What I Would Do as USATF CEO, Part 4

Here’s the last in my series of random thoughts of what I would do if I were granted my dream nightmare job…

Make greater use of the Olympic Trials.
One of the suggestions from Doug Logan that irked even his supporters was his thought that the Olympic Trials should be cut down from their current eight-day two-weekend format. The fans didn’t like hearing that, nor did the B-level athletes, the Olympic Trials organizing committee, NBC, or the sponsors.

The Olympic Trials exists to choose an Olympic team. But it is more than that, in the same way that the Super Bowl is about more than choosing an NFL champion or that March Madness is about more than choosing an NCAA basketball champion. They are all celebrations of the sport, as is our Olympic Trials. It’s the biggest quadrennial domestic stage for our athletes, and the only one that qualifies as a media circus; it’s also a gathering of the clan of track people. And for some athletes, merely qualifying to the Trials is the pinnacle of success.

Logan had good reason to consider reducing the scope of the Trials, namely that it may be unnecessarily tiring for the star athletes expected to compete for medals at the Olympics. Large fields of qualifiers at the Trials mean several rounds of qualifying before the finals, which asks more at the Trials out of the athletes from which we need the most at the Olympics.

It’s most problematic for any athlete that doubles up. It may or may not have been an accident that both Tyson Gay and Bernard Lagat were injured going into the last Olympics, but the extra workload at the Trials certainly didn’t help. Between the two of them, they brought home 5 medals at the 2007 Worlds, but both left the 2008 Olympics empty-handed.

Many nations “pre-select” athletes for their Olympic teams, allowing them to bypass their national championships. That’s neither feasible nor desirable here. It’s not feasible because, at least in the sprint and hurdle events, our depth of talent is so great that pre-selections aren’t in our best interest. It’s not desirable because it would rob the media and the fans of an opportunity to see our biggest stars.

From my perspective, it’s not that our do-or-die top-three method of selection gives our stars an extra workload. Gay and Lagat had no trouble doubling at the 2007 Worlds after doubling at the 2007 USATF Championships. Rather, it’s the extra rounds at the Olympic Trials due to expanded fields of qualifiers—which is one reason why Logan suggested trimming down the Trials.

I’m not in favor of reducing the fields at the Trials. I’m in favor of doing something quite commonplace in other sports: giving the top qualifiers a bye out of the first round. That way their workload is similar to that at a USATF Championships in a non-Olympic year, yet we maintain the large fields of qualifiers that help make the Olympic Trials special.

I’m also in favor of another major change, albeit one that would have minimal impact at the Olympic Trials. I ‘d like to see regional Olympic Trials. The top twenty or so athletes in each event would qualify to the main Olympic Trials by marks alone, as they do now, but the last four spots would be filled by the winners of each of four regional meets.

This would accomplish many things at once. It would increase the pool of athletes getting an “Olympic” experience, and thus hopefully get more local media covering their local athlete(s). If, for example, state high school champions were invited to the regional trials to help fill out the fields, then there would be hordes of local media talking about their kid “trying out for the Olympics”. It would get a Trials type of meet to more parts of the country (albeit on a much smaller scale). And it would eliminate the often Byzantine appeals process for athletes without an Olympic Trials qualifying mark who want to get into the meet.

The Olympic Trials is the single best thing that USA Track and Field, and track and field in the USA, has going for it. It’s been used very well, but if we can get even more out of it we should.

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One Response to What I Would Do as USATF CEO, Part 4

  1. Jack Wickens says:

    Jesse – You are clearly among the best “thought leaders” in our sport. Always enjoy your blog and I can assure you that your best suggestions weave their way into the USATF Foundation and USATF board discussions. Keep the ideas flowing….