Should we dicker with the Olympic Trials?

Garry Hill, Track and Field News‘ editor in chief, says his favorite meet in the world is the Olympic Trials. Having been to two of them myself, it’s hard to argue with that position.

Perhaps this time of year is the best to examine our Olympic Trials and what changes, if any, should be made to the format. The Olympics are long over, and the next Olympics are far away. We don’t even yet know where the next Trials will be held.

Should the Trials be shortened?
Recall that four years ago, our then-new USATF CEO, Doug Logan, suggested shortening the Trials for 2012. It didn’t go over well with many, including the Eugene 2012 organizing committee.

This conflict goes to the heart of a misunderstanding between various factions in track and field in the U.S. as to the purpose of the Olympic Trials. On one side you have the administrators, who look at the meet solely as a means to select an Olympic team, and specifically the team that will win the most medals. This is serious business, because money distributed by the US Olympic Committee to the various Olympic sports’ national governing bodies is highly dependent on medal haul. The big pile of 29 medals this year will have a big effect on USATF’s budget for the next quadrennium.

On another side you have the fans, media, and meet organizers. They recognize that the Olympic Trials is the biggest domestic track and field event in any four-year period. They know its tremendous fun to watch and that it gets far more mainstream sports media attention than any other track competition. And the organizers know that they’ll likely come out in the red if their opportunity for ticket and other sales are reduced by a shortened schedule.

As someone who is primarily a fan, I’m firmly with the second camp. Maybe in 1960 it was workable to have an Olympic Trials meet that only lasted two or three days, but not now. It is essential to maximize the exposure that track and field gets, and the Trials and the Olympics are the only sure-fire exposure we’re going to get. Cutting the Trials back is cutting our own throats.

Does this Trials format select the best team?
The USA is about the only nation in the world in which no human element is involved in selecting its Olympic track and field team. But the USA is also alone in its tremendous depth across nearly every event. Even if we could make sure that politics and influence had no part in selections, I don’t think the human approach is the right one for us.

Every four years, some star bombs out at the Trials and doesn’t make the team, and the grumbling about the do-or-die format starts up again. But, with truly rare exceptions, by the time Olympics have come and gone and the season is over, we realize that the Trials really did select the best team.

This year’s example is Bryan Clay. Early in the year, the 2008 Olympic decathlon champion was mentioned as a part of a possible Olympic medal sweep by the USA. He DNFed at the Trials and ended up not making the team, leading to many complaints (mostly addressed below about marks chasing).

But all that pre-Trials hype ignored the fact that the 2012 Clay was definitely not the 2008 Clay. He hadn’t completed a decathlon in years; he also was a DNF at the 2011 USATF Championships. And in neither season did he attempt to go overseas and do another decathlon, such as the big end-of-year DecaStar meet in Talence, France. He just wasn’t a world-beater anymore. Had he been placed on the Olympic team, he wouldn’t have won a medal and probably not even close to it.

There are dozens and dozens more examples from the past. One that leaps to mind for me is the men’s 200 at the 1992 Trials. Carl Lewis broke the 100 meter world record the previous season but didn’t make the ’92 team in the 200, losing out on the last spot to a collegian named Michael Bates. The press howled long and loud, but Bates went on to win Olympic bronze and Lewis basically did jack-squat in the sprints for the rest of his career. The trials picked the right team, we just didn’t know it until the Olympics.

The Trials dispassionately pick who is the best right now, while any selection format that includes a human element will look heavily towards the past. Track and field is a sport in which an athlete’s past has little to no bearing on their present. Our system works, or at least it works for us.

Should post-Trials marks chasing be allowed?
You know what I’m talking about: Olympic entrants must meet a qualifying standard, and for a nation to enter multiple athletes, all must have met a stringent ‘A’ standard. So at times, a top-three athlete at the Trials doesn’t end up making the team because he or she hasn’t met the standard.

In 2012, athletes who hadn’t met standard by the end of the Trials were not allowed to go after it. This was because the deadline for initial submission of entries was only a week after the Trials were over. In other years, when the timing was different, athletes were allowed to pursue a qualifying mark.

There’s something to be said about the media being able to name the team immediately after an Olympic Trials event is over. Then there’s the argument that I’ve put forward: anyone who has not yet met standard is virtually guaranteed not to be a serious contender to make an Olympic final, let alone get on the medal podium.

But even more to the point is that I don’t believe this to be a procedural issue but a structural one. The athletes who get to the Trials without Olympic ‘A’ standards are not the stars but rather the not-quite-elite. They’re the struggling pros and semi-pros. They can’t get lanes in Diamond League meets overseas, and if they can manage to get into one of the two DL meets in the USA, it’s a one-off chance to get that mark. They don’t have the means to travel to early-season meets in the Caribbean or South America (and for distance runners, the conditions there aren’t conducive to good marks anyway). Once the collegiate championship season ramps up in May and June, they essentially have no domestic opportunities to compete.

Athletics Canada recognized this need two years ago and created its National Track League, a series of domestic meets spread out across the country and targeted towards athletes who find it difficult to get into major overseas action. The USA also seriously needs meets like this in May and June, and if we get them going we might have a lot more ‘A’ qualifiers going into the Trials.

Are the Trials too stressful for athletes?
Aye, there’s the rub. This is probably true, especially for the sprinters. Any athlete attempting the 100/200 double needs to run seven or eight races in ten days, and given the USA’s depth in sprinting, the early rounds offer more competition than early Olympic rounds do. Even a distance runner can be overwhelmed. A 1500/5k double requires five races, and a 5k/10k double requires three races (totaling 20k).

I think one of the things that led to the USA’s poor showing at the 2008 Olympics was the large number of doublers at the Olympic Trials who subsequently came up injured: Tyson Gay, Walter Dix, Bernard Lagat. An overly stressful Trials may not have been the source of their injury—even Gay, injured at the Trials, was probably developing the problem before the meet ever began—but it certainly wasn’t helpful.

The problem, of course, is that the Trials need to take up more than a week, so they need lots of qualifiers and qualifying rounds. They need to bring in large numbers of athletes from all over the country so that most every community’s media will cover someone “following their Olympic dream”. So what do we do?

The FA Cup shows us how.*
Huh?

The FA Cup is the championship of England’s Football Association and the oldest soccer competition in the world. It’s a single-elimination tournament involving the mega-teams all the way down to amateur village teams. In a way, that’s what we have in the Olympic Trials—the world’s biggest stars competing alongside athletes who make little to no money at all.

While a massive number of teams are involved in the FA Cup tournament, the big clubs don’t compete in the early rounds. Premier League teams get byes all the way to the fourth round. This is partially because they’ve earned it through the system of promotion and relegation, partially because full competition in all rounds would be a waste of their valuable time and resources, and partially because it wouldn’t be any fun to see Manchester United beat Earlswood Town by a few dozen goals.

I think track and field at a meet as large as the Olympic Trials faces similar challenges as the FA Cup. We want to have a large competition that brings in both big-time pros and “minnows”, and allows the opportunity for minnows to knock off the stars. (It happens, and when it does its among the greatest moments at the Trials, but rarely if ever does that minnow go on to do much of anything at the Olympics.) We want to keep the stress on the stars to a minimum while still making their selection to the Olympic team based on bona fide competition.

My idea is for about six or so stars in each event to get byes in the early round or rounds. Those stars would advance directly to semifinals in the sprints, hurdles and middle distances, and directly to the finals in the long distance and field events. By the way, this is not a new idea; the Canadians have been running their national championships in a somewhat similar fashion for a few years now.

Who gets those byes? As always, the devil is in the details. There are lots of ways you could choose those six. My thoughts would be to first hand the byes out to any athlete who finished in the top eight at the previous year’s World Championships, and then fill up the fields by means of ‘A’ qualifiers (of which the USA rarely has more than six in long distance or field events) and/or wins on the current year’s VISA Championship Series circuit. Maybe even throw in the current year’s NCAA champion.

I have no illusions that such a plan would ever come to pass. There is too much institutional inertia in USA Track and Field, and too many people are hardened in their positions. But I think it would be very interesting and lead to solving the only real problems in what is possibly the greatest track meet on the plant.

*Hat tip to TFN message board maven Conor Dary for his FA Cup idea.

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4 Responses to Should we dicker with the Olympic Trials?

  1. Martin says:

    I am in favor of byes. Not just the Canadians do it, but it also is used in the 100m at worlds/Olympics for the top qualifiers to move automatically past the first round. However I don’t think you need byes in the field events. Few people make the team in two events (not counting our young horizontal jumpers) and since the qualifying round is only three attempts in the throws and horizontal jumps, it really isn’t that stressful or that big a risk of injury. Barring strange weather, the best should be able to go thought the motions and breeze through. It is their only chance to replicate the qualifying round scenario outside of a Olympics/world championships, so I think it is a useful experience worth keeping.

  2. David Monti says:

    As a journalist and researcher who has covered 4 OT’s for both print and television, I’ve warmed up to the longer, 8-day competition format. It allows journalists to cover fewer events each day and provide greater depth of reporting for each one. True, some days were more bone than meat, but I found myself more motivated to look for other stories outside of the mainstream.

    Also, I don’t support byes or standards chasing. The top-3-with-standard-make-the-team format provides the most compelling competition for fans, and is uniquely American. There’s no better track meet…

  3. You’re not giving Earlswood Town nearly enough credit, ya tosser. Django Farrell has really been chasing the cats from the cobbler’s over the last several matches.

  4. Kevin says:

    The Trials are also my fave meet. Drama and lots of it! How about a follow-up piece on whether the Trials should remain in Eugene (oh my, yes!) or move around the country