Predictions For The New Year: How Many Mid-D/Distance Medals Will Team USA Win At The 2016 Rio Olympics?

January 5, 2016

With the New Year here, some members of the staff decided to make some predictions for the year. On Monday, co-founders Robert (Rojo) and Weldon Johnson (Wejo) and Jonathan Gault debated how many medals the US men and women will win in Rio in the mid-d and distance track and field events. There debate appears below.

Over the next few days, they’ll be debating various topics as they try to predict the future.

Wejo: Ok guys, it’s the first workday of the New Year. Let’s make some predictions. In thinking about all of the various things that I am looking forward to for 2016, which promises to be an amazing year with the Olympic marathon Trials, World indoors and the Olympics, I figured we might as well start with the biggie – Olympic medals.

How many Olympic distance medals (800 through marathon) will Team USA earn in 2016?

Rojo: Before we talk about 2016, can we just take a minute and appreciate how crazy 2015 was? I think one of the problems in our sport is we don’t appreciate what actually happened – we are always looking ahead to what’s next. Last year was truly mind blowing. Imagine if at this time last year, I told you Lamine Diack would be arrested, Alberto Salazar would be the subject of a BBC documentary, a police report would be filed indicating a Nike employee threatened to kill a Brooks employee at USAs, Russia would be banned, Emily Infeld would be the lone American to medal at Worlds and Syracuse would win an NCAA cross title. You’d have wanted me put in an insane asylum. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Wejo: 2015 was a fascinating year that leaves us in anticipation of the January 14 WADA independent commission report into corruption within the IAAF. I think that report might determine whether we remember 2016 most for what happened on the track or off it. And the message boarders are right, you can’t stop mentioning Alberto Salazar’s name or his picture. However, we can talk more about Alberto when we talk about 2016.

We’ve all written our favorite recollections of 2015 (mine here, Jon’s here and Robert’s here), so I don’t think too much more needs to be said of 2015. Read what we wrote, people! I said my favorite race was Evan Jager’s 8:00 steeple fall. Thirty years from now I’ll probably remember most being there in perfect position at Worlds in Beijing sitting next to both of you to see Justin Gatlin stumble at the line in the 100m as Usain Bolt restored order in track and field for at least a brief moment.

We can all agree on one thing, however. The call of Evan Jager’s steeple fall in 2015 was the best race call of the year. I’ve seriously listened to it at least 20 times. Everybody watch it below. I’ve got it set to start at the right moment. I’m posting it everywhere I can in case you haven’t seen it.

I just love Stuart Storey’s high pitched squeal when Jager goes down and then Tim Hutchings yelling, “JAGER, GET  UP – CONCENTRATE – MOVE.” A homer call for sure, but it shows the passion of track and field.

Article continues below player.

Enough of 2015, let’s get back to the end goal. How many medals will the US win in 2016? And not all medals are created equal. I don’t really care if the US wins a bronze in the race walk or some random medal in the 200. I’m talking how many medals will the US win in the events the nation cares most about: 800 though the marathon?

Rojo: Jon and I were talking about this the other day on the phone. He said if he was Vegas he’d put the over/under at 1.5 for the men’s competitors. I’m definitely taken the under on that. I think one medal is all the US men get.

Do I think a US man is medalling at 800? No.

1500? Nope. Centro is amazing but Kiprop will be regarded as the GOAT in my mind before it’s all said and done and Makhloufi is damn good, as is this new guy Manangoi. I’d argue the top 5 guys at Worlds are simply better runners that Centro – Kiprop, Manangoi, Iguider, Makhloufi and Kiplagat. And that’s not even counting Ayanleh Souleiman who was injured.

Steeple? Yes, for two reasons. One, Jager at his best may be as good as any of the Kenyans are in 2016 as Kemboi is getting older. Two, Kenya is limited to only 3, not 4 entrants and there are zero good Ethiopian steeplers.

5000/10,000 – Nope.

Marathon – No chance unless Rupp runs it.

Jonathan: I think Jager medals, so that’s one right there. As Robert pointed out, Kenya only gets three entrants, so if one of them has a bad race, it’s basically down to Jager and France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad (who missed all of 2015 but has medalled at the past two Olympics and is still only 30 years old) for the other medal. Obviously, we can’t assume that one of the Kenyans has a bad race — Ezekiel Kemboi is the greatest steepler ever, Conseslus Kipruto has silver at the last two World Champs and Jairus Birech is the two-time defending Diamond League champ — but I can see Jager beating Kipruto and Birech in a championship race if he improves his close (and with the 3:32 speed he flashed in ’15, I think he’s getting there). If Kemboi runs like he usually does at global champs, no one will beat him, but he will be 34 years old by Rio — he can’t do this forever, can he?

Then I look at the other distance events. I think if you look at each event independently, I would say that the U.S. is unlikely to medal in any of them, but collectively I think there’s enough of a chance that America picks up a second medal. Let’s run through the events:

Could this guy who has never even made a USA final medal in 2016? Could this guy who has never even made a USA final medal in 2016?

800 – Unlikely. I only see two possible medal candidates, Boris Berian and Nick Symmonds. Maybe Duane Solomon if he gets healthy but he hasn’t been competitive with the world’s best since early 2014. Berian has tremendous potential, running 1:43.34 at age 22 last year, but he didn’t even make the final at USAs. Unless he gets significantly better at running rounds, I think a medal is a long shot. Symmonds is probably the U.S.’s best bet, but I think he missed the boat by skipping Beijing. If he was going to medal, the slow final at ’15 Worlds would have been the type of race to do it in. I doubt the Olympics go that slow. Overall, I give the U.S. a 10% chance to medal in the 800.

1500 – I think you’re looking at this event wrong, Rojo. I agree that Kiprop, Manangoi, Iguider, Makhloufi and Kiplagat are better than Centro at their best. When I spoke to him after the final in Beijing, he admitted the same — he wasn’t disappointed with his 8th place finish, because every guy that beat him was a total stud.

But 2015 was an outlier. The margins of success in the 1500 are so small, and the tactical nature of championship finals mean that the top three guys on paper are rarely the ones who end up with the medals around their neck. Did anyone expect Johan Cronje to take the bronze at Worlds in 2013? What about Leo Manzano’s silver in 2012? Or Centro’s bronze in 2011? Out of the guys you listed, Kiprop is the only one I would say is a guaranteed medal if he’s healthy. And though Souleiman will be back, I’m betting at least one of the other guys regresses or gets hurt.

Centro is a truly excellent 1500 runner coming off the best year of his career. Remember that before Kiprop went crazy, people were thinking about Centro as a possible gold medal contender; he crushed everybody at a competitive USA championship and is the fastest American-born 1500 runner of all time. At 26 he’s in his prime, and you know he’s coming to play in the big races: he and Kiplagat are the only men to place in the top 8 in each of the last four global championships. And his record (3, 2, 4, 8) is better than Kiplagat’s (2, 7, 6, 5). So I give Centro about a 30% chance to medal and then you throw in Manzano, Robby Andrews and Ben Blankenship and I think the odds bump up to about 37%.

5000 – I’m saying that between Galen Rupp, Ben True and Ryan Hill, the U.S. has about a 20% chance of medalling. Look at the results from Beijing. The U.S. went 5-6-7. Yes, the top four guys had a pretty nice gap on them, but they’re not that far away. My theory is that if you simulate the entire year of 2016 five times, at least one of those scenarios produces a U.S. medal in the event. Perhaps True (13:02 pb), Hill (13:05 pb) or Eric Jenkins (13:07 pb) makes a big jump and runs 12:56. Maybe Edward Cheserek gets his U.S. citizenship in time for the Trials.

Will either of these two be leaving Rio with a medal in 2016? Will either of these two be leaving Rio with a medal in 2016?

And then there’s the race itself. Championship finals are getting more and more tactical — Farah’s 13:50.38 winning time in Beijing was the slowest in meet history. If everyone’s together at the end of the race, it’s going to give guys who wouldn’t normally have a shot to medal a chance. Remember Matt Tegenkamp in 2007? His PR at the time was 13:04 — right in the Rupp/True/Hill/Jenkins range. But because Worlds was won in 13:45, he was still in with a chance at the bell and came just .03 of a second away from medalling. Or look at Emily Infeld last year. If Ndiku hadn’t taken off with 800 to go in Beijing, the race would have come down to the last 400, and I know that Rupp, True or Hill can run their last 400 in 52 or 53 in a championship race, which is what everyone else will be closing in. Have you seen Ryan Hill’s last 200? That’s Hill almost running down Olympic silver medalist Dejen Gebremeskel in the last 3k of the ’14 New Balance Indoor Grand Prix — and Hill has only gotten better since then. Tactical races are about being in good position and making the right decisions, and if Worlds goes slow, I have the confidence in Rupp, True and Hill to do that.

10,000 – Only Rupp has a shot here. I’d give him about a 15% chance of medalling, but there are a lot of moving pieces. It’s possible he doesn’t run the 10k at all or that he tries the 10k/marathon double, which would lower his chances. But if it’s a slow, tactical 10k like the last Olympic final, I think his chances jump to somewhere in the 30% range.

Marathon: Even if Rupp runs it, I just don’t see a medal. Meb will be 41, there are already question marks about Ritz’s health and there are just too many other 2:04/2:05 guys in the world for me to pick an American to medal. Let’s say 4%.

Add all those percentages up, and I think the U.S. gets that second men’s medal. Using my percentages, the chances that the U.S. doesn’t medal in the 800, 1500, 5k, 10k and marathon are .90 * .63 * .80 * .85 * .96 = 37%. So that means, by my rough estimation, the U.S. gets a medal in one of those events 63% of the time. Add in Jager’s medal (I put his chances at over 50%) and you have two distance medals.

Rojo: Did I read that right? A 20% chance for a medal in the 5000? We’re talking about Ryan Hill and/or Ben True medalling at 5000? No. Not. Gonna. Happen. I know Jonathan went to Dartmouth like True but come on. True is very good but he’s not going to medal at the Olympics. Think of it this way. Bob Kennedy was better than True or Hill. Bob Kennedy couldn’t medal  in 1996. If he couldn’t do that 20 years ago, then why would they do it now when it should be harder? The world and sport is always moving forward – well except in the case of the doped-up women’s world records. I would say the odds aren’t 20% but rather 1 in 20 (5%).

I guess one could argue a lot of the top talents now are on the roads and drug testing is better. But how much better? 

Oh my. I just did some research. Can I argue against myself? This actually scares me.

# of sub-13:00s in 1996 – 15.

# of sub-13:00s in 2015 – 8.

The men’s 5000 is historically bad – or at least slow – these days. Check out these stats that I just came up with.

Yr 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
# sub-13s 15 16 13 20 18 8 10 24 10 22
Yr 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
#Sub-13s 33 8 10 20 28 22 21 11 4 8

Let’s hope it’s because the top talents are all on the roads.

Seeing those stats make me agree there is some tiny chance they could medal, but I just don’t see it happening. Jonathan’s main argument seems to be,”Let’s hope for a slow one.” Under that argument, might Centro be the US’s best medal hope at 5000? I’m serious. Yes, he might not make the team but generally the US 5000 race is often slow. Who is going to outkick him if it’s a 13:50 race like it was last year?

(Related: MB: Crazy thought: Might Centro be America’s best hope for a 5000 medal in Rio?)

Wejo: You all have some good analysis of the men so I won’t say too much more. However, I still think Galen Rupp’s chances of a medal in the 10,000m have to better than the collective chances of a US medal in the 5000. Rupp got silver in 2012 and led the world in 2014. Jager, I expect to medal, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rupp or Centro medalled and everyone else at this point would be a surprise, but I’ll let you know about the US chances in the 800 by the time August rolls around.

Women’s Medal Chances

Wejo: Let’s turn to the women. The US women, as evidenced by World Relays, are the best mid-distance team in the world and definitely better than the men. So I think the over/under for medals has to be higher than the men. Vegas would probably set it at 2 or 2.5. 1 medal would be a disaster for the US women, I think 3 would be pretty good.

Wilson got off to a good start in 2015, but a stress reaction meant she couldn't race after USAs Wilson got off to a good start in 2015, but a stress reaction meant she couldn’t race after USAs

One of my big questions for 2016 is what does Ajee Wilson do? She missed the back half of the season in 2015 with injury, but otherwise is America’s brightest hope. An unnamed journalist told me in Moscow in 2013, she was the one who would win an Olympic medal in 2016, not Mary Cain. In 2013, his prediction was ahead of its time, but it was a very good one. Wilson was #2 in the world in 2014, will turn 22 this year and is entering her prime running years just in time for the Olympics. I’d expect her to get a medal and with America’s now soon to be most decorated 800m runner ever, Alysia Montano, and 2013 medallist Brenda Martinez also in the mix, the US chances for a medal or even two are strongest in the 800, especially since the Russian competition should be non-existent if there at all.

In the 1500, Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury got shut out last year at Worlds, but both have a shot at the elusive Olympic medal in an event that looked like an event on steroids in  2015. I’m not saying anyone is on anything, but women’s 1500 entered a new stratosphere in 2015 and Jenny and Shannon are still in the old stratosphere.

In the 5000, the US women have no shot. Emily Infeld of all people medalled at Worlds last year in the 10,000 and if she didn’t medal Molly Huddle would have, so Huddle has a chance at 10k but I’d put it as most likely not going to happen. In the marathon, Shalane or Desi could sneak in for a medal.

90% x 1 medal in 800 + 10% x 2nd medal in 800 + 40% 1 medal at 1500 + 25% 1 medal at 10k + 20% x 1 medal in marathon = 1.85 medals for me. But I’m an optimist and will be the over 2 and figure I’m going to get a draw if the actual number is 2 medals.

What am I missing?

Rojo: nation, now you see why Weldon is a very good poker player who once won six figures in a tournament. But that poker math is hurting my brain and I’m a former high school math teacher.

I say one medal again. Someone wins a medal in the women’s 800. That’s it. The Russian doping scandal has really helped the US as the 800 is the go-to event for Russian dopers. I can’t see the US not medalling except for the fact that Court of Arbitration for Sport is apparently going to force the IOC to let people with internal testicles run the event without treatment. That scares me. If the Jelimos, Semenyas and Niyonsabas of the World suddenly are in the 1:56 range, we could see zero medals in the event.

Now, I definitely see two medals if we are counting Jenny Simpson in the steeple. I really wish her shoe hadn’t fallen off at Worlds. I wish she’d be in that race full strength and been beaten soundly. Why? Then she might be inclined to move the steeple. At 1500, she’s simply not in the same league as Dibaba or Kipyegon but I get how as a former World champ she doesn’t want to accept that. But if everyone is 100%, does Simpson beat G Dibaba, Kipyegon, Aregawi or Hassan? I think the answer is no. And I forgot about the Ethiopian Dawit Seyaum as well. Simpson could sneak a medal if those women go for gold and blow up — which is unlikely — or if they totally get their peak wrong — which is more probable.

Jonathan, you talked to Jenny last month right when you were working on our 1500 rankings. Is there any chance she runs the steeple? Did you ask her about it? I think she might be the gold medal favorite. She could even set the WR potentially. What do you guys think? When we are done, I propose we print this section out, Fed-Ex it two copies to Boulder – one to Simpson and one to coach Wetmore and try to convince her to switch events.

Jonathan: With regard to overall medals, I am with Weldon: two sounds right to me. I think there’s a very good chance the U.S. gets a medal in the 800 and between the other events, I think they could rustle up one more, likely from Simpson/Rowbury in the 1500 or Huddle in the 10k.

To get to your question about Simpson, Robert, I don’t envision her switching back to the steeple. I think that she feels that the steeple is the domain of training partner Emma Coburn now, and given the success Jenny has had in the 1500 the past few years, I can see why she’d want to stick with the shorter event. When she left Beijing her mindset was not “Wow, these women all closed in 1:57, there’s no way I can do that” (Simpson’s 800 pb is 2:00.45). Her mindset was “I sacrificed everything to peak for one race — Worlds — and I didn’t get a fair shot to prove myself.” She did admit that she’s not going to be able to run 3:50, so if Dibaba is at her best, Simpson probably knows deep down she won’t be able to beat her. But given Simpson’s excellent track record at Worlds and her DL success last season (remember the wins in Eugene and Rome and her 3:57 in Monaco?) I don’t envision her bailing on the event.

I didn’t ask her specifically about the steeple in our conversation, but the question was posed to her at the pre-Worlds press conference last August. Simpson said that she’d only return to the event if she thought she could get the world record (8:58.81; Simpson’s pb is 9:12.50). Do I think she could get the record? Given that she ran that time in 2009 and has improved her overall fitness a good deal since then, it’s not out of the question. But it’s not a lock that Simpson would just be able to step in and run sub-9:00 and for that reason I think she’ll stick with the 1500.

Rojo: Well I guess she certainly deserves the right to go for the 1500 one last time and she’s still only 29. She turns 30 one week after the Olympic 1500 final. Maybe she can go for the steeple WR and gold at age 30 in 2017 but the public at large cares about Olympic, not Worlds medals.

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Wejo: We’ve said way more than I thought we would on the US medal chances in the distance races. There is a lot more in 2016 I want to talk about, where should we go next?

Rojo: Tomorrow, we can talk about international medals. Lots of things I want to discuss like, “Does Mo Farah win double gold? Does Tirunesh Dibaba win a 3rd 10,000 crown? Does Kenenisa Bekele even compete in the Olympics?”

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What do you think? Talk about it on our fan forum: MB: Today’s debate: How many medals will the US win in the mid-d and distance events in Rio?


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