar-Field High in Northern Virginia and UCLA, finished fourth in the 400 hurdles and is 21. Bryan Clay, the decathlon silver medalist, is 24. And of course, there's Allyson Felix, the 18-year-old phenom from California, who won silver in the 200 meters.
"We're just trying to bring a new wave here and get people thinking positive things about track and field," she told reporters last week. "We're just so eager. We have the passion. All this is new to us. We're just taking it all in."
As Felix was talking, behind her stood one of the stars from the 1980s, her agent Renaldo Nehemiah, the former world record holder in the 110 hurdles. On the subject of the transition from old familiar faces to those including Felix and Gatlin, another of his clients, Nehemiah said: "It's wonderful, it's about time, and it reminds us the sport is alive and well. The transition if coming at a much needed time. And we're seeing some new kids, unscathed and wholesome kids."
Of Felix specifically, Nehemiah said: "She's just scratching the surface. We have no idea of what her range is . . . 200, 400?" Overhearing that, Felix said: "I love the 100. . . . I think I could learn to love the 400. I'm not sure what direction I'll take it."
And at 18, there's certainly no rush. Four years from now in Beijing, Felix will still be only 22. With good health, she's looking at the kind of longevity Joyner-Kersee and Ashford enjoyed. In 2016, Felix will be just 30, which is eight years younger than Devers is now.
Dee Dee Trotter, the 21-year-old University of Tennessee student who led the United States to gold in the 4x400 relay Saturday night, said immediately after her race, "I'm proud to be part of this youth movement and so much here."
This is the youngest U.S. team since 1992, and it's the first team since 1956 to be younger than the previous team. In Atlanta, the average age of the team was 28.5, and that's down to 26.9. The women's team had no choice but to get younger, considering it went from an average age of 21.6 in 1976 to 29.2 in Sydney four years ago.
Gatlin told reporters, "The young guys, the young women, we're all taking over."
Well, they've taken over the team, but it's going to take a while longer before they have replaced the previous generation of stars in people's hearts or in the record books. In fact, the American record book underscores just how dominant the previous generation was and how difficult it's going to be for these kids to be suitable replacements, no matter how talented they are.
The 100 and 200 world records on the women's side are still held by FloJo, and she set them in 1988. Valerie Brisco's U.S. record in the 400 was set in the '84 Olympics in Los Angeles. The American record in the 1,500 is still held by Mary Decker Slaney, and it's 21 years old. Devers holds the U.S. record in the 100 hurdles. The national 4x400 relay record was set 16 years ago in Seoul by a team that included Brisco and FloJo. Joyner-Kersee set the heptathlon world record 16 years ago in Seoul.
It's not a whole lot different on the men's side. The names Michael Johnson, Sydney Maree, Henry Marsh, Roger Kingdom and Dan O'Brien are noticeable. Michael Powell's long jump record is now 13 years old. And what all this means is plenty of American athletes have had chances to move aside these old geezers and haven't been able to.
The medal takeaway by the American youngsters here is either a flying start at years of gold and big records, or a tease that will only serve to remind us and them of how difficult it will be to live up to a standard already set.