The US’ Olympics dream for their athletes – and Malaysia’s pipe dream

WATCHING the recently-concluded US Olympics selection trials gave me goosebumps for several reasons.

For one, I was at the venue – Hayward Field – in 2019 when it was still under construction during a three-week International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) in the US.

Situated right inside the University of Oregon in Eugene, the state-of-the-art stadium was opened in April this year after it was delayed by 11 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The trials was the first major event at the 25,000 capacity stadium and it was wonderful to watch world-class action from old and new American stars blazing the track to earn the right to compete in the Tokyo Olympics.

It’s undeniable that US universities and colleges have played pivotal roles as centres of excellence for athletics.

The university, for instance, has TrackTownUSA, a non-profit organisation as the organising committee, ensuring no hanky-panky and mismanagement.

The stadium, named after their track coach Bill Haywood (1868-1947), also speaks volumes of their nobility. What a way to honour people who really do the work at the grassroots – not some VIPs or political figures who piggyback on the successes of others.

I have repeated this like a broken record but here I go again – when will our universities scale to great heights as feeders for the national team?

When will all the athletics stakeholders start working together to use universities and schools as the vehicle to widen the talent base, which is dwindling by the year?

The US is never short of talent – just look at the quality on show at the trials.

A new star was born in Sha’ Carri Richardson, who won the women’s 100m in 10.86.

The 21-year-old is already being compared to Florence Griffith Joyner for her hair and flair – and even those visibly long fingernails – and she is looking in good shape to win the gold in Tokyo, last won for the US by Gail Devers at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

That was before news broke yesterday that Richardson may have to skip the Olympics after testing positive for cannabis, according to a source. That’s sad really.

Anyway, there is that neurobiology Harvard graduate Gabby Thomas, who burst to the women’s 200m gold with poise and elegance to become only the second fastest in the trial after Flo-Jo with 21.61.

Remember the name Trayvon Bromell too, who took the 100m gold in a super speed of 9.80. In the absence of Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, who ruled at the last three consecutive Olympics in 100m and 200m, Bromell may be the man to bring back US glory days in the sprint event, last enjoyed when Justin Gatlin won in Athens 2004.

Two world records were broken at Hayward Field too – one by the reigning Olympics champion Ryan Crouser in men’s shot putt and another by Sidney McLaughlin, 21, in the women’s 400m hurdles.

Grant Holloway, 23, came close to shattering another world mark in the men’s hurdles. He missed it by one-hundredth of a second but is now a favourite in the Olympics.

My nephew, who was watching all the highlights with me, remarked that the men could have gone faster if they did not wear as much jewellery while my niece chipped in saying that the women could have too – if they had not been weighed down by all that make-up.

But that just adds colour and character to the sport, doesn’t it? The styles, the uber cool presence, the trendsetters and their spirited personalities.

The US trials has just whetted our appetite for some spectacular standards in athletics at the Tokyo Games, despite the depressing Covid-19 times and the many tribulations the Games has faced.

And we have not even seen the talents from other countries yet.

Here in Malaysia, though, we have spent more time discussing who should accompany high jumper Lee Hup Wei to the Tokyo Games. Of course, Hup Wei wants his coach but the Malaysian Athletics Federation (MAF) have named a state secretary instead.

Hup Wei will not be the only Malaysian track and field athlete to feature in the Olympics as he will be accompanied by 18-year-old Azreen Nabila Alias, who got through the women’s 100m via a wild card.

It’ll be a great exposure for Azreen for sure, who has not even won a medal at the Malaysia Games (Sukma). Hopefully, she will qualify on merit for the 2024 Paris Games and not just disappear, like so many Olympics athletes before her.

I dread to think of Azreen’s future in a country where athletics remains a beautiful dream of the past – and a pipe dream for the future.

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