<
>

Inexperience proves costly for Webb

8/20/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- The blood trickling down his lower leg was
graphic evidence of Alan Webb's brutal introduction to the Olympic
Games.

The 21-year-old runner's season of great promise collapsed in a
rugged 1,500-meter first round Friday night, where the 5-foot-9,
140-pound Webb was knocked around like a pinball and finished ninth
in a field of 13.

"A stupid, stupid race,'' he said of his tactical mistakes.

Despite everything, Webb nearly qualified for Sunday's
semifinals. The top 24 advanced. Webb was 25th. His time of 3
minutes, 41.14 seconds -- nine seconds off his personal best -- was
eleven-hundredths of a second slower than the last qualifier, James
Nolan of Ireland.

Webb said he had never been in such a physical race. But this is
the Olympics, where distance running is a contact sport.

"You always expect a couple of bumps,'' Webb said, "but it
seemed like every 50 meters something was happening.''

About 200 meters into the race, someone spiked him on the right
leg.

"I just told myself, 'Stay relaxed,' '' he said.

But things got worse. "I was trying to stay outside to stay out
of trouble, and it just got me in trouble more.''

It was one of those slow Olympic races where tactics mean
everything. On the last lap, Webb still had a chance, but he was in
the middle of the pack. With about 300 meters to go, he clipped
someone and was knocked off stride one last time.

Bernard Lagat, the great Kenyan, put his arm around Webb while
talking to reporters after the race.

"He's a young kid, but I really respect him a lot,'' said
Lagat, 29. "He's a guy with a lot of ambitions.''

As Lagat talked about someone stepping on his foot and knocking
off his left shoe, Webb interjected, "That was me! Sorry.''

Lagat -- the bronze medalist four years ago in Sydney -- ran with
his shoe half-off for about 200 meters, then flung it all the way
off so he could manage a kick in the last 100 meters. He finished
second in the heat to advance to the finals.

It was the kind of decision that an elite runner with years of
experience could make.

"It gets really physical,'' Lagat said. "You know you have to
be strong to do all that. Of course, experience matters when it
comes to something like that.''

By the time Webb recovered, he found himself in an outside lane,
trailing just about everyone.

Despite his youth, Webb knows what it's like to fall from the
public's grace, then rise again. He broke Jim Ryun's school-age
mile record in 2001, then had a sour collegiate season at Michigan
before leaving school and turning professional.

He struggled with injuries before emerging this year to beat
Ryun's record for fastest mile by an American on U.S. soil at
3:50.83. He won his first international race, in a 1,500 field that
included Lagat, in Ostrava, then cruised to the U.S. trials'
championship.

His lone tuneup since then came July 31 at the Crystal Palace
meet in London, where he was fifth in the mile but still had a
personal-best 3:50.73. An Olympic medal was a long shot, but Webb
wanted at least a spot in the final.

He seemed almost in shock as he tried to explain how his race
disintegrated.

"I should have been more aggressive,'' he said. "I wanted to
be right, not in front, but kind of in front, in striking distance.
But I was just sort of all over the place.''