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All Is Not Lost: The Strength of U.S. Running After the World Championships

After a week of disappointment after disappointment, where does America stand in track and field?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The results speak for themselves to a large extent. The Americans did not perform well at the World Championships in Beijing. This was supposed to be the year when the United States finally arrives by claiming a regular presence on the podium of distance events while maintaining dominance in the sprints. They were even poised to topple the reign of Usain Bolt in the men's 100m and 200m with Justin Gatlin.

None of this really happened, of course. The United States' only gold medals on the track came from Allyson Felix's 400m title and the men's 4x400m at the very end of the competition. Focusing primarily on the distance races--the ones in which the United States was supposed to announce its arrival--the only U.S. medal in a race longer than 400m went to Emily Infeld, who won bronze in the women's 10,000m.

The missed opportunities are too numerous to list in full, but here is a sampling. Evan Jager, who entered with the second fastest time in the world this season despite tripping over a hurdle in the race in question, finished 6th after getting obliterated by his competitors over the last 200m. The hurdles were a morass of failure as false starts (Ronnie Ash), falls (Dawn Harper-Nelson, Kori Carter), lane violations (Kendra Harrison), and general underperformance (Bershawn Jackson and Johnny Dutch, among others). Minor disappointments littered the middle distances as Matt Centrowitz, Leo Manzano, Brenda Martinez, Molly Ludlow, Jenny Simpson, Galen Rupp, Shannon Rowbury, and Emma Coburn all entered on the fringes of medal contention and not one of them actually medalled.

Those nine days sucked. The United State cried a river and drowned the whole world. But, although they look so sad in photographs, there is still hope.

If you felt hopeful about the future of American distance running 10 days ago, you should feel similarly, if not exactly the same way now. The reason you should still believe in the future of American running starts with Thomas Bayes, an 18th century English statistician, who posited that prior beliefs should play a large role in our individual processes of statistical inference. We should be wary of significantly deviating from our prior beliefs based on small amounts of evidence.

For example, if I enter a riveting round of coin-flipping with the belief that the coin is fair, my first 6 flips that all turn of heads should do little (if anything) to cause me to adjust that belief.

The same applies to American running. The trajectory over the last decade or so has been that the United States was making inroads to establishing itself as a player in all events on the track and nothing that happened over the last 10 days or so was sufficiently dramatic or convincing to change that.

Are Bershawn Jackson, Johnny Dutch, Dawn Harper-Nelson, and Candyce McGrone actually not very good runners? I doubt any reasonable person honestly thinks they don't remain among the best handful of runners in their events in the world. If a world championships rematch started tomorrow, I would still confidently pick all of them to medal.

Does anyone actually believe that Matt Centrowitz and Leo Manzano don't have a chance of medalling in a race that comes down to a kick? Throughout the preliminary rounds the 1500m last week, they both kicked against the same runners who out kicked them in the finals. Based on their careers, that 1500m final on Sunday was more an anomaly than them looking like potential medalists in the rounds prior. The same applies to Evan Jager and the duo of Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury.

What about Galen Rupp? He has two top-four finishes at world championship meets and even a silver medal in the 10,000m at the London Olympics. Just this last week, after a season surrounded by doping controversy and intermittent racing, he finished fifth in both the 5000m and 10,000m. To me, that's quite impressive and actually does more to reinforce my belief going in that Rupp could be the second-best 5k/10k runner in the world after Mo Farah.

Let's not forget that Nick Symmonds, who did not run at these World Championships due to a contract dispute with USATF, is a runner perfectly built to place well in tactical championship finals. Add in Boris Berian, who at 22 years old, still stands as the 4th-fastest 800m runner in 2015, but failed to make the U.S. team out of the trials and you still have a solid contingent capable of medalling on the right day.

The right day is what didn't come at all over the nine days of these world championships, but the state of United States running is such that what happened last week with the false starts, trips, disqualifications, and underperformance, can best be written off as something of a rare outcome. I mean, it can't possibly ever go that poorly again.

There's no need to overreact. The revival of American running is still happening. It has been happening for about a decade now. One meet does little to alter that course.