Our Worst Fears Realized: USATF WILL NOT Honor Top-Three Finish at The US Olympic Trials Unless You Have The Standard

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Some Olympic Trials Race Could Potentially Be Totally Meaningless As The IAAF Lacks Common Sense and USATF Is Refusing To Adapt With The Times

By Jonathan Gault and Robert Johnson
March 15, 2019

Ever since the IAAF announced its new qualifying system for the 2020 Olympic Games on Sunday, one question has dominated the discussion among American track & field fans: how will this affect the greatest meet held on American soil, the U.S. Olympic Trials?

Today, we received the answer: profoundly.

On Thursday, we emailed USATF Managing Director of Communications Susan Hazzard several questions about the new qualifying system’s effect on the US Olympic Trials, both on the track and in the marathon. On Friday, Hazzard emailed us back with the following statement, on behalf of USATF (emphasis ours):

USATF was aware of the proposed standard changes and made recommendations to the IAAF during the process. While we are disappointed in this initial announcement, we will enthusiastically advocate for additional changes that serve in the best interest of our sport. For the U.S., the three highest-placing finishers at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, and who have the 2020 Olympic Games qualifying standard, will select themselves for the U.S. Team. For World Championships, the U.S. selection process is the same but with the IAAF marks.

Over the years, the standards for all national and international championships increased in difficulty for all competitors, and athletes have risen to the challenge time and time again. We look forward to working with our athletes, nations around the world and all other parties to have the IAAF consider what we all feel is in the best interest of the sport and its athletes.

Did you get that?

In order to make the 2020 US Olympic team — in the marathon or on the track — an athlete must have the Olympic standard, even if that athlete would be in position to receive a bid from the IAAF based on his or her world ranking.

THAT’S ABSURD.

When IAAF announced its new qualifying system, it noted that “the process is designed to achieve about 50 percent of the target numbers for each event through Entry Standards and the remaining 50 percent through the IAAF World Ranking System.” At that point, USATF had two options: adapt its selection policy to fit the new system or keep its old policy, which selects the top three finishers at the Trials with the Olympic standard — even though those standards are now significantly harder to hit. We just assumed that USATF would be smart enough to choose the former, but USATF chose the latter.

What does this mean?

Assuming an uproar doesn’t cause USATF or the IAAF to come to its senses (we think USATF should honor the rankings and top three at the trials and we think the IAAF should let the US send whatever three athletes they want if they are going to send three anyway), on the track, the effect of USATF’s decision is that, more than ever, there will be a focus on chasing times to ensure an athlete enters the Olympic Trials with the qualifying standard. The IAAF’s goal with its world rankings is to have the best athletes race each other more frequently in the biggest meets. But the effect may be more American distance runners competing in obscure meets geared solely toward hitting the Olympic standard with no regard to where they finish in the race.

In some events, earning the standard could essentially guarantee you a spot on the team. Last year, only one American, Matthew Centrowitz, ran faster than the new 3:35.00 Olympic standard in the men’s 1500. None ran faster than the 27:28.00 Olympic standard in the men’s 10,000. Earning the standard in those events — the qualifying window began on January 1, 2019, for the 10,000 and opens on May 1, 2019, for the 1500 — will be more critical than ever.

But the event where this decision will have the biggest effect is the men’s marathon. The Olympic standard in that event is 2:11:30, a time that only one American, Galen Rupp, has surpassed in the last two years. With the Olympic Trials being held on a hilly course on a potentially hot and humid day in Atlanta, it is very possible that an athlete could finish in the top three with a time slower than 2:11:30 — indeed, in 2016, Meb Keflezighi finished second at the Trials in Los Angeles in 2:12:21.

And a real problem with all of this is the fact that all of these changes were sprung on everyone in mid-March 2019, long after Atlanta was awarded the Olympic Trials for next February. If people knew these rules were going to be in place, there is zero percent chance that the Trials would have been put on a hilly course in a potentially warm climate.

The good news for Americans is that finishing in the top 10 in a World Marathon Major or the 2019 World Championships or finishing in the top five at an IAAF Gold Label Marathon also counts as achieving the Olympic standard. Which means that if you’re an American, it’s never been more valuable to finish in the top 10 in Boston this spring. The knock-on effect is that we may see more Americans run a fall marathon such as Chicago or New York — races many pros would normally skip with a February Trials — in order to earn a top-10 finish and hit the standard.

Sadly, we have to wonder if the result of these rule changes (if they stick – we imagine the uproar is going to HUGE as we are DEVASTATED by today’s USATF statement), is that the race directors in those races invite fewer international athletes in order to make it easier for as many Americans as possible to qualify for the Trials. Another whammy to the income-earning potential of the distance stars from Africa. If you are an African distance star, the IAAF’s announcements this week have not been good for you at all.

How would the new qualifying system have worked in 2016?

We can’t say exactly how the new qualifying system would have applied to the 2016 Olympic Trials since the standards then were slower than the ones that will be used next year. For example, an athlete who ran 13:20 in the men’s 5,000 in 2016 (under the 2016 standard of 13:25.00) may have been capable of hitting the 2020 standard of 13:13.50 but chose not to chase it since that was not the standard at the time. But we think the best way right now to analyze the impact the standards are going to have is to assume they existed in 2016 and see what the results would have been.

So with that caveat out of the way, we’ll run through the 2016 US Olympic team in every distance event to see how different the team would have looked under the new qualifying system.

Note: In every event below except for the women’s 5000, the top 3 finishers all went to the Olympics. In the women’s 5,000, the #2, 3 and 5 finishers went to the Olympics as #1 and 4 declined it.

Men’s 800 (2020 standard: 1:45.20)

  1. Clayton Murphy (had standard, would have made team)
  2. Boris Berian (had standard, would have made team)
  3. Charles Jock (would not have made team; best mark during window was 1:45.40)
  4. Craig Engels (would not have made team; best mark during window was 1:46.03)
  5. Erik Sowinski (had standard, would have made team)

Men’s 1500 (2020 standard: 3:35.00)

  1. Matthew Centrowitz (had standard, would have made team)
  2. Robby Andrews (had standard, would have made team)
  3. Ben Blankenship (would not have made team; best mark during window was 3:35.48)
  4. Leo Manzano (would not have made team; best mark during window was 3:36.16)
  5.  Craig Engels (would not have made team; best mark during window was 3:37.66)
  6. Johnny Gregorek (would not have made team; best mark during window was 3:37.36)
  7. Colby Alexander (would not have made team; best mark during window was 3:36.26)
  8. Daniel Winn (would not have made team; best mark during window was 3:37.56)
  9. Kyle Merber (had standard, would have made team)

Only two men entered the Trials with the 1500 standard: Centrowitz and Merber. Andrews got the standard at the Trials, while the two other Americans with the standard, Evan Jager and Garrett Heath, ran other events at the Trials.

Men’s 3000 steeple (2020 standard: 8:22.00)

  1. Evan Jager (had standard, would have made team)
  2. Hillary Bor (would not have made team; best mark during window was 8:24.10)
  3. Donn Cabral (had standard, would have made team)
  4. Andy Bayer (had standard, would have made team)

Men’s 5000 (2020 standard: 13:13.50)

  1. Bernard Lagat (would not have made team; best mark during window was 13:14.97)
  2. Hassan Mead (had standard, would have made team)
  3. Paul Chelimo (would not have made team; best mark during window was 13:21.61)
  4. Eric Jenkins (had standard, would have made team)
  5. Ben True (had standard, would have made team)

Men’s 10,000 (2020 standard: 27:28.00)

Only one American, Trials champ Galen Rupp, ran under 27:28 during the qualifying window. Under the new system, second- and third-placers at the US Trials, Shadrack Kipchirchir and Leonard Korir, would presumably have been awarded bids from the IAAF (which USATF would presumably have accepted) based on their world ranking.

Men’s marathon (2020 standard: 2:11:30)

  1. Galen Rupp (had standard, would have made team)
  2. Meb Keflezighi (had standard, would have made team)
  3. Jared Ward (would not have made team; best mark during window was 2:12:56)
  4.  Luke Puskedra (had standard, would have made team)

This would have meant nothing

Women’s 800 (2020 standard: 1:59.50)

  1. Kate Grace (had standard, would have made team)
  2. Ajee’ Wilson (had standard, would have made team)
  3. Chrishuna Williams (would not have made team; best mark during window was 1:59.59)
  4. Molly Ludlow (had standard, would have made team)

Women’s 1500 (2020 standard: 4:04.20)

  1. Jenny Simpson (had standard, would have made team)
  2. Shannon Rowbury (had standard, would have made team)
  3. Brenda Martinez (had standard, would have made team)

Women’s 3000 steeple (2020 standard: 9:30.00)

  1. Emma Coburn (had standard, would have made team)
  2. Courtney Frerichs (had standard, would have made team)
  3. Colleen Quigley (had standard, would have made team)

Women’s 5000 (2020 standard: 15:10.00)

  1. Molly Huddle (had standard, would have been offered spot on team, she declined it)
  2. Shelby Houlihan (had standard, would have made team)
  3. Kim Conley (had standard, would have made team)
  4. Emily Infeld (had standard, would have been offered spot on team, she declined it)
  5. Abbey D’Agostino (had standard, would have made team)

Women’s 10,000 (2020 standard: 31:25.00)

Only one American, Shalane Flanagan, ran under 31:25 during the qualifying window, and she did not compete in the 10,000 at the Olympic Trials. Under the new system, the top three at the Trials (Molly Huddle, Emily Infeld, and Marielle Hall) would presumably have been awarded bids from the IAAF (which USATF would presumably have accepted) based on their world ranking.

Women’s marathon (2020 standard: 2:29:30)

  1. Amy Cragg (had standard, would have made team)
  2. Des Linden (had standard, would have made team)
  3. Shalane Flanagan (had standard, would have made team)

So if you’re scoring at home, USATF’s decision to stick with its “top three with the standard” criteria would have changed the team in six of the 12 mid-d/distance events, including five of six on the men’s side. And that does not include the 10,000, where only two Americans between both genders even achieved the standard.

Athletes who would not have been selected based if the new system had been applied in 2016 include Paul Chelimo (silver medal in 5000 at Olympics), Bernard Lagat (5th in 5000) Jared Ward (6th in marathon), Hillary Bor (7th in steeple), Ben Blankenship (8th in 1500), as well as 800 runners Charles Jock and Chrishuna Williams.

Chelimo’s silver would have never happened

The best race of the entire Olympic Trials was the men’s 5,000, with the 41-year-old Lagat dramatically winning it to make a fifth Olympic team and Chelimo edging out Eric Jenkins for the final spot. Using USATF’s 2020 selection criteria, neither Lagat nor Chelimo — who earned a shocking silver medal in Rio — would have made the US team.

Quik Take: This is one of the LOWEST days in the history of US distance running

If you thought Monday’s announcement that there would be no more 5000s on the Diamond League circuit was a dark day for distance running, this is MUCH, MUCH worse if you are US distance fan. To be honest, this might be the worst day for US distance fans that we can think of since LetsRun.com was founded in 2000 (ignoring tragic deaths).

The reason the US Olympic Trials are so great is that the drama is so, so high and it basically represents the American Dream. America is known as the land of opportunity and that’s what the Trials are supposed to represent. It doesn’t matter if you are the reigning world champ or an unsponsored collegian — show up at the Trials, finish in top three and you are going to the Olympics.

How USATF doesn’t understand that is beyond us. We think firings should happen if this travesty of a decision stands.

Now the Trials are about what you did last year or last month and not what you did in that moment. One of the reasons why the college admissions scandal that broke this week is garnering so much attention right now is because it goes totally against the American Dream. People are outraged that people with inferior accomplishments were falsely being elevated. That’s what’s going to happen in the 2020 Olympic Trials if the rules aren’t changed.

If USATF doesn’t come to its senses, they honestly should have those with the standard to wear a special colored jersey or a sash — almost like a scarlet letter — so the fans will understand why the 9th place finisher in the 1500 is jumping up and down after getting his or her ass kicked.

The sad thing there are several simple solution for all of this.

The IAAF should let the US (or any country for that matter) with three qualified athletes in an event send any three athletes it wants in that event (regardless of whether the athletes they send actually have the standard). If the US is going to be sending three athletes to the Olympics in an event anyway, why does the IAAF care which three it sends?

If that doesn’t happen, USATF should at least lobby the IAAF to elevate the status for the US and Japanese Olympic marathon trials to Gold Label status so the top five finishers are all granted the standard. That way, at least the marathon trials will mean something.

The IAAF may be worried about being perceived as playing favorites, but making an amendment that says anyone who finishes in the top three at the US or Japanese marathon trials automatically gets the standard is a commonsense solution. If you look at the criteria for a Gold Label marathon, the Japanese trials easily qualifies and the US is right on the cusp. No one wants a scenario in which Japanese record holder Suguru Osako wins the Japanese Trials in 2:12 (which could happen; the Japanese Trials are in September and it will be hot) but doesn’t get to compete at his home Olympics because he doesn’t have the standard (Osako dropped out in last month’s Tokyo Marathon, which means he needs to run at least one more half or full marathon in addition to the Trials to be ranked).

Quick Take: If you’re a marathoner, assuming nothing changes (which we really can’t fathom being the case but then again we never thought USATF would be dumb enough to say they wouldn’t at least honor the world rankings), you better go into the Olympic Trials with the Olympic standard

Considering no American marathoner other than Galen Rupp has broken 2:11:30 in the past two years, it is very possible that during a warm, championship marathon on a hilly course that running 2:11:31 could put you in the top 3 at the Olympic Trials in February. But unless you’ve already broken 2:11:30 in 2019 or finished in the top 10 of a major, USATF won’t select you.

We’re assuming that Rupp will hit the standard this fall somewhere (though that assumes that everything goes okay during his comeback from Achilles surgery) or at the Trials themselves. And between Boston this spring, Chicago and New York this fall, and assorted other Gold Label marathons, we’re confident at least three American men will enter the Trials with the Olympic standard. So if you’re harboring serious Olympic aspirations, it’s on you to make sure that they are one of them.

Quick Take: Could USATF convince the IAAF change its qualification system?

If you read the statement USATF provided to us, you’ll note that USATF said that it was “disappointed” in the initial announcement, that it will “enthusiastically advocate for additional changes that serve in the best interest of our sport,” and that “we look forward to working with our athletes, nations around the world and all other parties to have the IAAF consider what we all feel is in the best interest of the sport and its athletes.”

USATF saying they are “disappointed” makes no sense to us. USATF could easily get most of the top 3 at the Trials into the Olympics if they’d just enter them based on their world rankings, but for some reason that we don’t understand, they don’t want to do that.

While all of that “disappointment” talk is maddeningly vague, it does seem that USATF will try to convince the IAAF to make some changes to the qualifying system. We sure hope it’s a) getting the status of the Trials marathon (and track trials as well) elevated in status and b) trying to get the IAAF to let us send any three we want if we are going to already be sending three in an event.

If the US Trials actually was top 3 across the line goes, it would be amazing.

Talk about the boneheaded decisions by the IAAF and USATF in our world famous fan forum / messageboard. MB: Breaking: An Absolute Travesty! USATF WILL NOT honor top 3 finish at US Olympic Trials unless you have the standard!!!