While the top athletes in the country are vying for elusive spots on the USA team this week in Eugene, Ore., Jim McKee of Henry County will be alongside the top tier athletes as an umpire. This makes McKees second umpiring stint at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials he also worked at the 2004 trials in Sacramento, Calif.
The trials, held June 27 through July 6, features athletes that have qualified for the meet based on previous performances this past year. It also serves as the USA national championship and the national selection process for the Olympic Games in Beijing next month. The top three finishers in each event, if they also meet the Olympic A standard, will make the Olympic team.
Eugene is known in the running community as Track Town USA due to its history and the knowledgeable crowd at Hayward Field, home of the University of Oregons track team. McKee ate dinner at a place called Track Town Pizza Sunday night, shortly after watching Tyson Gay of Kentucky blaze for 9.68 seconds in the 100-meter dash finals to claim the national title and a berth onto his first Olympic team.
Sacramento had some great fans back in 2004, but this is the ultimate, McKee said while in Eugene Monday afternoon. Its a different feeling here. Something is in the air where everyone respects and understands track. Its a tremendous place, he added.
Though on the outside McKee cant be a cheerleader for Lexington-native Gay, on the inside hes cheering on the Kentuckian who used to run for Lafayette High School before running at Arkansas University and eventually on the professional track circuit.
You cant cheer while on the track, but inside youre always hoping for the hometown folk, McKee said. For his case, hes such a fine athlete and you always hope he does well. Hes tremendous and, coming from Kentucky, Im glad for everything hes accomplished.
Gay, who won the 100-200 double at the World Championships last year, set the American record in his semifinal race with a blazing 9.77. Then, in the finals, Gay used a tailwind to run faster than anyone ever has 9.68 seconds. But because the wind was too strong, his time didnt count as an official world record, which is 9.72 run by Jamaicas Usian Bolt on May 31 in New York.
During all three of Gays preliminary races, and the finals, McKee was standing behind the start blocks. He was checking for lane violations or any infractions that might cause a runner to be disqualified.
As the runners were getting settled into their blocks, McKee could visibly be seen on television broadcasts during the 100-meter races.
There was no wind up until the start, McKee remembered about the finals. We had a false start, and on the restart it was like they shot the gun and here came a gust a wind. The amazing thing is there were roughly 21,000 fans in the stadium, and when they got ready to start, you could hear a pin drop.
McKee will be umpiring the running events through Sunday, the final day of the competition. During the womens 10K race (6.2 miles or 25 laps) last Friday night, McKee said, everyone in the stands was clapping and cheering the entire time. Thats just the kind of place Eugene is.
Every runner was being clapped for on every lap for more than 30 minutes, he said. Its just a great atmosphere here.
So far this year, McKee has also umpired the NCAA Division I championships in Iowa, the junior national championships in Ohio and the Kentucky high school championships in Louisville. In August, he will head to Spokane, Wash., for the masters championships.
McKee, who now resides in Port Royal, was a diver in college for the University of Michigan. After 22 years of service in the Air Force, he retired and started officiating track and field meets locally in Kentucky. Now, hes the president of the Kentucky Association USATF and travels to meets around the country most weekends.
At the Olympic Games, each country is allowed two officials each. The rest of the needed spots are filled by the host country. When the United States gets another chance to host the Olympics since Atlanta in 1996, McKee will have a good shot at umpiring on the biggest stage in the world.
Now, Im hoping the 2016 Olympic Games come to Chicago, McKee said with a laugh.
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