When the strides of the best take hold of the main athletics track in Río this August, it appears that “Troy will burn.” The brand new synthetic track not only received huge praise, but also allowed for fast lap times during the recent Ibero-American Championships in Athletics, held May 14-16, which also served as a rehearsal for the Olympics.
While no Latin American record was beaten on the bluish track of the Olympic Stadium, just three months ahead of the Río de Janeiro 2016 Games, maybe it should have been a concern rather than a joy to see athletes, in their majority very strong, so close to records this early on. The question remains whether they will have anything more to give this August?
However, many personal bests were surpassed, as well as minimum Olympic qualifying times, and best times for the season. Various national records were left far behind, such as the 4x100 meter relay of the Dominican Republic, which joined Cuba in the semifinals with a time of 38.44 seconds behind the island’s 38.61, although managing to surpass Cuba in the final, finishing in 38.52 seconds as compared to Cuba’s bronze medal time of 38.93, while the silver went to Brazil with 38.65.
On a positive note, Cuba’s ten male athletes, five on each relay team for the 4x100 and the 4x400 meter competitions, also did well in the 100-400 meter individual events, although the relays were the main objective in the lead up to the Olympics.
The young César Ruiz performed excellently, with two personal bests of 10.33 and 10.30 seconds, and a solid fourth place in the 100 meters. However, those competing in the 200 meters did not put in their best efforts, as instructed by their trainer, who couldn’t join them due to last minute technical issues.
True they have already met the minimum Olympic qualification requirements (20.02 for Skyers and 20.32 for Mena, both in Toronto 2015), but they should have run their best or not at all, in my view. After all, this in an international competition, viewed worldwide.
Dominican Yancarlos Martínez, trained for the past three years in Quisqueya by Cuban coach Yassen Pérez, far surpassed the two relay record holders of his country. In the midst of these exploits, he also dominated the 200m with a worthy national record of 20.19. It didn’t matter that his spot at Río was already guaranteed, given his time of 20.22 in Toronto, he gave this competition his all.
But there is no need to look for foreign examples. Just recall the long list of Cubans such as Rafael Fortún, Enrique Figuerola, Pablo Montes, Hermes Ramírez, Silvio Leonard... able to successfully contend in 100, 200 and 4x100 meter events and break records in any competition, with a special mention for Leandro Peñalver’s trainer, who helped ensure that even when competing for three days straight, he would make a strong contribution, including in the 4x400m.
Another national record was that of the 4x400m for Colombia, winning with a time of 3:01.88, following Cuba’s disqualification. Cuban anchor Yoandys Lescay, so often at a disadvantage when taking the baton and then “killing himself” to make up the difference, received the baton first for the final leg, given the excellent performance of his peers. But his enthusiasm saw him start outside the takeover zone, thus robbing the Cuban team of a win.
Article 170.19 of the competition rules specifies that sprinters can not start running outside of the takeover zone. Lescay only had one foot out of place, but that was enough to disqualify him. Brazil also suffered the same fate, although that is no consolation, and besides, the hosts were only due to take third place.
The large Brazilian team of some 90 official competitors and other non-competing members dominated the medal table, taking first place over all for the ninth time with a total of 52 medals (16 gold, 17 silver and 19 bronze).
As if that weren’t enough, Brazil has already secured Olympic places for its four 100 meter sprinters, both male and female, having finished in the top eight at the 2015 IAAF World Relays. Yet to be defined are positions 9 to 16, depending on the world rankings, based on the average of the top two times.
The Cuban 4x400 relay team is solidly positioned in ninth place overall, averaging 2:59.82 following its 2:59.80 at the World Championships in Beijing and 2:59.84 in Toronto. It would be very difficult, though not impossible, for the other eight competing countries to dislodge the island from this position, given there are less than two months left before the season which began in 2015 ends on July 12.
That the team clocked a time of 3:00.93 is encouraging, given the absence of Raidel Acea, a powerful contributor who this season retired from the national squad. While this time did not improve their Olympic average, it provided encouragement, confidence, and security. The team lost out on a deserved first place on the podium.
This would have been the second gold for Lescay, the only Cuban champion. He took the title for the 400 meter sprint following a semifinal time of 45.65 seconds and a final time of 45.36, the best of the year. He also surprisingly managed to surpass Dominican Luguelín Santos, Olympic silver medalist and Pan American champion, who had expected victory despite not being in top form.
Lescay, from Las Tunas, qualified for the Olympics with a time of 45.13 last year in Costa Rica. The experienced Williams Collazo secured his best time in several seasons on finishing seventh in the 400m. His 45.92 meant he did not qualify for Río, but indicated a second team member in good shape. The developing capabilities of Adrián Chacón and especially Osmaidel Pellicier were evident during the race.
As for the Cuban 4x100 relay team, with starter César Ruiz, Roberto Skyers on the long straight, Reynier Mena in the third leg and Yaniel Carrero closing, hopes were raised given the squad’s 38.44 seconds semifinal time.
This was by no means a spectacular time in world terms, but it was the best for the country in the 12 years since Athens 2004, matched by an identical time at the 2014 IAAF World Relays in Nassau, in which Skyers, Mena and Carrero failed to make it to the finals.
The significance of this time of 38.44 seconds was that it saw Cuba rise from 19th to 16th place in the rankings, on the edge of the Olympic qualifying limit. The island’s average is 38.64 having achieved a time of 38.85 in 2015, also in Nassau. In the final, the team needed to clock another good time in order to advance their position.
For example, achieving a time of 38.50, together with winning the gold, would have served to average 38.47 and secure 13th place, which is now occupied by no less than the Dominican Republic with 38.56, thanks to its records of 38.61 and 38.52. The Netherlands comes next with 38.57 (38.41-38.73), followed by Barbados with an average of 38.60 (38.55-38.65).
The unusual inclusion of relay events at one-day competitions is changing the current state of affairs. On Wednesday, May 18, at the IAAF World Challenge in Beijing, the Chinese team led with a time of 38.21, but this was not necessary. China ranks in ninth place with an average of 37.96 thanks to the outstanding world records in 2015 of 37.92 and 38.01.
In order to reach positions from 10 to 12, Cuba needs to compete a lot and with superior quality. These places are currently occupied by Canada with 38.07 (38.03- 38.11), Antigua and Barbuda with 38.07 (38.01-38.14) and Britain with 38.20 (38.20-38.21).
Cuba’s record time of 38.00 – which saw the team win bronze in Barcelona,1992 - is about to turn 24 years old. Meanwhile the country’s second-best time of 38.04 in Sydney 2000, provided another historic bronze.