No Need To Overhaul The Olympic Marathon Trials Process
2000 Was a Bit of a Fluke: US Marathoners Aren't As Bad As Everyone Thinks
by Robert Johnson

Now that the men's and women's Olympic marathon trials are over, a lot is being made of the fact that for the first time ever the US will only be sending one man and one woman to compete in the Olympic marathon versus the standard three. It's certainly disappointing that the US won't be sending a full marathon team to Sydney, but the overreaction to the 2000 Trials results by many in the many running community is even more disappointing.

Tons of people are saying that the Trials process needs to be drastically changed when this isn't the case at all. If one objectively looks at the results of the US trials, they will see that the US will only be sending one man and woman to Sydney this year because of a few flukish reasons that are unlikely to occur again in the future, especially if a few minor changes are made (sidepoint: is flukish a real word or did I make it up? email me your thoughts)
There are two reasons why the the US is only sending one man and one woman marathoner to the games in 2000. The first is that the IAAF made the Olympic A qualifying time much more difficult in the middle of 1999 (2:14:00 for men and 2:33:00 for women) and the second is that the both the men's and women's trials were held on hilly courses, in extremely hot weather.

If the IAAF hadn't changed the standard, both the men and the women would be sending full teams to Sydney as both Rod De Haven and Christine Clark met the old A standards of 2:16:00 and 2:35:00. The fact that the races were held on difficult courses in unbearably hot weather only became significant after IAAF changed the qualifying standards at the last minute, after the Trials courses were already selected.

If the men's and women's trials been run at virtually any other major marathon in the US, both Rod De Haven and Christine Clark would have met the new A qualifying standard. Clark only missed the qualifying time by 31 seconds on a brutally hot day in South Carolina and DeHaven only missed it by 90 seconds on a brutally hot day in Pittsburgh. If the Trials had been run on the flat Chicago course in decent temperatures, DeHaven would have run close to 2:11:00 and Clark would have broken 2:30.

So the solution is simple, hold the Trials on courses in 2004 where there is no chance for extremely hot weather. Admittedly global warming makes this a slightly more difficult task but it shouldn't be all that difficult as hardly any marathons are run in 80 degree weather.

Actually, the US probably could hold the Trials again in Pittsburgh and South Carolina in 2004 and end up with six competitors in the Olympic marathon, but I don't want to take any chances. In 2004, it's unlikely that near-record temperatures would strike once again on both race days. Moreover, even if it was really hot once again, the Olympic A standards would have been set in stone for four years and thus Americans would have had more than just one chance to hit them like they did this year.

Think about it, Rod De Haven ran a 2:13 marathon at Chicago in the Fall of 1998 and seemingly could have run another one at Chicago in the Fall of 1999. However, he decided to run in the World Championships Marathon instead of Chicago before the IAAF changed the time standard. With the more difficult time standard set in place, it's likely that all of the top US marathoners would run both Spring and Fall marathons in the year before the Trials to insure their best chance of hitting the standard whereas this year many of them ran only ran one marathon and some (like Mark Coogan) didn't run any.

Thus having looked at the situation objectively, there's little to worry about for 2004. There's definitely no need for a drastic Trials overhaul. However, Runnersworld chimed in this week saying that the US should select the team through a two part process - select two members by committee and then hold a Trials race from which the winner earns the right to go the Olympics.

This plan scares me as the last thing I want is some bureaucracy choosing two members of the Olympic Team. Didn't we learn from the fiascos of 1976 and 1980 that politics should be kept out of sports? The whole beauty of having the team picked at the Trials is that its so American at its core and what's more patriotic than representing your country in the Olympics? I mean it's capitalism at its very best - your pedigree, past times, college or sponsorships don't matter one bit. Only your performance on the date of the Trials is important. (Additionally, the Runnersworld plan is a bad idea as it wouldn't have increased the number of contestants in 2000 as neither the men's nor women's trials winners, Rod De Haven or Christine Clark, have me the Olympic A qualifying time. Thus USATF would be stuck in the same situation it is basically in now.)

The most stupid idea is being thrown around by Don Kardong. I'm a big fan of the former US Olympic marathoner and greatly enjoyed his book, Hills, Hawgs & Ho Chi Minh : More Tales of a Wayward Runner, but I think he must be suffering from a case of temporary insanity. He thinks getting rid of prize money at the Trials will help improve the US's performance. His argument goes like this, there was no prize money in 1972 and 1976 and the US did very well in the Olympic marathon. Now that there is prize money, the US isn't doing so well so let's go back to no prize money and we'll do well again.

Hello, ever heard of cause and effect? The two (introduction of prize money at the Trials and declining performance at the Olympic games) aren't related at all. If anything, the prize money is keeping us from doing even worse than we are currently doing. I mean his argument is similar to one saying that the US did well in the Revolutionary War when there was slavery and women couldn't vote, but we lost the Vietnam War when there was no slavery and women could vote, so we ought to go back to slavery and women not voting so that our military will improve. It's absolutely ludicrous.

Besides being annoyed with the people who want to totally revamp the Trials process, I'm also upset with those who are looking at the Trials results and acting like Armageddon is here for US marathoning. It's true that the US isn't dominating the world scene like the did in the 1970s. However, it's ridiculous to use the 1970s as the measuring stick to judge today's marathoners because there is a great deal more of international competition in the marathon today than in the 1970s.

One must remember that there was no prize money in the sport back in the 1970s and early 1980s. As a result, there was little African competition. The following axiom is a bit simplistic but it's basically true - 20 years ago, African runners had to face the tradeoff between providing food for their families or training for the marathon and marathoning naturally lost out, but now this isn't the case. Frank Shorter truly is the greatest US male marathoner of all time, but not a whole lot of people realize that in 1972 and 1976 a combined total of zero Kenyans competed against him in the Olympic marathon.

Now competition is up and the Africans are dominating the world scene. However, the top Americans are still putting up fairly good times - there just isn't nearly as much US depth as there once was. One needs to remember that the men's American record was set in 1999, not 1979, by David Morris who ran a 2:09:32. Frank Shorter never broke 2:10 (although I'm willing to admit that he probably would have on a fast course like Chicago).Why the decline in depth? I think the answer is rather straightforward. There's a lot less incentive.

Today, many Americans are unwilling to devote thousands of hours developing themselves as a marathoner so that they can reach their ultimate potential and run a 2:10-2:12 marathon when this time isn't all that competitive on the world scene. If you ran that kind of time back in 1980 (or really even in 1990), you were world class and could think of contending for an Olympic medal. Nowadays, it's an incredibly common time and thus it's easier either to get a "real" job or run shorter events like the 10k, which requires less preparation and can be raced more often and thus results in one earning more money. How common is a 2:12? 2:12:01 would currently rank you 92nd in the world for the first five months of 2000.

US performance in the marathon hasn't declined solely because we are a much lazier nation as so many like to insist (although I'm willing to admit that the rise of video games and cable t.v. have probably had some effect). The history of America has shown that Americans are willing to work extremely hard when there is a chance for a big payoff. There's little chance of a big payoff nowadays and thus people are shifting their efforts to other areas where the US has a comparative advantage over other countries.


Robert Johnson, co-founder of LetsRun.com, has been running all of his life, but only competing seriously since the Fall of 1997. One of his earliest memories is trying to run during the entire p.e. class in first grade.

A series of stress fractures resulted in Robert being only the fourth man on his high school cross country team and in him not running competitively in college. However, his love of the sport never died and he was able to return to competing in the sport once he backed off, allowed his body to heal and gradually got back into things - slowly building up a base so that his body would be strong enough to handle the rigors of serious training.

Since returning to competitive running, Robert has progressed quickly, and he just missed out on qualifying for the 2000 US Men's Olympic Marathon Trials by running a 2:23:11 marathon at the 2000 Las Vegas Marathon. Fortunately, he didn't have much time to wallow in his sorrow as he had to quickly get back into things to help his twin brother prepare for the US Marathon Trials on May 7th.

Having stayed in good shape, Robert's plans on running the Vermont City Marathon on May 28th if he can get over a slight case of anemia.

Feel free to email him for any random reason.