It will feature two men who have proven themselves superstars in the distance world: Galen Rupp, already a 2012 Olympian at 10,000m and Bernard Lagat, a 3-time Olympian, vying for his second 5000m spot on the US Olympic Team.
But listen to this: only TWO (2) Olympics in the past ONE HUNDRED (100) years has seen an American man win a medal in the 5000m (Bob Schul won the gold and Bill Dellinger won the bronze in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics). The United States is experiencing an Olympic medal drought in this distance that has long since passed epic proportions.
How have we gotten ourselves into this rut?
No man has ever run faster at a US Olympic Trials in this event than Steve Prefontaine, way back in 1972--he ran a 13:22.8, around the same track these 2012 Olympic hopefuls find themselves in Eugene. Since then, the American record has dropped well below 13 minutes--Bernard Lagat currently holds it at 12:53.60; Galen Rupp briefly held it at 12:58.90. Of the men in Thursday evening's finals, only those two have ever run sub-13:00.
In the years since Pre's Olympic Trials record, male 5000m competitors have fallen into what track critics might call "the sure doom of a tactical race." This happens when one seems to place a priority on making the team, rather than running a fast race. And, in the end, this strategy does a disservice to an American distance program that should be sending its fastest boys to the Games, with a culture of running the fastest when it counts.
Pre's 1972 performance in Munich was the closest an American man has come to a 5000m medal--a heart-breaking 4th place at the line. Since then, this is our record:
1976 (Montreal): 12th
1980 (Moscow): Boycott
1984 (Los Angeles): 7th
1988 (Seoul): 5th
1992 (Barcelona): 12th
1996 (Atlanta): 6th
2000 (Sydney): 13th
2004 (Athens): 11th
2008 (Beijing): 9th, 13th (only time since 1964 that 2 Americans qualified for the Olympic Final)
These are fantastic individual finishes from great men and great runners. But on the whole, the American 5000m trend has been decidedly flat.
Can this change in 2012?
In the words of Pre, this 5000m must be a "guts race" to deliver the three best American men at this distance to London. We cannot afford to send another 5000m team to the Olympics that runs a slow-ish (compared to the fastest times this year) tactical race at the Olympic Trials, with a kick from 200-400m out.
Only 4 men in this field have run faster than 13:22 this year, while an additional 3 have run that quick in the past 7 years.
Ostensibly, the favorites are Lagat, Rupp and Lomong. Fastest times for the first two are noted above, while Lomong has run the next-fastest time this year in 13:11. The only other American man to be "Pre-quick" this year was Heat #1's winner, Andrew Bumbalough, who blazed a 13:16 around Stanford's track at the end of April.
But the dark horses are strong. Robert Cheseret, US Army runner and brother of Bernard Lagat, ran a 13:13 back in 2005 though hasn't been close to as fast since then. In that same year, Ian Dobson ran a 13:15. And back in 2008, Brent Vaughn ran a 13:18 in this distance.
The truth? For the first time in nearly 50 years, not just one, but two American men have run some of the Top 10-fastest 5000m times of the past 2 years. With Lomong and Bumbalough improving each year--and proving very adept at running a fast, tactical pace--this Olympic Trials final cannot afford to be run at 13:30 pace any longer.
Put Farah, Koech, Merga, Gebremeskel and all the others on notice: the biggest statement race of these Trials will be Thursday night, if three prospective American Olympians can break Steve Prefontaine's Olympic Trials record in the 5000m final.
(Originally posted at the New York Distance Project--supporting Empire State dominance from the mile to the marathon--and beyond!)