U.S. men’s track team on road to be shut out of gold medals

Cravon Gillespie of Team United States reacts after coming in sixth in round one of the Men's 4x100m Relay Heat 2 on day 13 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on Thursday, August 5, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images/TNS)
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Gary Klein Los Angeles Times (TNS)

TOKYO — It typically serves as a crowning achievement, a final opportunity to increase and celebrate an Olympic gold-medal haul.

Not this year. Not for this U.S. men’s track team.

As the Tokyo Games move toward their conclusion, Saturday’s 1,600-meter relay is shaping up as the last best chance for U.S. runners to avoid a gold-medal shutout.

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Winning any Olympic medal, of course, should be valued and celebrated. Incredible effort and sacrifice are required to make it to this global stage. These are, after all, the world’s greatest athletes.

“An Olympic medal is an Olympic medal,” Michael Cherry said after he finished fourth in the 400-meters final. “You want gold, but if you can come out with anything that’s great.”

But for the U.S. men’s team, there is no running from the fact that it has won zero gold medals in running events.

Ryan Crouser’s second consecutive gold medal in the shot put gave the U.S. men a grand total of one. Katie Nageotte’s gold medal in the pole vault increased the U.S. women’s total to four.

On Thursday, the men lost an opportunity when the 400-meter relay team failed to advance to the final.

Trayvon Bromell, Fred Kerley, Ronnie Baker and Cravon Gillespie did not fall prey to mishaps that caused the demise of previous teams.

They did not drop the baton. They were not disqualified for a lane violation.

They finished sixth. In their heat.

Olympic legend Carl Lewis won two of his nine gold medals running on 400-meter relay teams. After Thursday’s race ended, he burst from the starting blocks with criticism on social media.

“The USA team did everything wrong in the men’s relay,” Lewis wrote on Twitter. “The passing system is wrong, athletes running the wrong legs, and it was clear that there was no leadership. It was a total embarrassment, and completely unacceptable for a USA team to look worse than the AAU kids I saw.”

Gillespie also described the result as unacceptable.

“There’s a lot on your shoulders when we go out there and wear this uniform because you’re expected to meet that expectation,” he said. “You’re expected to get gold and things like that, and so when you go out there and you don’t even make the final it’s like, man, it’s crazy.”

Sprinters were not the only U.S. runners who fell well short of winning gold. Matt Centrowitz, the 2016 gold medalist in the 1,500 meters, did not make it out of the semifinals. Clayton Murphy, a 2016 bronze medalist in the 800, finished last in his final.

Cherry suggested that the U.S. team might have been hurt by the lack of a training camp. He also pointed to youth. Olympic veterans such as Justin Gatlin and LaShawn Merritt are no longer on the team.

“We have a very young team,” he said, adding, “We’re going to dominate soon. Just right now, we have to grow up and adjust.”

And when it comes to relays, perhaps evolve the process.

Relay teams are not chosen in advance. Some runners participate in qualifying heats. Others step in for finals.

Not much time is left for mastering handoffs and other technical aspects.

“We have so many people, we’re so deep, that we can switch and do these things,” Gillespie said. “But at the end of the day it’s unacceptable and we have to do better.”

The men’s 400-meter relay final will be run Friday devoid of a U.S. team. The 1,600-meter relay rounds also will be run as qualifiers for Saturday’s final, the last race at Olympic Stadium.

U.S. men have won the event 17 times in 24 Olympics, including the 2016 Rio Games.

“We usually always dominate,” Cherry said, “so we’re trying to stick to doing the same thing.”

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