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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.

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Will U.S. Marathoners Shine At Olympics’ Storied Venue? 

On a clear and bracing Saturday morning in January, six American athletes – three men and three women - prevailed on the streets of Houston, captured the top three places in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, and became the first members of the 2012 United States Olympic Team. And while the jubilant, flag-draped Olympians hugged each other, engaged in TV interviews, and posed on the podium for photographs, each knew – deep down - that their Trials accomplishment, while significant, was only yet another in a series of critical steps. Now the real test lies before them: the Olympic marathon…in August…in London.

In the weeks leading up to the XXX Olympiad, there will be much speculation about the marathon races. And if a review of London’s Olympic history – it hosted the Games in 1908 and 1948 - can provide any clues, those races are likely to feature rigorous competition, a few surprises, and perhaps some late-race drama.

The Brits can be fussy lot about many things – and the Olympics are no exception. London wasn’t even originally selected to host the Games in 1908. That honor was bestowed upon Rome. But when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906 and disrupted the original plans, the International Olympic Committee tapped London to step up and host 1908 Games. Amid the flurry to prepare for the Summer Games, the British Olympic Association mapped out a point –to-point course from Windsor Castle to the Olympic Stadium in London. Since marathon courses in the early 20th century lacked a uniform distance, the BOA had some discretion not only in constructing the marathon course but also in setting the distance. After much course tweaking to address complaints about tram lines and cobblestones, the course distance stood at 26 miles. But a further course accommodation was still required. To afford Queen Alexandra the best view of the final meters of the race, the course was altered yet again – to its final length of 26 miles 385 yards - by providing an unorthodox clockwise circuit of the stadium track and a finish in front of Her Majesty’s Royal Box. On marathon race day, the Queen witnessed a dramatic finish. The marathon leader, a diminutive Italian named Dorando Pietri, entered the stadium exhausted and confused. After beginning to run around the track counterclockwise – the customary, but, in this case, the wrong way - and then falling several times, Pietri was assisted by officials who helped him across the finish line. Pietri – who committed no race violations himself - was promptly disqualified for the unauthorized acts of the assisting officials. The win – somewhat tainted - and the gold medal were awarded to bewildered American Johnny Hayes – the second runner to cross the finish line. Proclaimed by many in attendance as “the greatest race of the century”, the dramatic 1908 Olympic marathon is believed to have been instrumental in influencing the International Amateur Athletic Federation to act in 1921 to set the official marathon distance at 26 miles 385 yards.

The Summer Games returned to London in 1948. As was the case with the ’08 Olympics, London wasn’t originally scheduled to host the ’48 Games. London had been provisionally selected to host the 1944 Olympiad. But when World War II prompted a 12 year Olympic hiatus, London was named to host the Games of the XIV Olympiad in the summer of 1948. While the headlines were dominated by the athletic exploits of Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen – “The Flying Housewife” – and teenage decathlete Bob Mathias, the Olympic marathon dished up yet another dramatic London finish. The lead runner, a Belgian named Etienne Gailly, entered Wembley Stadium completely spent. On the final circuit of the track, the wobbly-legged Belgian was passed by Argentinean Delfo Cabrera - who went on to the win – and England’s Tom Richards - who captured the silver medal. Gailly struggled in for the bronze.

Having served as the host city for two of the most exciting marathon finishes in Olympic history, can London once again produce compelling drama on race day? The London organizers have left nothing to chance. The Olympic marathon course is an athlete-friendly, loop course which is generally considered capable of producing fast times. The race start time and the attendant weather – always a major concern in an event like the Olympics where television rules all – appear to be favorable. With both the Men’s and Women’s races starting at 11:00 a.m. local time and prevailing weather conditions suggesting cooler temperatures in the upper 50’s / lower 60’s, the conditions should be far superior to the subpar air quality and steam bath conditions that tortured Olympic marathoners in Beijing.

Handicapping the U.S. Olympic marathoners is never an easy task – and this Olympiad is no exception. While it is not inconceivable that the U.S. could produce a medal-winning performance in one or both of the races, it is also not unlikely that all six marathoners could run personal bests – and not even make it onto the podium.

The American Women

• Desiree Davila. A second place finisher to Shalane Flanagan in the Trials race, Davila has a P.R. of 2:22:38 which is the fastest of the three American women. An efficient runner with a relentless turnover, Davila backs down from no one. Who can forget her punishing pace from Cleveland Circle to the Boston finish line on Patriots Day last year – an aggressive drive which nearly captured her the victory? She is not afraid to assert herself in critical late-race situations. Such bold running sealed her doom as a more novice runner in the 2008 Trials. But as a stronger, more mature runner now, that tactic is one of her bona fide weapons. She is likely to be a lead pack factor in London.

• Shalane Flanagan. Approaching the zenith of her career, Flanagan has assembled an impeccable running resume: bronze medalist in the 2008 Olympic 10,000; American record holder in the 10,000 [30:22.22]; 14 national titles. She has vast international experience which will aid her in London. Her serene and composed façade belies the competitive fire that burns within. After pushing hard during the last few miles to insure her victory at the Trials in a P.R. time of 2:25:28, the Cold Executioner acknowledged in a post-race interview, “My primary goal was to make the team.” But then, with a slight smile, she admitted “But, I love to win.”

• Kara Goucher. Like Flanagan, Goucher is another seasoned veteran with the demonstrated ability to get onto the medal stand in international competition. She was the bronze medalist in the 10,000 at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka. Goucher came in to the Trials admittedly undertrained, but still was able to P.R. – 2:26:06 – and to summon the will and the energy to shake off fourth place finisher Amy Hastings over the final 10 kilometers. With a few more months of focused training under the tutelage of her new coach Jerry Schumacher and some quality training with her new running buddy Flanagan, a more fully-prepared Goucher could surprise many in London.

Their Competition

The Women’s Marathon looks to be one of the most highly-competitive and exciting races of the Olympic Games. Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova, on the strength of her 2:18:20 win in Chicago, was ranked #1 on the world last year. But Kenya’s Mary Keitany bested Shobukhova by a significant margin in the London Marathon last spring. A good number of other African women have the credentials to compete for a medal. All three American women have the P.R’s and the battle-tested experience in big races that establish them as legitimate medal threats. And don’t overlook England’s Paula Radcliffe – the sentimental favorite. The long-standing world record holder is easing into the later stages of her career, but with her P.R. minutes superior to the rest of the field and with her countrymen sure to be exhorting her onward, could London’s propensity for Olympic Marathon drama strike again?

The American Men

• Abdi Abdirahman. Abdi is an experienced runner who knows how to prepare for big races. Only recently injury-free, Abdi bypassed marathon paydays last fall to be sure he could bring his “A” game to the Trials. He did. A solid 10,000 meter runner – 2005 national champion – Abdi has 13 overall national titles. Recently inducted into the Road Runners Club Of America Hall Of Fame, Abdi is now on his fourth U.S. Olympic team. While Abdi has a 2:08 marathon P.R., an ambitious early pace in the Olympic marathon might be tough for him to handle. But if the race becomes tactical, Abdi would not likely be afraid to make a push from far out.

• Ryan Hall. With a P.R. of 2:04:58 - albeit on Boston’s so-called “aided” course – and with a fearless running style, Hall is likely the best U.S. men’s hope to break the Kenyan juggernaut. When Hall jettisoned his coach, created his owning training schedules, and further energized his faith commitment, it appeared to liberate him – endowing him with a renewed joy and appetite for running and the type of daring racing style that he’ll need to display on London’s world stage. Recently named 2011 Runner Of The Year by Road Runners Club Of America, Hall has solid international experience and has won several overall national titles. Look for him to be a dominant participant in the lead pack on race day. Those who discount his finishing speed have forgotten that Hall’s 13:16.03 in the 5000 in the 2005 Outdoor Nationals placed him on the U.S. team for the World Championships in Helsinki.

• Meb Keflezighi. The Comeback Kid. Serious pelvic issues caused many to presume – prematurely – that Meb’s best running days were far behind him. His P.R. performance in the 2011 New York City Marathon and – 69 days later – his glorious victory in the Trials affirmed his durability, his longevity – and his determination. While Meb has a half dozen sub-2:10 performances, he has never cracked 2:09. Will the Olympic race be too fast for him? Maybe. But those who might be inclined to discount his chances should remember that Meb has proven such views to have been wrong before.

Their Competition

It is hard to be optimistic about American medal chances when last year 27 of the top 30 performers in the marathon were Kenyans. When Ryan Hall can run 2:04:58 and not even be given a world ranking in the Top Ten, it is the best evidence that elite men’s marathoning is undergoing a stunning transformation. Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai, coming off last year’s convincing wins at Boston and New York in course record times, has to be considered the odds-on favorite. Any number of other Kenyans – take your pick – could join him on the medal stand. While Kenya looks to dominate the race, you can’t concede all of the medal spots to them. That’s why they run the race. 

 

RunBlogRun Some photographs on this site have been reproduced with permission from runblogrun.com.