Twenty-four minutes at Hayward: Track and field worlds take frenetic turn

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EUGENE, Oregon – It is often argued that track and field is too ponderous and sprawling, too slow and too inaccessible for a modern audience whose synapses have been fried and shrunk to a length so short that an entire NBA game can be reduced to a TikTok post featuring one dunk and one dime, and possibly a mascot eating popcorn or a celebrity drinking wine at courtside. That meets are too long and too confusing, with throwing here, and jumping there and running all around and how can anyone be expected to follow it all? Maybe there’s a sliver of truth in all of this. Tastes evolve.

Or just maybe you needed to be here Sunday night at the new Hayward Field on the Day Three of the 18th Track and Field World Championships, and the first in the United States. Maybe you needed to see U.S. athletes win nine medals in a single day, four of them gold, both championship records. Maybe you needed to see a 27-year-old American woman who still logs hours as a cashier at Chipotle, fling the hammer farther than any other woman in the world for a gold medal; or three big American men sweep the medals in the shot; or a tiny 35-year-old Jamaican woman win her seventh global 100-meter championship, establishing herself as maybe the best female track and field athlete in history. Maybe you needed to see a very messy false start, gutting a hometown star.

But there’s helpful news: Most of it happened in a frenetic window shorter than half an inning of a Major League baseball games. Think of it as Twenty-four Minutes at Hayward. (All times approximate, don’t @ me with your timestamps).

7:28 p.m.: A crystalline sky overhead, slowly darkening, temperatures dipping toward the low-70s as if Eugene had put climate change on hold for a night (two nights, actually, as Saturday was splendid as well). A breeze swirling around the new stadium, which was mostly full for the second consecutive night. U.S. pole vaulter Sandi Morris, 30, stands at the end of the runway, safely in possession of a silver medal to match the silvers she won the at the 2016 Olympics, and 2017 and ’19 Worlds, but needing a clearance at 16 feet, ¾ inches to pass teammate Katie Nageotte, the 2021 Olympic gold medalist, and move into first place.

It had already been a successful day for the U.S.: Early in the afternoon, Brooke Andersen, 27 had taken gold in the hammer throw and teammate Janee’ Kassanavoid had won bronze. (They followed DeAnna Price, who won the gold medal at the 2019 Worlds in Doha, Qatar). Both are of the generation of U.S. women’s throwers who were recruited into the sport not because they were big, but because they were explosive athletes, with deep backgrounds in multiple sports. “I played every sport except track and field,” said Kassanavoid. Andersen was a 135-pound soccer player who idolized Mia Hamm. “I didn’t lift a weight until college,” she said. Now she weighs 185lbs and has retained her quickness and agility in the circle. But the life of a thrower has obstacles: Not long ago, Andersen trained while working a total of 60 hours at GNC and Chipotle, and she still snags hours behind the counter at the latter. But she also recently signed a contract with Nike, nudging toward full professional status.

7:29 p.m.: Morris, whose second attempt had been agonizingly close, wasn’t close on the third, leaving Nageotte with gold. “I wanted the gold,” said Morris. “I didn’t do enough to earn it. But 4.90 [meters, the 16-3/4] is a high bar, and everything has to be perfect, and it wasn’t.”

Nageotte spent much of the year battling a post-Olympic emotional letdown that nearly dragged her into retirement. “After the Olympics, I never got a break,” she said. “I got a physical break, but I never got a mental break. It was five years of stress, trying to make the team and win a medal and I really didn’t come back around until the last two months.”

7:31 p.m.: In the shot put ring, no more than 50 feet from the pole vault landing pit, and adjacent to the backstretch of the orange running track, 33-year-old American Joe Kovacs, readied for the fifth of his six throws, chalk spread across his neck. Kovacs won the world title in 2015 and ’19, and had been engaged in a long battle with countryman Ryan Crouser, who has won the last two Olympic golds and last summer broke Randy Barnes’ (suspicious) 31-year-old world record. Kovacs, nearly as wide as tall, launches a throw of 22.89 meters [75 feet, 1 ¼ inches] to take the lead over Crouser by seven inches. “I expected that from Joe,” said Crouser, “because he has such a potential for big throws.”

Kovacs said: “I expected Ryan to come right back and throw far.” They are like domestic partners, finishing each other’s sentences.

7:32 p.m.: On the front straightaway, eight men warmed up for the final of the 110-meter hurdles. The plot was thus: Grant Holloway of the U.S. was favored to win gold in Tokyo, but staggered off the last of 10 hurdles and was second behind Hansle Parchment of Jamaica. They would meet again. Subplot: This would be the last hurdle race for Devon Allen of the U.S. who ran track and played football at Oregon, before trying to make the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster as a receiver and kick returner.

Suddenly Parchment lay on the track, stretching, and then stood and limped off. A narrative-shifting DNS (did not start).

The shot put competition was paused before Crouser’s fifth throw, to give the hurdles center stage. The 6-foot-7, 315-pound Crouser stood alone on the infield in his red U.S. singlet and blue tights.

7:33 p.m.: The starter’s pistol crackled for the hurdles, and then crackled again. A false start. Crouser was called back into the shot ring, unexpectedly quickly. “It’s track, so you know things will go wrong,” said Crouser. “You just have to be prepared.” He was prepared. Crouser initiated rhythmic clapping and then tossed the shot – he makes it appear hollow – and it landed with a puff of pale brown dust, very near Kovacs’s mark.

7:34 p.m.: The meet announcer intones that the false start has been charged to lane three: Devon Allen. There was an audible gasp. Okay, school in session: False starts are assessed through an electronic system that measures how quickly an athlete applied pressure to pads on their starting blocks. If that pressure – the reaction time – is applied sooner than .100 seconds, it is a false start, on the theory that the athlete anticipated the gun, rather than reacting to it. This is an arbitrary number, but in theory with scientific underpinnings. Allen’s reaction time was .099 seconds, meaning that he was disqualified for reacting one one-thousandth of a second too quickly. (His reaction time in the semifinal was .101 seconds, safe by two one-thousandths of a second).

Allen wandered around, shocked. Twice he climbed over a fence to talk with start officials, to no avail. Other runners shuffled about, sympathetic but waiting to run. The scene was reminiscent of the men’s 100 meters at the 2003 Worlds, when Jon Drummond of the U.S. was disqualified for a false start (under different rules) and laid down on the track in protest before eventually leaving. Allen did not lay down on the track. “I know for a fact that I did not false start,” said Allen afterward. “I didn’t react until I heard the gun.”

7:35 p.m.: Crouser’s distance appeared on the small infield video board and is announced: 22.94 meters, three inches beyond Kovacs and into first place. It is a World Championship meet record.

Allen wanders some more, arms outstretched, palms up. Holloway is surprised but not shocked by Allen’s fate and the general state of chaos prevailing: “I’m on Devon’s side; I don’t think he false-started,” Holloway says. “But it’s athletics and, pardon my language, shit happens.”

7:37 p.m.: An official theatrically raises a red and black card at Allen, officially disqualifying him from the race. There are boos. There is murmuring. Shit happens. Allen walks off the track, under the grandstand and out of sight. The other hurdlers line up, only six of them. No Parchment, no Allen. Holloway, in lane four, will run with empty lanes on both sides. It’s a lousy look.

My take: On the one hand, it’s preposterous that Allen was allowed to run with a reaction time of .101 seconds and tossed for a reaction time of .099 seconds, and thus deprived of running in the most important race of his life (with Oregon fans similarly deprived, a buzzkill moment on an otherwise thrilling day). And he did not appear to move, whereas most false starts come with some visible backup. (A false start in the women’s 100-meter semifinals also looked very iffy). On the other hand, there has to be a false start rule of some kind. Older versions, in which a runner was disqualified for two false starts, led to long delays and runners throwing flyers indiscriminately. More to the point, there was no solution available in the moment. You can’t just give the batter four strikes on the spot because three is a bad rule (or because he’s popular). But it was a downer in the building.

7:39 p.m.: Holloway rolled to his second consecutive world title – around that Olympic silver – in 13.04 seconds. “Parchment goes down, Devon false started, which he didn’t, but it happened,” said Holloway. “You say to yourself, ‘Focus, just be the first one to the line, like any other race.’” Trey Cunningham of the U.S. took silver, a one-two U.S. finish. “Not my best race,” said Cunningham. “But it’s a shiny medal.”

7:43 p.m.: Kovacs’s last throw was short of Crouser’s mark. Crouser’s last throw – “I just swung for the fences,” he said – is a foul. The bronze medal goes to 27-year-old American Josh Awotunde, who recovered from a spring pectoral strain, spent time living with Crouser and under his wing, and threw an 11-inch personal best on his first throw. It was the first 1-2-3 shot put sweep in Worlds history and followed up the U.S. sweep in the men’s 100 meters Saturday night. There would be one more, not by Americans.

7:46 p.m.: Seven Americans wore flags and worked their way around the track, not together, but in synch, celebrating, posing. Morris and Nageotte on the first turn. Crouser, Kovacs and Awotunde on the backstretch. Holloway and Cunningham on the far turn. A couple firetrucks, a marching band and it could have been a parade. The track was cleared for one last event.

7:52 p.m.: Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, 35 years old and five feet tall, ripped away from the blocks and bounded to a gold medal in the 100 meters in 10.67 seconds, a world championship record. She won Olympic 100-meter gold medals in 2008 and 2012 (along with a bronze in Rio in 2016 and a silver behind Elaine Thompson-Herah last year in Tokyo) and has won the 100 meters at five of the last seven worlds. She is the only woman to break 10.70 seconds five times (Thompson-Herah has done it four times; Flo-Jo did it three times). There is little doubt Fraser-Pryce is the best female sprinter in history and quite possibly the best in all events. It’s a worthy discussion.

“This is my favorite title, doing it at 35,” said Fraser-Pryce. “ Yes, I said 35. Age doesn’t change anything. If I’m healthy, I’m going to compete and I’m not going to stop until I don’t believe that.” Shericka Jackson followed Fraser-Pryce for silver and Thompson-Herah for bronze, a sweep to match the U.S. men 24 hours earlier. They too, each grabbed the familiar Jamaican flags. Fans began descending from their seats and spilled into the concourse. A breeze stiffened from the north. Seven more days remain.