Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Disastrous Olympic Trials of 2000

As I continue to train for my upcoming race at the Olympic Marathon Trials in New York City on November 3rd, I've spent a lot of time reading up on the history of the Trials trying to gain a better appreciation not just of my accomplishment, but of the sport itself.

I was immediately drawn to the disaster that was the Men's and Women's 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials.

Some background first. Some countries, like Germany, simply take their three fastest athletes from a specified time period and send them to the Olympics with no Trials. If we did it that way in the US, then the team would already be set and we would be sending Khalid Khannouchi (2:07:04), Ryan Hall (2:08:24) and Abdi Abdirahman (2:08:56) because they have the three fastest times among Americans. There would be no Trials.

But, since the 1960s, the US has essentially had a playoff system -- the Trials -- in which there is one race and the top three from that race, regardless of past performance, represent the US in the Olympic Games.

There is one caveat to this. There is an Olympic qualifying standard also to keep pedestrian marathoners like myself out of the Olympics. :-) For the men, the "A" standard is 2:14. Any country can send up to three marathoners to the Olympics as long as they meet the 2:14 standard. If none of the Trials finishers meet that standard then only the winner gets to go. (There is actually a "B" standard but it's so ridiculously slow it's not relevant to this conversation.)

I should also add here that the Olympic "A" standard does NOT have to occur at the Trials. You could theoretically have the top three finishers cross the finish in 2:30 and as long as they had a qualifying "A" time within the allotted time window, then they would be allowed to run in the Olympics.

Well, in 2000, the top three finishers in the Trials were Rod DeHaven (2:15:30), Peter DeLaCerda (2:16:18) and Mark Coogan (2:17:04). Notice the times. All of them were well off the Olympic "A" standard which meant that for the first time ever, the US would be sending only one marathoner to the Olympics. In the context of marathoning, that was a disaster and revealed how far American distance running had fallen.

To make matters even worse, the exact same thing happened in 2000 on the women's side. Trials winner Christine Clark missed the "A" standard of 2:33 and the US, also for the first time in history, sent only one female marathoner to the Olympics.

To be fair, there were some difficult circumstances in 2000. First, both races were run on challenging, hilly courses in unseasonably hot and humid weather. There isn't much you can do about weather, but one should wonder why such courses were chosen. Second, the IAAF changed the Olympic "A" standard from 2:16 to 2:14 for men and 2:35 to 2:33 for women in the middle of 1999, roughly one year before the Olympics were to begin. Why does this matter? Well first of all, if the tie had remained the same then the US would have sent three men and women to the Olympics because DeHaven would have met the "A" standard which automatically means DeLaCerda and Coogan would have gotten in because they met the "B" standard. Same on the women's side. Second, the timing of the change was very unfair. As I mentioned previously, the qualifying time doesn't have to occur at the Trials. But by announcing this change with only a year to go and the Trials date and course already set in stone, it did not allow for the qualifiers to run a race afterward on a course that was faster. It also didn't allow them to run one prior to the Trials because that would have hampered their performance at the Trials.

2004 was much different. The top four male athletes finished 2:12:35 or better meaning the US returned three marathoners to the Olympics in Sydney where Meb Keflezighi won a silver medal. The women also sent three.

2008 looks even brighter on the men's side. It's perhaps the most talented field in American history. The top eight runners at next month's Trials already have qualifying marathon times well below the Olympic "A" standard of 2:14. So Ryan, Meb, Khalid and Abdi, Brian, Alan, Peter and Mbarek don't need to care about time. That's a good thing because this year's course will be very challenging.

So don't be surprised to see a "slow" winning time. The true Olympic hopefuls have already met the time qualification. Their focus is making the team. It's all about place not time.

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