Head to Head: Choosing an Olympic Team

March 21, 2012 at 9:15am EST | by Barbara Huebner

It's 2012, and for athletes from many countries—Kenya and Ethiopia among them—lifelong Olympic dreams are riding on the upcoming spring marathons. Will I run well enough to be chosen for the team? Will other athletes run faster and knock me out of my provisional spot? Which marathon gives me the best chance to show what I can do? And what exactly are the selection criteria, anyway? Not in the United States, one of the few countries in the world to select its Olympic track and field team via a strict Olympic Trials system: One day, one race, top three. There is no subjectivity and, provided all three athletes have met the Olympic standards for their event, there is no wiggle room. You're in, or you're out. Many other countries—and even many other Olympic sports in the United States—rely on a combination of Trials and automatic spots, a series of designated events, or even just performance rankings to decide who goes to the Games. Is the U.S. system the most fair, or are other countries onto the method for choosing the best possible team? Maybe both. Barbara Huebner, a former sportswriter for the Boston Globe, and Neil Wilson, Olympic writer for the Daily Mail in London, go head to head on the topic.

Barbara Huebner: I'm all for the U.S. system. Yes, now and then a great athlete is going to be injured at the wrong time or pull a major flub—Dan O'Brien, are you reading this?—and won't make the team. That truly is unfortunate for all involved, but it's a lesser price to pay than the politics, favoritism, confusion, suspicion, and doubtless even chicanery that are allowed to invade the alternative processes.

Neil Wilson: I think sudden death suits the U.S. perfectly, but nowhere else. It is right for you because of the vastness of the country; the geographical and time differences demand a single trial in a single place. Because your population is so huge, you can afford not to take the odd Dan O'Brien— and because you have more lawyers per square meter than any country on earth. Few other countries have your advantages, or your problems. Ethiopia, which has greater depth in the marathon than any country but Kenya, will pick a training squad after the spring marathons from which their coaches will chose their three. Britain, which has no male marathoners to contend for medals, names a time and the three fastest within that standard are chosen. I believe that selection means what it says: Somebody selects. Subjectivity must come into it. So the fastest two at a nominated race, and one discretionary place to avoid the O'Brien situation is my choice.

BH: While the idea of one discretionary spot would seem to have merit in an O'Brien scenario, where does it end? Can a heavily favored athlete just opt out of the Trials because he or she is confident of being chosen for the team? Ryan Hall had a qualifying time more than four minutes faster than the next guy in the field for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in January, and the chances of anyone bettering his 2:04:58 in the Trials approached zero. Could he have just stayed home? Once you open up that one spot, you open up a can of worms.

NW: The discretionary place merely covers all eventualities. Murphy's Law: If something can go wrong, it will. A selection system should have one end—to end up with the three athletes most likely to win medals at the championships. Because three happen to be the fastest on a trial day many months ahead does not make them necessarily the most likely to win at an Olympic Games, when experience of unpaced races is crucial.

BH: First of all, the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field will be held just five or six weeks before the Games, depending on the event. And, the fact that the races are unpaced is one of the things that makes them so appealing to me as a way to choose the team. The competitive environment is exactly what the athletes will find at the Games: no pacemakers, rounds in the sprints, the pressure of needing a finish in the top three. Put it all together and that's how you get your best overall team. A discretionary place would be great for those few times when the indisputably top athlete in an event no-heights or falls over, but not at the price of opening the door to fake illnesses and political maneuvering. I can understand why Great Britain selects its marathon team the way it does—there just aren't that many athletes to pick from—but, switching gears for a moment, do we even know the criteria by which Kenya and Ethiopia are choosing their marathon teams? If it's by fastest times, that may be a mistake in an Olympic marathon, don't you think?

NW: As I said at the start, the U.S., for the reasons I mentioned, may be the exception that proves the rule in track and field. Alone in the world its trials are configured like an Olympics. My argument, and my comment on unpaced races, related to the marathon. Most marathoners' experience is in city races, where there is pacing which is unavailable at championships. If there comes a day when the U.S. has the world record-holder in the marathon, would you leave him out of the Olympics if he was sick on trials day? Perhaps you would, but I would be willing to bet that you would be alone in that among Western countries. As for the Africans, Kenya is using the London Marathon as its trial, nominating its present six fastest men to do battle there. They have not said categorically that the first three will be picked, but that is the assumption. Ethiopia has pre-selected the fastest four of each gender in the Dubai Marathon, will add to that number after results in London, Boston, Rotterdam, etc., and will then select their Olympic trios based on performances in their subsequent training camps. The Ethiopians, more than the Kenyans, leave selection to the coaches.

BH: If an American set a world record in the marathon behind a phalanx of pacemakers, would I leave him off the Olympic team? Yes, if he couldn't beat the next three best Americans in an actual race. Regarding the Africans, if Kenya is using London as its trial, how do they account for Geoffrey Mutai in Boston and Moses Mosop in Rotterdam? And what is it with "provisional" and "pre-selected?" Seems as if it just asks for trouble. Why not just wait until after the spring marathons and simply announce your team, if you're going to not have a trials race? It's all baffling to me. Although when it comes down to it, I'm not sure I'd hold a Kenyan Olympic Marathon Trial. Somebody would be likely to run 1:57 and drop dead like Pheidippides. So the more I think about it, the tougher the question grows. All I know is, countries should be sending their best, not necessarily their fastest. Think Gezahegne Abera.

NW: And who is to say who is best? Abera never ran a trials race in his life. His first selection for the 1999 World Championships was earned by finishing fourth in the LA Marathon. It turned out to be an inspired selection by somebody or other, because he went on to become the first man to win Olympic and World titles. I think the answer here is that the U.S. should stick to its system because of the reasons I outlined earlier but leave the rest of the world to do it their way. It works for them because it is the rest of the world who will be winning every Olympic marathon in my lifetime.