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Friday, August 20, 2004
Inexperience proves costly for Webb

Associated Press

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.''