Food poisoning? Big Deal… Flanagan gets bronze

Shalane Flanagan, the top American distance runner who came down with food poisoning this week at the Team U.S.A. track camp in Dalian, China, seemed to be OK this morning in Beijing. In fact, Flanagan was feeling good enough to take the bronze medal in the 10,000-meters finals.

Flanagan finished in 30:22.22, which lowers her American record she set last May 5. She also became just the second American woman to medal in the 10,000, joining Princeton’s Lynn Jennings.

Flanagan finished behind Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia, who finished in an Olympic-record 29:54.66 and Turkey’s Elvan Abeylegesse, who ran 29:56.34.

Americans Kara Goucher finished 10th in 30:55.16 and Amy Begley came in 26th in 32:38.28.

Both Flanagan and Goucher will run in the 5,000-meters, which begin Tuesday.

However, just a couple of days ago Flanagan’s participation in the Olympics were in doubt. Tuesday morning Flanagan woke up at 2 a.m. with stomach distress that delayed her trip to Beijing and left her coach John Cook thinking that she may have to skip the 10,000 in order to get healthy to concentrate on the 5,000-meters.

“Today the world kind of collapsed a bit,” Cook told NBC Universal. “She didn’t sleep at all last night. It just came out of nowhere and she spent most of the night in the bathroom.”

Flanagan laid low for the rest of the week leaving experts to suggest that she was in too weak to be a threat despite the fact that she owned the best 10,000-meter time in the world in 2008 with a 30:34.49. Actually, reports from Beijing were that Flanagan was going to race halfway and decide how she felt. If she wasn’t feeling good, Flanagan could step off the track and prepare for the 5,000.

Obviously, she was feeling pretty good.

Flanagan and the lead pack in the 31-women field went through the first mile in 4:49 thanks to lower humidity for the 10:45 p.m. start in the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. The pack stayed together through the first half of the race with The Netherlands Lornah Kiplagat, Dibaba, Abeylegesse and Ethiopian Mustawet Tufa pulling the runners.

The pack strung out into a single-file line past halfway and Flanagan dropped back a bit around 8-kiliometers, falling to sixth place. She quickly rallied after two laps and was within striking distance of third place with less than a mile to go.

But with approximately 800-meters to go, Flanagan surged into third place and held it to the bell lap. From there, Flanagan ran the final lap in 68 seconds to smash her American record and win the bronze. However, when Flanagan finished the race she had no idea she was in third place. Because she had lapped so many runners while driving for the tape, she didn’t know if she was passing contenders or stragglers. When she crossed the finish line, Flanagan asked, “Did I do it?”

Much to her surprise, she had.

“I had no idea I was even in third,” she said after the race. “I was praying I was, but I thought I might’ve been in fourth, and I didn’t know whether to celebrate.”

Her pre-race plan worked.

“My plan going out was just to go with the flow, zone out, and then go for it at the 250,” Flanagan said, noting that she wanted to “fall asleep for as many laps as you can and just give it a go.

“It was enough,” she said

Flanagan also wasn’t aware that her time was good enough for another American record. In the past year she has set the American standard in the 3,000-meters, 5,000-meters and the 10,000-meters, twice.

“Wow, I’ll take that,” Flanagan said. “I had food poisoning a couple of days ago — at least I don’t know if it was food poisoning but it wasn’t pretty — but they took good care of me and they got me rehydrated.”

Can Flanagan make it two in the 5,000? Heading into the 10,000, her coach Cook said she was in really good shape.

Results
1 Tirunesh Dibaba ETH 29:54.66 (OR)
2 Elvan Abeylegesse TUR 29:56.34 (AR)
3 Shalane Flanagan USA 30:22.22 (AR)

4 Linet Chepkwemoi Masai KEN 30:26.50 (WJ)
5 Mariya Konovalova RUS 30:35.84 (PB)
6 Inga Abitova RUS 30:37.33 (SB)
7 Lucy Kabuu Wangui KEN 30:39.96 (PB)
8 Lornah Kiplagat NED 30:40.27 (SB)
9 Kimberley Smith NZL 30:51.00
10 Kara Goucher USA 30:55.16 (PB)
11 Kayoko Fukushi JPN 31:01.14 (SB)
12 Joanne Pavey GBR 31:12.30 (PB)
13 Sabrina Mockenhaupt GER 31:14.21 (PB)
14 Ejegayehu Dibaba ETH 31:22.18
15 Hilda Kibet NED 31:29.69
16 Yingying Zhang CHN 31:31.12 (SB)
17 Yoko Shibui JPN 31:31.13
18 Penninah Arusei KEN 31:39.87
19 Tatyana Khmeleva-Aryasova RUS 31:45.57
20 Yukiko Akaba JPN 32:00.37
21 Xue Bai CHN 32:20.27
22 Anikó Kálovics HUN 32:24.83
23 Kate Reed GBR 32:26.69
24 Nathalie De Vos BEL 32:33.45 (SB)
25 Preeja Sreedharan IND 32:34.64
26 Amy Begley-Yoder USA 32:38.28
27 Dulce María Rodríguez MEX 32:58.04
28 Xiaoqin Dong CHN 33:03.14
29 Isabel Checa ESP 33:17.88
DNF Mestawet Tufa ETH
DNF Asmae Leghzaoui MAR
DNS Nataliya Berkut UKR

Meanwhile, Americans Bernard Lagat, Lopez Lomong and Leo Manzano all advanced in the 1,500-meters, while Jenny Barringer and Anna Willard advanced to the finals in the women’s 3,000-meters steeplechase…

The best one? Flotrack went to Michigan to hang with marathoner Brian Sell at The Home Depot. Yes, between his twice-a-day workouts that peak out at 160-miles per week, Sell works in the garden department. Watch it.

Are we a nation of distance runners or what?

Looking past Phelps: The epic Finger Food Olympic track preview

edited Aug. 14 @ 2:34 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time
edited Aug. 16 @ 4:58 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time

The Olympics has been a huge ratings bonanza for NBC and its web site, NBCOlympics.com. Certainly there are a lot of reasons for this such as the common sports fans’ disinterest in regular-season baseball and pre-season football; actual live coverage of big events, and of course all of the drama.

Certainly it doesn’t hurt to have Michael Phelps chasing Olympic history during the first week of the coverage. Nor does it hurt to have a rare interview with the President of the United States in China on a Sunday night in the summertime.

It’s almost as if NBC has a captive audience.

Nevertheless, it seems as if the schedule will break nicely for NBC because after the swimming winds down, the track & field programme will start this Thursday night in the Eastern Time Zone.

Needless to say there will be some huge differences in the competition in the swimming and track events. Aside from the obvious (one has water the other just sweat), the actual elements of Beijing will become a factor. While world-records fall in nearly every heat in the swimming programme because of the turbo-charged pool and technological advances of the sport, the runners on the track will be attempting to beat the heat.

And when the heat and humidity come into play, running becomes a war of attrition.

So when Michael Phelps wraps up his assault on the record books, NBC will have Tyson Gay, Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell in the 100-meter preliminaries beginning at 9:45 p.m. on Thursday.

If it isn’t enough to have the glamour event of track & field front and center on Day 1, the glamour event for distance geeks also gets going with the opening round qualifiers for the mile. Americans Bernard Lagat, a contender for the gold, as well as Lopez Lomong, the flag bearer for Team U.S.A. during the Opening Ceremonies, will be in action.

With the weather expected to turn warm this weekend in Beijing, the heat, humidity and air quality will be fairly significant. According to AccuWeather, the runners can expect temperatures in the 90s on Friday with a high UV index and humidity reaching over 60 percent. Fortunately, when the women toe the line in the 10,000-metre finals at 10:45 p.m. Beijing time, the cover of night should cool things down a bit.

It will be humid on Sunday morning (Saturday night for the U.S.) for the women’s marathon, though. Certainly, the women’s race will be a good chance for everyone to see just how much the pollution, fog, smog or whatever else they call it in Beijing, truly affects the athletes.

Anyway, here’s a little primer for the track events of the Beijing Olympiad, complete with short synopsis and predictions.

Hell, if Sports Illustrated can do it, why can’t I?

Women
(all times and dates are for the U.S. Eastern Time Zone)

100-meters
(Sunday, Aug. 17 – 10:25 a.m.)
With defending World Champion Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica not in the race, this one is poised to be a U.S. sweep.

1.)    Muna Lee, U.S.A.
2.)    Torri Edwards, U.S.A.
3.)    Lauryn Williams, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Shelly-Ann Fraser, Jamaica
Silver: Sherone Simpson, Jamaica
Bronze: Kerrone Stewart, Jamaica

200-meters
(Thursday, Aug. 21 – 9:10 a.m.)
Undoubtedly this will be hyped as the duel between Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown and American Allyson Felix. In Athens Campbell-Brown won gold and Felix got silver. During the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Felix got gold and Campbell-Brown took silver. Whose turn is it in Beijing?

1.)    Veronica Campbell-Brown, Jamaica
2.)    Allyson Felix, U.S.A.
3.)    Kerron Stewart, Jamaica

Results
Gold: Campbell-Brown, Jamaica
Silver: Felix, U.S.A.
Bronze: Stewart, Jamaica

400-meters
(Tuesday, Aug. 19 – 10:10 a.m.)
Jamaican-born, U.S.-raised Sanya Richards has a lot to prove in this event. She finished fifth in the 2007 World Championships, ninth in the 2006 World Indoor Championships, second in the 2005 World Championships and sixth in the 2004 Olympics. Mixed in, Richards smashed the U.S. record for the event, swept the 2006 Golden League meets and won the 2006 World Cup and World Athletics meets. Meanwhile, her fiancé is New York Giants’ cornerback, Aaron Ross.

1.)    Sanya Richards, U.S.A.
2.)    Novlene Williams-Mills, Jamaica
3.)    Rosemarie Whyte, Jamaica

Results
Gold: Christine Ohuruogo, Great Britain
Silver: Shericka Williams, Jamaica
Bronze: Richards, U.S.A.

800-meters
(Monday, Aug. 18 – 9:35 a.m.)
Veteran Olympian Hazel Clark is the top U.S. runner in this event as well as a member of the legendary Clark family. Her sister is 800m legend Joetta Clark-Diggs, her sister-in-law is American record holder Jearl Clark and her father is Joe Clark, who was played by Morgan Freeman in the movie, Lean on Me. But Kenyan Pamela Jelimo has run five of the top seven times in the world this year.

1.)    Pamela Jelimo, Kenya
2.)    Janeth Jepkosgei, Kenya
3.)    Hasna Benhassi, Morocco

Results
Gold: Jelimo, Kenya
Silver: Jepkosgei, Kenya
Bronze: Benhassi, Morocco

1,500-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 7:50 a.m.)
Haddonfield, N.J. native Erin Donohue is the local favorite, though she will have a tough time making the finals. Shannon Rowbury of San Francisco is the top American miler, though she has her work cut out for her, too. Three runners stand out in this race, but which one will take gold is up for grabs.

1.)    Maryam Jamal, Bahrain
2.)    Geleta Burka, Ethiopia
3.)    Iryna Lishchynska, Ukraine

Results
Gold: Nancy Langat, Kenya
Silver: Lishchynska, Ukraine
Bronze: Nataliya Tobias, Ukraine

3,000-meters Steeplechase
(Sunday, Aug. 17 – 9:30 a.m.)
Recent U. of Michigan grad Anna Willard dominated the steeple in the Olympic Trials to set an American record. However, in international competition, Willard came in eighth in the heats of the 2007 World Championships. Willard will be easy to spot – she will probably color her hair pink, fuscia or electric blue. She will also be the one with U.S.A. on her jersey chasing the pack.

1.)    Yekaterina Volkova, Russia
2.)    Eunice Jepkorir, Kenya
3.)    Gulnara Galkina, Russia

Results
Gold: Galkina, Russia
Silver: Jepkorir, Kenya
Bronze: Volkova, Russia

5,000- meters
(Friday, Aug. 22 – 8:40 a.m.)
The U.S. has a solid team in the 5k with Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan and Villanova’s Jen Rhines. Goucher won the event in the Olympic Trials and set the American record in the half marathon in late 2007. Rhines is a three-time Olympian in three different events, and Flanagan might have been the top American distance runner heading into the Trials. Beginning in early 2007, Flanagan set the American record in the 3,000-meters, 5,000-meters and 10,000 meters. However, a bout of food poisoning she picked up Tuesday at the U.S. distance camp in Dalian, China could derail her chances. If food poisoning wasn’t bad enough, the U.S. team will face two of the best 5,000-meter runners in the world.

1.)    Meseret Defar, Ethiopia
2.)    Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia
3.)    Vivian Cheruiyot, Kenya

Results
Gold: Dibaba, Ethiopia
Silver: Cheruiyot, Kenya
Bronze: Defar, Ethiopia

10,000-meters
(Friday, Aug. 15 – 10:15 a.m.)
Goucher and Flanagan double for the U.S. in the 10k with Amy Begley, the Trials’ Cinderella Story. Again, the issue will be how well Flanagan recovers from food poisoning and the strong Ethiopian and Kenyan teams.

1.)    Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia
2.)    Mestawet Tufa, Ethiopia
3.)    Kim Smith, New Zealand

Results
Gold: Dibaba, Ethiopia
Silver: Elvan Abeylegesse, Turkey
Bronze: Flanagan, U.S.A.

Marathon
(Saturday, Aug. 16 – 7:30 p.m.)
Oh man… this one is deep and wide open. That’s especially the case when it was announced that defending Olympic champion Mizuki Noguchi dropped out this week with fatigue issues. Moreover, world-record holder Paula Radcliffe has missed significant training time because of a stress fracture in her left thigh suffered just three months ago. Radcliffe, of course, has won every major marathon she has entered except for the Olympics and seems determined to get after it this weekend. She reports that she feels “fresh” but “undertrained.” American-record holder and 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor is in the race looking to improve on her finish in Athens, while Kenyan star Catherine Ndereba (who used to train exclusively in Valley Forge, Pa.) aims to add another Olympic medal to an epic career.

Oh, there’s more. Ethiopians Gete Wami and Berhane Adere are gold-medal threats. Others to watch include Japan’s Reiko Tosa, and Russians Svetlana Zakharova and Galina Bogomolova.

Most notably, though, is China’s Zhou Chunxiu who has the distinct advantage of training on the course with all of the elements that could prove to be too much for the foreign runners.

Meanwhile, the forecast is calling for somewhat cool temperatures but 80 percent humidity. That means anything goes.

1.)    Paula Radcliffe, Great Britain
2.)    Zhou Chunxiu, China
3.)    Catherine Ndereba, Kenya

Results
Gold: Constintina Tomescu-Dita, Romania
Silver: Ndereba, Kenya
Bronze: Chunxiu, China

Men
(all times and dates are for the U.S. Eastern Time Zone)

100-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 16 – 10:30 a.m.)
Tyson Gay or Usain Bolt? Usain Bolt or Tyson Gay? Gay, Bolt or Asafa Powell? Either way, all three of the top contenders in the 100 have had the world-record for a bit in the past year. We give the advantage to Gay because he won’t run the 200 and can focus on one event.

1.)    Tyson Gay, U.S.A.
2.)    Usain Bolt, Jamaica
3.)    Asafa Powell, Jamaica

Results
Gold: Bolt, Jamaica
Silver: Richard Thompson, Trinidad and Tobago
Bronze: Walter Dix, U.S.A.

200-meters
(Wednesday, Aug. 20 – 10:20 a.m.)
With Gay out after pulling up with a hamstring injury during the Trials, it opens the door for Bolt to stake his claim. Watch out for Americans Shawn Crawford and NCAA Champ, Walter Dix.

1.)    Usain Bolt, Jamaica
2.)    Walter Dix, U.S.A.
3.)    Shawn Crawford, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Bolt, Jamaica
Silver: Crawford, U.S.A.
Bronze: Dix, U.S.A.

400-meters
(Thursday, Aug. 21 – 8:55 a.m.)
Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt each have five of the best 10 times in the world this year. More interestingly, Wariner and Merritt have split their last 10 head-to-head meetings, with Merritt taking the past two. Wariner, though, as the defending Olympic Champ, might have the most to prove.

1.)    Jeremy Wariner, U.S.A.
2.)    LaShawn Merritt, U.S.A.
3.)    David Neville, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Merritt, U.S.A.
Silver: Wariner, U.S.A.
Bronze: Neville, U.S.A.

800-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 7:30 a.m.)
People are still talking about the 800-meters finals from last month’s Olympic Trials where five men all finished within a second of each other for the three spots to go to Beijing. Christian Smith was the surprise member of the team after his dive at the tape past K.D. Robinson and Lopez Lomong punched his ticket. Needless to say, the mystery over the U.S. team remains. Nick Symmonds could surprise in Beijing because of his ability to start his kick from long range, while no one really knows how good Andrew Wheating is or can be. Wheating just finished his second year at Oregon and has only been running seriously for two years.

Be that as it is, the U.S. runners will have to perform just like they did in Eugene last month to be a factor. Besides, wouldn’t it be cool if a Sudanese runner took gold in China?

1.)    Abubaker Kaki-Khamis, Sudan
2.)    Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, South Africa
3.)    Wilfred Bungei, Kenya

Results
Gold: Bungei, Kenya
Silver: Ismail Ahmed, Sudan
Bronze: Alfred Kirwa Yego, Kenya

1,500-meters
(Tuesday, Aug. 19 – 10:50 a.m.)
The old glamour event on the track always excites. It might have lost some of its luster to the faster races, but the fields have always been deep, talented and the races exciting. This year will be no different, though an American could win gold for the first time since Mel Sheppard in the 1908 London Games.

1.)    Bernard Lagat, U.S.A.
2.)    Augustine Choge, Kenya
3.)    Abdalaati Iguider, Morocco

Results
Gold: Rashid Ramzi , Bahrain
Silver: Asbel Kiprop, Kenya
Bronze: Nicholas Willis, New Zealand

3,000-meter steeplechase
(Monday, Aug. 18 – 9:10 a.m.)
One of the more interesting athletes representing the U.S. this time around is Anthony Famiglietti, a New York-native who until recently trained exclusively in Brooklyn. And no, he didn’t train on the streets of New York City to better prepare him for the pollution of Beijing. Versatile and passionate as a runner, Famiglietti is more philosopher and scholar than quintessential jock. He also has been the producer and subject of two documentaries and is keeping a riveting video journal of his time in China for Runner’s World, including the latest installment where he tapes the Chinese security hiding in the bushes or sitting outside his room.

But Fam will be overmatched in Beijing. Actually, the entire field will be swimming in the wake of the Kenyan team. All that’s left to determine is what color the Kenyan’s medals will be.

1.)    Ezekiel Kemboi, Kenya
2.)    Brimin Kipruto, Kenya
3.)    Richard Matelong, Kenya

Results
Gold: Kipruto, Kenya
Silver: Mahiedine Mekhissi-B., France
Bronze: Matelong, Kenya

5,000-meters
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 8:10 a.m.)
This was Steve Prefontaine’s signature distance, and the U.S. hasn’t had a contender close to challenging the world in the 5,000 since Pre’s run in Munich in ’72. Sure, Bob Kennedy surged to the lead with 300-meters to go in the 1996 finals in Atlanta, but was quickly swallowed up by the rest of the field to finish sixth. No American has medaled in the 5k since Jim Ryun got silver in 1968, while no American has won gold since Mel Sheppard in 1908.

However, all Bernard Lagat is missing for his medal collection in the 5,000 is the gold. In Beijing he is not only looking for gold in the 5,000, but also he’s attempting to pull off an incredible double in the 1,500 and 5,000.

Tall order.

Look out for Australian Craig Mottram… he’s tough as hell.

1.)    Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya
2.)    Bernard Lagat, U.S.A.
3.)    Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia

Results
Gold: Bekele, Ethiopia
Silver: Kipchoge, Kenya
Bronze: Edwin Soi, Kenya

10,000-meters
(Sunday, Aug. 17 – 10:45 a.m.)
edit: Haile Gebreselassie is on the official entry list from the IAAF for the 10,000-meters, an event in which he won gold in 1996 and 2000. However, though Gebreselassie says he’s fit and set for one more crack at the 10k gold, nagging injuries and the fact that he is racing in the Berlin Marathon in September doesn’t change my predictions submitted earlier.

But yes, Geb will be a factor.

It would seem as if the 10k would be wide open with all-time great Haile Gebreselassie out of the Olympics in order to lower his record in the marathon in Berlin. But even with the great Geb going after the money, the Ethiopian grip on the event is still strong. After all, the defending champ will return as the prohibitive favorite.

Kenenisa Bekele will be running for two in a row as well as for his fiancé, who died while out for a run with him. Bekele’s countryman, Sileshi Sihine, is also a contender. The American hope is Abdi Abdirahman, who will head to a third straight Olympics. But, “The Black Cactus” has not broken 27-minutes (no American has), which seems to be a prerequisite for winning an Olympic medal.

1.)    Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia
2.)    Sileshi Sihine, Ethiopia
3.)    Moses Masai, Kenya

Results
Gold: Bekele, Ethiopia
Silver: Sihine, Ethiopia
Bronze: Micah Kogo, Kenya

Marathon
(Saturday, Aug. 23 – 7:30 p.m.)
Edit: Robert Cheruyiot withdrew from the marathon with an undisclosed injury on Aug. 16. The Kenyan team replaced him with runner Luke Kibet. As a result, I changed my predictions to what is displayed. Originally I had chosen Cheruyiot for the silver.

The traditional last event of the Olympics could be the most thrilling. No, Gebreselassie is out and Paul Tergat of Kenya deferred to the younger, up-and-coming runners. But the race will feature some of the champions from the major marathons. Martin Lel of Kenya, who has won three out of the last four London marathons and the last New York City Marathon, is the favorite. Countryman Robert Cheruyiot, the winner of four of the last five Boston marathons and the 2006 Chicago Marathon can run in all sorts of conditions as evidenced by his win in Boston in ’06.

Deribe Merga (2:06:38) and Tsegaye Kebebe (2:06:40) of Ethiopia will be threats, as well as Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru (2:05:24), who lost to Lel in London last April and holds the world record in the half-marathon.

Meanwhile, defending Olympic champ Stefano Baldini of Italy will toe the line along with two-time New York champ Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa and Abderrahim Goumri (2:05:30) of Morocco.

But all eyes will be on the baby-faced, blonde-haired kid from California.

Ryan Hall has been called everything from the “future of American running,” to a serious contender for gold in Beijing. Both seem true. Based on the story in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, Hall will is headed to Beijing prepared to be in the mix the entire race. His 2:06 in London last April was groundbreaking, but is it enough to put him with the elite of the elite?

Meanwhile, Americans Dathan Ritzenhein and Pennsylvanian Brian Sell have legitimate shots to finish in the top 10. For a runner like Sell, who is quasi-local, a top 10 finish in the Olympic marathon is mind-boggling.

1.)    Martin Lel, Kenya
2.)    Sammy Wanjiru, Kenya
3.)    Ryan Hall, U.S.A.

Results
Gold: Wanjiru, Kenya
Silver: Jaouad Gharib, Morocco
Bronze: Tsegay Kebede, Ethiopia

Protest is (not) futile

No, it wasn’t exactly John Carlos and Tommie Smith atop the medal stand in Mexico City for the 1968 Olympics, but for Kobe Bryant that simple gesture caught by a photographer during the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing on Friday morning was about as political as it gets.

From the way it looked it was nothing more than a fleeting moment. Like a trendy, throwaway gesture that all the kids make that really doesn’t mean anything. Oh sure, maybe Kobe Bryant is for peace. Maybe deep down he believes the Chinese government-supported and bankrolled genocide in Darfur is further proof of the decay of society. The thought that human life is worth less than barrels of oil should make Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and every athlete for every nation march into the Olympic Stadium with black-gloved fists in the air.

But to make a gesture that actually had meaning behind it – that actually meant what it stood for – would be a risk for an athlete of Kob Bryant’s stature. After all, Kobe is one of Nike’s top spokesmen in the Beijing Olympics. Since a lot of Nike’s products that are sold in the U.S. are made in China, and because the shoe company has a large stake in the Chinese economy, spokesman Kobe can’t go around making declarations for human rights.

Protest is futile.

Or has Kobe simply been muzzled? Certainly we know the Lower Merion grad has some thoughts on issues like Darfur based on a public service announcement he made earlier this year. Here it is:

But in China, with Team USA, Bryant says he won’t comment on the issue anymore.

“That’s where we’ll leave it,” he told The Washington Post.” We’re going to focus on what we’ve got to do. We’ve got enough on our plate to bring back the gold medal. So we let the people that know best about the situation handle that situation and us do what we do.”

Who might that be? Is it Team USA Managing Director Jerry Colangelo, who reportedly addressed the Olympians and told them not to politicize the games, a charge he later denied in the Post story?

“We have empathy for what’s happening, be it in Tibet or Darfur, and if our players are asked and their heart tells to say something, that’s up to them,” he said. “I know people want quotes from some of these athletes on these issues, but come Aug. 26, I don’t think we’ll be asking those same questions. It’s kind of newsy now. I don’t have an issue with that at all.”

Wait… so human rights violations and genocide only matter when it fits into the proper news cycle? Is it me or was there a time when Darfur or Tibet has not been news?

Nevertheless, Coach Mike Krzyzewski says he and Colangelo have encouraged the basketball players to speak on whatever they want, but encouraged politeness toward the Chinese hosts.

“We want to make sure that we’re good ambassadors for our country and make sure that we’re representing our game here in the Olympics,” Krzyzewski said.

Because representing basketball and Nike is the bottom line, right?

So that’s where Team USA will leave it. Kind of a political don’t-ask, don’t-tell where the most provocative comment came from James.

“I don’t want to bring no distractions to our team. My number one goal coming here was not to speak on political issues, it was to come win a gold medal,” James said. “I said if I was asked the question then I would answer, and I’d say that basic human rights should be protected. That’s how I feel. It’s not going to go further than that. It’s not going to go less than that.”

Here’s where the curious part comes in. Though athletes were politicized a generation or two ago and sometimes even risked arrest and the loss of their career to make social and political statements, the latter generations have been defined by its public apathy on issues that do not mesh with capitalism, commerce and bling.

They can cite Michael Jordan as the trail blazer in that regard when he famously failed to famously failed to endorse African-American democratic senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt in his early 1990s race against arch-conservative Jesse Helms in North Carolina, because, as Jordan stated at the time, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Too be fair, Jordan quietly contributed money to Gantt’s campaign and has also been a contributor to Bill Bradley’s and Barack Obama’s run for the White House. Besides, people have the right to shut-up, too.

But the notion that the Olympic Games – of any era – are not political is incredibly naïve. Oh sure, we want it to be about the best athletes from all over the globe representing their country in fair competition, but even that is political. Governing bodies in each country select the athletes, bias and favoritism is bought and sold and then comes the bureaucracies that do the drug testing.

Perhaps the only time the Olympics were pure was when Carlos and Smith raised their fists in the air.

Regardless, the Olympic ideal remains. The idea that pure sport and the best of competition is hard to be cynical about. For that the U.S. has no further to look than the man who carried the flag into the Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies last Friday morning.

Middle-distance runner Lopez Lomong’s story certainly has been told and re-told enough since the U.S. athletes voted him to be the flag bearer. In fact, it’s hard to read a sentence about Lomong that doesn’t note that he was a once a “Lost Boy” from Sudan directly affected by the Chinese policy in that country. Torn from his family that hat he believed had been killed by Sudanese rebels when he was six, Lomong spent the next 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before being adapted by a family in the U.S.

The rest is the quintessential American Dream.

Yet by selecting Lomong (a member of a group of athletes known asTeam Darfur) to do nothing more than carry the Stars and Stripes into the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies, the U.S. athletes sent an unmistakable message against the Chinese government’s role in the Darfur genocide.

So maybe there was something to Kobe’s peace salute after all.

Go U.S.A.