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Monday, December 29, 2008

Olympic Trials Ideas

In a look back on the year, one issue that jumps out is the Olympic Trials. After the US team laid an egg in Beijing, there were calls for changes to the Trials format. I, along with many others, think that's laying the blame in the wrong place. But there were other issues about the Trials brought up long before the Olympics rolled around.

The first and most obvious question: Does our do-or-die format select the best team? To answer that, I quote Sir Winston Churchill: "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms". By this I mean it's not good, but I challenge anyone to come up with something better. Other nations have selection committees, but the USA's extreme depth give us a complicating factor. Furthermore, it would be hard to imagine any USATF selection committee without at least the appearance of favoritism. Better simply to let competition sort it out. Besides, it makes for the kind of great sports theater sorely lacking in domestic track & field. For that reason alone, more than a few track nuts, E. Garry Hill among them, say the Trials are the best track meet on the planet.

Yet the Trials can be a rough week that takes too much out of athletes. One need look no further than Tyson Gay for an example. Yet the So is it possible to pre-select athletes without a subjective element, and while making them show up and run for real? You betcha. My proposal is straightforward and simple. Any World Record holder or defending World Champion gets an automatic spot on the Olympic team -- but only if they've already won another event at the Trials. This year there would have been two such exemptions, Tyson Gay (200 meters after winning the 100) and Bernard Lagat (1500 meters ater winning the 5k), both of whom would almost certainly done better at the Olympics without running that second event in Eugene. This isn't an easy mark, either; in 2004 there would have been no athletes earning this bye. But back in 2000, both Maurice Greene and Michael Johnson would have earned a bye in the 200, and recall how both of them DNFd.

The other problem is a different. It regards qualifying to the Trials themselves. Do you remember the ruckus that erupted when Adam Goucher was given a spot in the 10k final without a qualifying mark? If not, I'll get to that in a moment after a brush-up for the less-informed.

Qualifying to the Olympic Trials is via marks (times/heights/distances). You get a so-called "A" mark and you're automatically in; past that, athletes are placed in order of best mark and we go down the list until the target number of entrants is achieved. But the sport isn't about getting marks so much as competing, and in light of this there's an appeals process. That's where things get hairy and some changes need to be made.

Goucher made an appeal, and since he's Adam f***ing Goucher he got in. He didn't have the mark because he was on the mend from an injury, but has proven himself as well as any American male long-distance track runner of the last decade. He deserved to be in. But this bumped up the number of competitors past the cap, some athletes with faster times than Goucher got skipped over, and there were complaints. He's got Nike backing and if one more could be fit in why not a few more than that?

Running Times did an article on the Trials appeals process. The big problem is that there's no "transparency" to the system--only insiders know where to go, what to write, and so on--and the man who approves or denies them is John Chaplin, a man much like Mayor Daley but without all the charm. He was once quoted as saying "Those clowns in the bottom half of the 10,000 have no chance on God's green earth of making the Olympic team".

Undiplomatic as it is, I have to agree with him. If the only purpose of the Olympic Trials is to select a team, then there are quite a few athletes in it who don't belong on the track. Although there's always the chance for a Christian Smith to come out of nowhere, guys like him aren't going to do squat once they get to the Olympics.

But if you think that's the only purpose to the Olympic Trials, you've got the shortsightedness that has made track not even a second-class sport in the USA. The Trials are a nationwide once-every-four-years celebration of the sport, and you need to take advantage of that by giving athletes far and wide the opportunity to compete and get their local media involved in covering them. Better yet, get the stinking committee out of the picture and, yes, let the athletes fight it out on the track.

Up through 1968, they were called the Final Olympic Try-Outs because qualifying to them was via a series of meets rather than by marks. Now, I don't think we need to go back to that completely, but for the athletes Chaplin refers to as "clowns" it might not be a bad idea. I have yet another proposal.

Athletes who have the Olympic "A" standard are in the Trials. If that fills the field, we're done. Example: men's 100 meters, which had 47 A-standard athletes. Good enough.

If that doesn't fill it, go to Olympic "B" standards. Example: men's 1500 meters, which had 7 "A"-standard athletes and 10 "B"-standard athletes. This is not enough, so now we fill in from competitive results; athletes who finished in the top 8 at the '08 USATF indoor or '07 USATF outdoor. That gets us up to 22 runners, and we'd like another 14 for a total of 36. So we create a series of regional qualifiers--maybe four of them--and post-collegiate atheletes qualify this way, while collegians qualify via the NCAA championships. The point is that the athletes for whom merely getting to the trials is a big deal have a buildup to a specific competitive moment that both eliminates our appeals system and gets some attention in the sports media.

Besides that, fields need to be expanded in some events. There were first rounds of some running events where only three or four runners overall didn't qualify to the next round. That's just plain pointless.


Tmo said...

Using Gay as an example of someone who needed a bye into the Olympics might be a bad example. USA took Silver and Bronze in the 200 without him, and no one could have beating Bolt that day.

The trials are a good example of where athletes like Gay need to back off and concentrate on one individual event, since we are the country with the most depth. Concentrating on the 100 and the 4x100 would have been the best plan for him and our country's relays.

The Track & Field Superfan said...

Gay would almost assuredly have won silver in the 100 and given the 4x100 a better chance of getting the stick around. The USA didn't really win silver in the 200, either.