July 22, 2019
On Monday afternoon, USATF delivered the news that American marathoners have been waiting months to hear: the IAAF has awarded the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials have been awarded Gold Label status. Because the top five finishers in a Gold Label marathon automatically achieve the Olympic standard, that means that the top three men and women across the line at the Trials in Atlanta on February 29 will be named to the 2020 Olympic team.
The news provided resolution to four months of uncertainty that began in March when the IAAF announced changes to the qualification system for the 2020 Olympics. Immediately, it became clear that those changes could have a major impact on the US Olympic Trials, particularly in the marathon, where only two American men currently have the Olympic standard.
After some initial confusion about how USATF would select its team, within two weeks of the IAAF’s announcement, USATF told LetsRun.com that it would lobby the IAAF to grant the Trials Gold Label status. That lobbying paid off on Monday, with the IAAF telling USATF that “athlete preparation, pre-existing commercial commitments and TV broadcast arrangements were key factors in the decision.”
When USATF lobbied the IAAF for Gold Label status, it was far from a guarantee that it would succeed. There were some at the IAAF who didn’t want to be viewed as catering specifically to the Americans; if the US trials were granted an exemption, what was to stop other countries from holding their own marathon trials and demanding the same?
What it came down to was the infrastructure around the US trials, which had been in place long before the IAAF announced its rule changes in March. The Atlanta Track Club and its sponsors have poured over a million dollars into hosting and promoting the Trials — and NBC has committed to airing it on national TV — with the understanding that the premise that had existed in years past — top three make the team — would be in place. By granting USATF an exception, the IAAF has preserved that premise, along with the drama and intensity that make the Trials easy-to-understand, must-watch TV for running fans.
“We applaud the decision by the IAAF and the efforts of USATF to preserve the Olympic Dream for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon,” said Rich Kenah, executive director of the Atlanta Track Club. “We truly believe this designation ensures the United States will send the strongest possible team of marathoners to Tokyo and we are excited for the thrilling race that will unfold on the streets of Atlanta on February 29.”
Quick Take: Common sense prevailed and the sport is better off for it
We are so excited about this. Thank you, USATF. Thank you, IAAF. And most of all, thank you, LetsRun.com nation, for advocating so strongly for this.
We’re thankful that USATF took up the cause and even more thankful that the IAAF listened.
We understand why the IAAF is hesitant to make exceptions for a single country, but we hope this process has been educational for them. For many distance fans in the US, there is no single US event bigger than the Olympic Marathon Trials. The marathon trials are the “Olympics” in many ways for most US post-collegians. Most collegiate distance runners know they have almost zero shot of making the Olympics but qualifying for the Trials is a huge goal for many athletes. When an athlete qualifies for the Trials, it gets whole communities to pay attention and get into the Olympic spirit about six months before the Olympics every four years. It pretty much jumpstarts the Olympic year for US fans.
Hell, the Olympic Marathon Trials jumpstarted LetsRun.com as Robert and Weldon Johnson started the website when they quit their jobs, loaded up the SUV and moved to Flagstaff in 2000 to get Weldon ready for the 2000 Trials.
Since the US was going to send three male and three female marathoners to the Olympics regardless, we’re glad that the IAAF granted the US an exception as having the top three across the line at the Trials makes for great drama and is easy to explain to TV viewers. The whole point of the IAAF’s new world ranking system is to encourage athletes to race each other at high-profile events. Well in the US, there is nothing more high-profile than the Olympic Trials.
Plus it was the only fair thing to do since the difficult Atlanta course was already picked before the Olympic qualification rules were changed.
Quick Take: How can we ensure that we don’t have to deal with this in 2024?
We know it’s hard to write rules so every country’s unique situation is covered, but we really think the US Trials should always be “first three across the line go to the Olympics,” particularly in the marathon. The reality is the US Olympic Marathon Trials should probably never be run on a blazing fast course where time is the focus. The Olympic marathon is almost always run in stifling conditions, so you should mimic that difficulty in the Trials race. With a February date, many participants are likely to skip the fall marathon season, meaning they’d only have one realistic shot to get the standard (spring marathon) other than the Trials.
So how can we make sure that we aren’t dealing with this issue all over again in 2024? We’d like to see the IAAF write some sort of rule about how if you are going to be sending three to the Olympics anyway based on some combination of world rankings/having the standard, that a country can send anyone that finishes in the top three of its national championship.
Talk about this on our world famous messageboard / fan forum. MB: Great job everyone and USATF! US Olympic Marathon Trials get Gold Label status so top 3 will go to Olympics