Analysis: Olympic trials show the United States has its sprinting swagger back

EUGENE, Ore. — In each of the past three Summer Olympics, Usain Bolt and his Jamaican teammates have been the dominant force at 100 and 200 meters.

But if the opening weekend of the U.S. Olympic track and field trials is any indication, the sprinting landscape will be a bit different this summer in Tokyo.

In the span of 24 hours, fans at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, witnessed a star turn from 21-year-old Sha'Carri Richardson in the women's 100, and a final on the men's side to rival any recent world or Olympic championship. And next weekend's 200-meter competitions promise to be just as tight, and compelling.

All told, the United States appears poised to bring home perhaps its largest medal haul in the short-distance sprints – the men's and women's 100, 200 and 4×100 relays – since the 1980s. Americans won just four medals in those six events in Rio in 2016.

"If you look at the top times in the world (right now)," said Trayvon Bromell, who won the men's 100 on Sunday night, "you see the United States' flag."

Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates after winning the women's 100 in 10.86 during the US Olympic Team Trials at Hayward Field. (Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The U.S. has brought home at least one medal in either the 100 or 200 at every edition of the Summer Olympics since 1900, excluding the boycotted 1980 Games. It has also been a consistent contender in the longer sprinting events: The 400-meter dash and 4×400 relay.

Some years, however, have been better than others.

At the 1984 Olympics, Carl Lewis and Evelyn Ashford helped the U.S. pull off an improbable feat, winning gold and silver in both the 100 and 200 in men's and women's competitions, while also sweeping the 4×100 relays.

On the opposite end of the spectrum: The 2008 Beijing Olympics, where Americans earned just two bronzes and one silver.

Since those 2008 Games, the U.S. has won just three golds at the short distances, two of them in the women's 4×100 relay. The dominance of Bolt obviously had something to do with that, but it didn't make the results any less disappointing.

The past few years, however, have provided evidence of a shift, as Bolt retired and a wave of up-and-coming Americans have battled to fill his spot atop the world rankings.

Since the conclusion of the Rio Games, U.S. men have run 21 of the fastest 22 times in the world in the 100, and 15 of the fastest 22 times in the 200. In Sunday's 100-meter final, five men beat or matched the time that secured a bronze medal at the most recent Olympics (9.91) – even without Christian Coleman, who was banned two years for whereabouts failures.


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On the women's side, the international field is more level, though Richardson is the brightest up-and-coming star. 

A fiery sprinter who's become known for her vibrant hair, long nails and brash personality, she figures to be one of the gold-medal favorites in Tokyo, alongside veteran Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica. Only 20 women have ever run the 100 in 10.8 seconds or fewer. Richardson has done it three times since April.

The second half of trials, which runs from Thursday through Sunday, will determine the 200-meter teams in Tokyo. Noah Lyles, the reigning world champion in the event, has said he expects to dominate the men's race, advising fans on social media that it "will be disgusting." The women's 200 field is among the deepest at any track event at the trials.

In the coming weeks, the U.S. will also finalize its 4×100 relay teams. The pools for those teams will consist of as many as six athletes – the top-four finishers in the individual race at trials, plus two others selected by Team USA's head relay coach. 

Regardless of who is on those men's and women's 4×100 teams, or the order in which the athletes run, the U.S. will be favored to win gold in both.

Generating lofty expectations, of course, is one thing. Meeting them is another. The U.S. will still need the performances in Tokyo to match its potential, which is no easy feat. But at the very least, the competition at Hayward Field so far has put the rest of the world on notice.

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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