Long before talk of tiebreakers and dead heats came to overshadow everything else under the USA Track and Field umbrella, the organization set an ambitious goal. In a sport that’s always pointed toward the finish line, track and field officials decided what they wanted long before they determined how it might happen.
Thirty Olympic medals.
It was put in writing shortly after the disappointment of the Beijing Games, bolstered when a new CEO took over USATF earlier this year, and now that the makeup of the men’s and women’s U.S. track teams is set, it’s a dream that’s starting to feel tangible for some.
“I think we have a strong team and obviously if we’re clicking on all cylinders, anything is possible,” said U.S. men's track and field Coach Andrew Valmon, the former two-time Olympian who also heads the track and field programs at the University of Maryland. “We’ve already started here, seeing what the potential is.”
The organization’s CEO, Max Siegel, this week called the 30-medal mark a “reach goal,” but it’s been the explicit target since shortly after the 2008 Games. The task force that put together the post-Beijing report on the state of track and field in the United States was called “Project 30,” and the coaches in London are well aware of which events Americans are expected to medal.
The recently completed U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore., buoyed hopes in some events but highlighted in others the gap that exists between the top Americans and the elite international competition. Fourteen of the performances at these trials qualified as one of the five-best results the world has seen this year, according to a review of the International Association of Athletics Federation’s database. Eight athletes in Eugene turned in the world’s top result of the year in their respective events.
Not surprisingly, the Americans look to be competitive in the men’s and women’s sprints, as well as several of the field events. Sanya Richards-Ross and LaShawn Merritt have the world’s best 400-meter times this year, Christian Taylor has the best men’s triple jump mark, Reese Hoffa is the top male shot putter and Brittney Reese has the world’s farthest women’s long jump. Allyson Felix has the fastest women’s 200 time and hurdler Aries Merritt has the best men’s 110-meter mark.
Perhaps the most impressive performance at the trials came from Ashton Eaton, who set a new world record in the decathlon.
Still, 30 track and field medals might be a stretch. The United States hasn’t brought home that many in 20 years. The Americans won 23 in Beijing and only seven were gold.
“We have a lot of strong events,” said Amy Deem, the U.S. women’s coach. “You can go four or five deep in some of our events and we’d still have a very strong team.”
That depth is particularly noticeable in the sprints, which could pay off in the four relay races. In 2008, dropped batons cost the United States medals in both the men’s and women’s 4x100 relays. With sprinters who thrive at multiple distances, such as Richards-Ross and Allyson Felix, coaches figure to have some flexibility when making up their relay teams.
“It’s not even a goal,” Deem said. “We’re expected to bring home four medals in the relays.”
This year’s track teams feature a mix of young and old, from 36-year-old high jumper Amy Acuff, who will be competing in her fifth Olympics, and 37-year-old long distance runner Bernard Lagat, who’s entering his fourth Summer Games, to rising stars such as 21-year-old long jumper Marquise Goodwin and 24-year-old Eaton.
Track officials see a healthy mix of talent on the rosters, which they hope helps the United States reach its lofty London goal.
“I think we need to medal in the events we’re capable of medaling in, but I think we have some areas that we’re going to medal in that we don’t traditionally medal,” Deem said. “And that’s what makes this team special.”