The Greatest American Distance Runner Ever Is....

Hey-O! Today I'm here to introduce a guest poster, and then step behind the curtains.  Definitely a different voice, so if you read here because you specifically like my junk, I'll be back tomorrow.  If you realize you like this post better than any I ever wrote, then tell the author so in the comments so he will start his own blog! 

I'm allowing someone on my turf for the first time, because after weeks of learning much more about running via emails with him than I do through my own web browsing (primarily about competitive runners and injury prevention), I realized he has a lot more to say about running than I ever will (ahem, except for talking about MY running....which never gets old).  He deserves a better audience than  

And so below you can find the post written by Doctor Runner.  Doc Runner is the father of one of my bestest friends that I have known since the age of 6.  He is a lifelong runner, and a close observer of Olympic track and field since 1964.

Your guest author's butt, 2nd from Right.  Next to my friend's butt, on the Right.

Heading into the London Olympics of 2012 it is worthwhile asking who is the greatest American distance runner ever.  The USA does not have a particularly illustrious history in distance running but there have been some notable triumphs over the years.  In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, America scored a shocking double with Bob Schull winning the 5,000 and Billy Mills the 10,000.  Both were so obscure heading into the Olympics that they couldn’t even be considered dark horses.  America also earned the bronze in the 5,000 that year but no American male has medaled in either race since! That’s right, there have been 66 medals handed out since 1964 in those two races and none has been won by the USA.  America did win a silver in the 1500 in 1968 in Mexico City by Jim Ryun but that was actually a huge disappointment because he entered the Olympics as the world record holder in the mile and heavy favorite only to succumb to the 7,000 foot altitude and the first great Kenyan runner (marathon excluded),  Kip Keino, whose victory heralded the future dominance of Kenya in the distance events.  American Frank Shorter did break through to win the marathon in 1972 in Munich and returned to earn a silver in 1976 in Montreal.  Almost 30 years later Mebrahtom Keflezhigi, a naturalized American citizen, took a silver medal in the 2004 Olympic marathon in Athens--but that is it for the USA men’s team: a total of 3 golds, 2 silvers and a bronze in races 1500 meters and longer over a 60+ year span.

How have our women fared? Well bear in mind that the history of female distance running in the Olympics is a very short one.  The longest race included in the female Olympic schedule prior to 1972 was 800 meters! Apparently it was the belief at the time that women were far too fragile to endure the rigors of running hard for much longer than 2 minutes at a stretch.  In 1972 the 1500 was added, and since there were no fatalities, the 3000 and the marathon were added in 1984, as well as the 10,000 in 1988.  The 5,000 replaced the 3,000 in 1996 and the 3000 meter steeplechase was included in 2008 bringing us to the current alignment, on par with the male races.  How have American women done since the introduction of distance races?  Not bad relatively.  Joan Benoit won the first marathon in 1984 in LA (many of the powerful Eastern Block runners boycotted that Olympics in retaliation for the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics--this was the Cold War remember--but Joan was clearly the best winning in 2:24:52).  Other American standouts were Deena Kastor who won bronze in the 2004 Athens marathon, Lynn Jennings who won a 10,000 meter bronze in Barcelona in 1992, and Shalene Flanagan who also won bronze in the same event in 2008 (Beijing).  Total them all up and surprisingly American women have out medaled the men in distance races 4-1 since 1984.  

So the greatest American distance runner ever must be one of these Olympic medalists, right?  Well, Frank Shorter’s achievements were tremendous to be sure.  He was an excellent 10,000 meter runner as well as a great marathoner and a very good 5,000 meter competitor.  But despite his gold medal, he never held a world record and didn’t really dominate.  Joan Benoit was a fabulous marathoner who recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery 17 days before the Olympic Trials in 1984 to win, but her success was largely limited to the marathon.  In fact, the greatest American distance runner of all time never won an Olympic medal.  One could make a strong case for giving the title to trailblazing marathoner Alberto Salazar,  or versatile and precocious Steve Prefontaine (neither of whom ever medaled in the Olympics) but I think the best ever was Mary Decker. Who? Mary Decker aka Mary Decker Tabb and later Mary Decker Slaney the winner of the historic 1500/3000 double in the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki (arguably the greatest single track meet ever held) and the most dominant female distance runner America has ever produced.

She burst on the scene in the mid-70s winning international 800 meter races as a 15 year old.  After injuries derailed her young career, she blossomed In June and July of 1982, setting world records in the 5,000 meters (15:08.26) and the mile (4:18.08).  But she was just warming up.  On July 16th, 1982 running on a whim and without specific preparation she broke- make that obliterated by 42 seconds- the world record in the 10,000 meters at Hayward field in Eugene, Oregon winning in a time of 31:35.3. With that race she had posted the fastest American time in every distance from 800 meters to 10,000 meters and had set 6 world records.  Just think about that for a minute. The following year at the 1983 World Championships she won both the 1500 and 3000 meters and in both races she out dueled a 2 time Russian Olympic gold medalist down the stretch to win.  

Mary was injured and couldn’t compete in the 1976 Olympics, and the USA boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but she arrived at the 1984 Los Angeles games at her peak and was the odds on favorite in the 3000 meters.  What happened next was heartbreaking but memorable. Decker was leading the race after 1500 meters when a young runner from South Africa, Zola Budd, tripped her while attempting to pass.  Decker tumbled onto the infield and out of the race while the pack sped away, her hopes for Olympic glory receding in the distance with them. The pictures below capture the agonizing few seconds that ended Mary’s best chance to win Olympic gold.  

Although she continued to race for the next decade, injuries and age slowed her and she never regained her dominance.  But despite her spectacular Olympic failure her body of work makes her, in this writer’s mind anyway, the greatest American distance runner of all time.

Here are links to Mary’s memorable races in the 1983 world championships-

Seriously WATCH those videos...she is a gazelle.  WATCH her kick at the end of these races! I don't know about you guys, but I was completely ignorant to all running that took place before the year 2000.  Learning about the history of American distance runners in the Olympics was a joy...