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Olympic Year Produces Bumper Crop Of Worthy Athletes

Every fall, just before the vivid memories of the recently-completed track & field season begin to fade, enthusiasts of the sport turn their attention to an annual post-season ritual: assessing the performances of the very top athletes in an effort to identify the most worthy candidate to be named Athlete Of The Year. In 2012 -- an Olympic year -- it is not at all surprising that more than a few superlative athletes had pinnacle performance years that clearly put them in the conversation. Ah, but alas, only one can capture the AOY title. The evaluation process -- often best conducted with a group of track buddies over a hoppy beverage -- is a subjective exercise in which reasonable minds can come to differing conclusions. That should not deter us from this journey. Let us begin.

First of all, this subjective evaluation is not without helpful guidelines. Track & Field News -- which without quarrel proclaims itself to be the "Bible Of The Sport" -- has laid down a sort of Marquess of Queensberry set of generally-recognized governing principles for evaluating candidates. The three criteria are: (i) Honors won; (ii) Win-loss record in head-to-head competition; and (iii) Sequence of marks. These criteria are not evenly weighted. And as T&FN tersely notes, "We reward people who have proven themselves against other people, not against themselves."

Against that backdrop, it would appear that 5 men turned in performances in this Olympic year that placed them head and shoulders above a strong collection of other tremendous athletes who won Olympic gold medals or set world records. Let's look at what these athletes did in 2012.

Thumbnail image for Bolt-BlakeFH-OlyGame12.jpgUsain Bolt, London 2012 Olympic Games



Usain Bolt. Let's start with this incredible sprinter. Many would proclaim we should start -- and end -- with Bolt. But an equal number could suggest that a deeper analysis might uncover a weakness in his candidacy. Few would deny that Bolt may well be on the pathway to become the greatest sprinter in history. Indeed, no athlete -- man or woman -- has ever accomplished what Bolt achieved this season: to win the Olympic 100/200 sprint double twice. But that feat was accomplished over a span of years -- not simply this year. Bolt's dual losses to countryman Yohan Blake in the Jamaican Trials showed his vulnerability and would require he be given a lower mark on the won/loss criterion. It is true that Bolt ran a scintillating anchor leg on Jamaica's world record setting 4 x 100 relay team in London. But his 2012 personal marks of 9.63 and 19.32 -- while truly dazzling -- were not improvements of his phenomenal world records set in earlier years.


Thumbnail image for Rudisha_David1-OlyGame12.JPGDavid Rudisha, London 2012 Olympic Games, photo by PhotoRun.net


David Rudisha. Like Bolt, Rudisha produced a dominating win in the Olympic 800 final. And he did so in the world record time of 1:40.91, prompting speculation that the previously-incomprehensible sub 1:40 800 may not be far away. But the 800 specialist is not without a blemish on his report card. Like Bolt, Rudisha also has a loss this season. Mohammed Aman, 6th place finisher in London, executed a surprising post-Olympic ambush of Rudisha in Zurich to spoil his perfect season. Could that upset cost Rudisha his 3rd consecutive AOY title?


Thumbnail image for Farah_Mo5KFV-Olympic12.jpgMo Farah, London 2012 Olympic Games, photo by PhotoRun.net


Mo Farah. If sentimentality was a pivotal factor in the selection process, the gritty Brit might be the runaway winner. That is not to suggest that Farah lacks legitimate credentials. He does not. You have to give him the highest marks possible for "Honors won." His 5,000/10,000 double gold medal performance in front of his adoring countrymen was almost too "storybook" to be believed. In the 10,000, Farah even found a winning strategy that placed his rapidly-improving training partner in just the right position to get up for the silver. There is likely little doubt that Farah should be ranked #1 in both the 5,000 and the 10,000, but to capture the AOY prize it will have to be overlooked that this year 10 athletes posted quicker 5K marks and a whopping 37 runners notched faster 10K times than this ferocious kicker who beat everyone when it counted most.

Ashton Eaton. It's difficult to imagine how Eaton could have had a better year. He was on a roll even as early as the indoor season -- usually a venue that leaves little opportunity for multi athletes. After setting the WR at the Trials -- in front of his hometown crowd, as every living American Olympic decathlon gold medalist looked on, and as the sun emerged during the final event -- the 1500 -- after 36 hours of rain -- Eaton seemed destined for gold. His pre-ordained Olympic win was glorious, even if entirely expected. Often not fully appreciated is the fact that the newly-crowned World's Greatest Athlete set PR's in 2012 in 8 of the 10 decathlon events. Honor's won? Check. Won-loss record? Check. Sequence of marks? Check. It is difficult to suggest that Ashton Eaton is not the Athlete of the Year. Oh, and he belongs on the Wheaties box, too.

Thumbnail image for Merritt_Aries-London12.jpgAries Merritt, London 2012 Olympic Games, photo by PhotoRun.net


Aries Merritt. Not unlike his impeccable hurdling, there is virtually nothing to criticize in analyzing Merritt's spotless season. He ran often. He ducked no one. And he never lost a final. On London's big stage, he was unfazed by the big target on his back as he captured gold in an event where there is no margin for error. But he left perhaps his biggest moment for the post-Olympic season. As the European circuit was nearing an end, he ran the perfect hurdle race in Brussels. Alone after the fourth hurdle, he powered over the remaining barriers with precision and focus to take down Dayron Robles 12.87 WR by .07 seconds -- an enormous reduction in the realm of high hurdling where world bests are eked out 1/100th of a second at a time. This puts Merritt's Beamon-esque 12.80 hurdle performance in perspective: in 1981, Renaldo Nehemiah set the 110 Hurdles WR by running 12.93. In the 31 years that followed, the WR was lowered by only .06 seconds. On that chilly, windless night in Belgium, it took Merritt just a little under 13 seconds to reduce the world record mark by an even larger margin.

So who should be selected? Strict application of the T&FN guidelines can help. While all 5 won championships in London, this year both Eaton and Merritt were world record-setting Olympic gold medalists who were undefeated in their specialty. Against that near-perfect standard, the remaining trio falls just a bit short. Rudisha suffered that season-ending loss. Farah, while undefeated, posted only underwhelming marks. And the iconic Bolt, albeit with three Olympic golds, still suffered those troubling losses to Blake and posted top individual marks this year that didn't alter the record book.

OK, but how do you pick between Eaton and Merritt, two exquisite athletes who performed flawlessly in 2012? Do you give the nod to the versatile decathlete who is clearly the more dynamic athletic performer? Or do you go with the skilled technician who lowered the hurdle WR by such a large margin? Well, you could flip a coin. Or -- better still -- you could get together with your track & field cronies, sit down and share a beer, and figure it all out.

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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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