It's A New Golden Age For American Distance Runners At London Olympics

Leonel Manzano (USA) celebrates after placing second in the men's 1500m final during the 2012 London Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium. (Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Americans are -- surprise! -- winning medals on what is the best U.S. team in Olympic history.

Distance running is being treated to a shock in London in the form of medals — yes, medals — won by Americans. For decades, the sport has been utterly dominated by Kenyan and Ethiopian runners. Since the Sydney games in 2000, eight of the nine medals awarded at 10,000 meters, seven of nine medals in the 5,000-meter race, and five of nine marathon medals went to Kenya or Ethiopia. In that same period, the U.S. had won just one, a silver in the 2004 marathon in Athens.

You have to go back at least as far as the days of Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter in the early ’70s to find true American distance-running sensations.

That rut ended in spectacular fashion on Saturday when Galen Rupp stormed out of the final turn of the 10,000-meter race to grab silver, only meters behind his training partner, Mo Farah, who is British but trains with Rupp in Oregon. No American had medaled in the 10,000 meters since Billy Mills upset the field and took gold in Tokyo in 1964.

Both Rupp and Farah are coached by one of the most well-known American distance runners ever, Alberto Salazar, who won three New York City Marathons in the 1980s and had a legendary victory in the 1982 Boston Marathon, which became known as the “Duel in the Sun.” For the last decade, Salazar has coached the Nike Oregon Project, a program that uses air-thinning technologies to replicate high altitude living conditions, which bolsters the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles during endurance races. The program was founded by Nike with the goal of putting middle- and long-distance American runners on the Olympic podium. It’s apparently working.

The new American assertiveness in multi-lap track events continued Tuesday with silver and fourth-place performances by Leonel Manzano and Matthew Centrowitz (also a Nike Oregon Project athlete), respectively, in the 1,500-meter race.

That means Americans are actually leading the medal count for middle- and long-distance races in London. USA 2. Ethiopia 1. Kenya, unbelievably, has been shut out thus far.

What does this mean for the future of distance running in the U.S.? It’s huge.

Not only is it encouraging to see Americans on the podium, but, perhaps most promising, the U.S. is poised to capitalize on this momentum. Nearly every high school in the country has track and cross-country programs, and nearly every city has an annual marathon, not to mention countless 5K and 10K road races. The U.S. hosts three of the most prestigious marathons in the world in the New York City, Boston, and Chicago marathons. Unlike, say, soccer — another major sport where the U.S. has similarly maintained a second-rate status at the international level in recent decades — the cultural infrastructure is there for Americans to succeed in distance running. Perhaps a little Olympic inspiration is the nudge the sport needs to climb to the next level.

Looking ahead, there could be more excitement to come. The men’s 5,000 meters starts Wednesday with prelims and will conclude with the final on Saturday. Rupp, the new silver medalist at 10,000 meters, will try for another medal at the 5,000-meter distance, which he won at trials. He’ll be joined by compatriots Lopez Lomong and Bernard Lagat. The U.S. hasn’t medaled in the 5,000-meter event since 1964, when Bob Schul and Bill Dellinger took gold and bronze, respectively.

Also notable could be the men’s 800-meter final, which will be run Thursday. 800 meters is on the short side of middle-distance, but American (and outspoken advocate for athletes’ right to promote sponsors) Nick Symmonds is a medal hopeful at that distance. If he runs well it will only add to the momentum that’s been established at the longer distances.

The marquee event, though, will happen Sunday morning when all eyes shift to the streets of London for the men’s marathon.

Ryan Hall is considered the top American marathoner. His PR, at 2:04:58, is legitimately world class. Oh, and his AT&T commercial, in which he gets through several classic novels on audiobook during a single training run, is the best commercial spot of these Olympics. But maybe, as both marathoner and bibliophile myself, I’m a little biased.

Also representing the U.S. in the marathon will be Abdi Abdirahman and Meb Keflezighi. If he’s healthy (he’s been slowed in recent years by injury), Keflezighi could be the man to watch. He, more than Hall, has put up results when it matters most. Keflezighi is the only American to medal (silver in Athens 2004) in the Olympic marathon since Frank Shorter in 1976. Keflezighi beat Hall by 22 seconds at the U.S. Olympic trials in January. That race was the first U.S. trials to see four American men run under 2:10:00. Which tells me that this team is the best we’ve ever brought to an Olympics.

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