Are the US Olympic Marathon Trials Broken? Examining the Business Model of America’s Greatest Marathon

By Jonathan Gault
April 28, 2022

Brant Kotch did not want to host the US Olympic Marathon Trials in 2012. Kotch, an affable, mustachioed Texan, served as the race director of the Houston Marathon from 2002-20. And as USATF searched for bidders in 2009 for the next Olympic Trials, Kotch had been the target of a lobbying effort by his friend Jim Estes, then USATF's Associate Director of Marketing/Long Distance Running Programs.

"He had worked on me for ages and ages to put in a bid for the Trials," Kotch says. "And he wanted us to do both of them. Up until 2012, the men were always held in one city and the women’s race was held in another venue at a different time. And Jim really believed that they needed to be consolidated and he wanted us to do it."

Kotch was reluctant. More than reluctant.

"I was dead-set against doing it in 2012," Kotch says.

Houston had hosted the women's Trials before, in January 1992, and the experience had been messy. Initially, the Trials had been awarded to Long Beach, Calif., but Long Beach had trouble attracting sponsors and was forced to back out in March 1991. By the time Houston took over in May, they only had eight months to prepare for the race.

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By Jonathan Gault
April 28, 2022

Brant Kotch did not want to host the US Olympic Marathon Trials in 2012. Kotch, an affable, mustachioed Texan, served as the race director of the Houston Marathon from 2002-20. And as USATF searched for bidders in 2009 for the next Olympic Trials, Kotch had been the target of a lobbying effort by his friend Jim Estes, then USATF’s Associate Director of Marketing/Long Distance Running Programs.

“He had worked on me for ages and ages to put in a bid for the Trials,” Kotch says. “And he wanted us to do both of them. Up until 2012, the men were always held in one city and the women’s race was held in another venue at a different time. And Jim really believed that they needed to be consolidated and he wanted us to do it.” 

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Kotch was reluctant. More than reluctant.

“I was dead-set against doing it in 2012,” Kotch says.

Houston had hosted the women’s Trials before, in January 1992, and the experience had been messy. Initially, the Trials had been awarded to Long Beach, Calif., but Long Beach had trouble attracting sponsors and was forced to back out in March 1991. By the time Houston took over in May, they only had eight months to prepare for the race.

Like Long Beach, one of Houston’s biggest issues centered around sponsorship. At the time, the Houston Marathon had a sponsorship with Continental Airlines, who had agreed to cover the cost of athletes and officials from The Athletics Congress (which would be renamed USATF later that year). But the official airline of the U.S. Olympic Committee — which owned sponsorship rights to the Trials — was United. As a result, the agreement with Continental had to be axed, leaving Houston on the hook for almost $100,000 in transportation costs, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Houston “found” the money by slashing prize money from $160,000 in 1988 to just $77,500 in 1992. With the men’s Trials in Columbus that year awarding well over $200,000 in prize money, the women in Houston were understandably upset.

Kotch started working for the Houston Marathon later that year and knew that the Trials experience had been difficult on the organization. So as he weighed the merits of a bid for the 2012 Trials, he made it known to the Houston Marathon board that sponsorship remained a serious question mark. But most of those who had been involved in the problematic 1992 Trials had left the organization, and the board members were excited about the prospect of hosting the biggest Olympic Trials ever, elevating the Houston Marathon in the process.

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One of Kotch’s aims as race director was to support elite American distance running, so once the board began pushing the bid, he hopped on board. And while Houston hosted a successful Trials in January 2012, Kotch’s concerns about sponsorship were validated: the Houston Marathon lost around $400,000 hosting the Trials.

In that respect, Houston is hardly alone. Four years earlier, the New York Road Runners lost over $1 million staging the men’s Trials in Central Park, according to David Monti, who worked as a professional athletes consultant for the NYRR at the time. And the most recent Olympic Trials, in Atlanta in 2020, also finished “well into the red,” according to race director Rich Kenah.

USATF is currently searching for a host for the 2024 Olympic Trials and in March published a Request for Proposal (RFP) outlining its expectations for the host city (a formal intention to bid was due to USATF by April 15). To any potential bidders, Kotch offers a word of caution.

“I’ve been saying this since 2012, maybe even before that: their business model is broken,” Kotch says.

The Costs of Hosting the Trials

Here is an abridged list of expenses USATF expects the host city of the 2024 US Olympic Marathon Trials to cover:

-$100,000 fee paid to USATF for the right to host the Trials
-a minimum of $75,000 spent on advertising and promoting the Trials
-a “competitive prize purse”; $600,000 is listed as an example figure
-air travel, lodging, and meals for all qualified athletes and USATF Management Team
-security
-insurance
-race operations, including equipment rental, drug testing, and timing
-event signage

Kotch says Houston spent $2.3 million, all told, to stage the Trials in 2012 — a significant investment for a three-hour race.

Those sort of costs are not uncommon for staging a major marathon. But most marathons have a number of avenues to earn money, such as selling sponsorships and broadcast rights or charging an entry fee to the thousands of recreational runners in the field.

The Olympic Marathon Trials are different. The broadcast rights belong to USATF. So do the entry fees — not that that would make much of a difference, given there is no mass field at the Olympic Trials. The local organizing committee (LOC) is entitled to revenue from ticket sales…but good luck finding a way to charge people for watching a 26.2-mile race staged on public roads.

The LOC can also sell sponsorships, but any potential sponsor must meet strict criteria. They cannot conflict with any pre-existing USATF or USOPC sponsor — eg. Toyota is a USATF/USOPC sponsor, so no one else in that category (vehicles) can sponsor the Trials. Between USATF and USOPC, there are 26 categories off-limits to the LOC.

And assuming you find a sponsor outside of those categories, the LOC is limited on what it can offer in return.

“You can bring in hospitality sponsors,” Kenah says. “You can bring in expo partners. You can bring in course sponsors. But they cannot in any way be visible in major media, specifically any of NBC’s broadcast platforms. And they cannot call themselves a sponsor of the Olympic Trials, anything using the word Olympics, or Olympic rings. So as you might imagine, not very easy.”

Under the current model, then, it is a near-certainty that whoever hosts the Olympic Marathon Trials is going to lose a significant amount of money. Yet the model has remained virtually unchanged for decades. Is there a better way? And, knowing all this, why would any city bid for the Trials in the first place?

The Benefits of Hosting the Trials

The first US Olympic Marathon Trials were held in 1968 (men) and 1984 (women), and until 2008, they mostly steered clear of major metropolises. The first men’s Trials were held in Alamosa, Colo., (population at the time: 6,985). Joan Benoit Samuelson made her first Olympic team in Olympia, Wash. A few larger cities had hosted, but the race had not visited any of America’s three most prestigious marathons: Boston, New York, and Chicago.

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That changed ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The Boston and New York City Marathons were — and are — two of the country’s biggest and most profitable races. And for the Beijing trials, the two races agreed to use their platforms to help elevate the Olympic Trials marathon, staging the men’s trials in November 2007 the day before the NYC Marathon and the women’s Trials in April 2008 the day before Boston. That allowed the New York Road Runners and Boston Athletic Association to save on costs by sharing resources with their pre-existing marathons. And because the mass races made so much money, the NYRR and BAA would be able to absorb the inevitable financial hit the Trials would bring.

“The Road Runners figured out that they could put it on, they would lose some money, but they would do it as a service to the sport,” Monti says.

The hope, Monti says, was that by staging a top-class Trials, New York could demonstrate the true potential of the event in a big city. And while the day was sadly marred by the tragic death of athlete Ryan Shay, Monti believes the event, won by Ryan Hall on a loop course in Central Park, achieved that.

“It was fantastic,” Monti says. “Basically the NYRR threw a party for the sport.”

Kenah knew what he was getting into when Atlanta first considered bidding for the 2020 Trials.

“To USATF’s credit, the RFP that it sends out is a public document that gives all a good look at the business model in play so bidders should know exactly what to expect,” Kenah says.

But when Kenah first showed the RFP to his leadership team at the Atlanta Track Club, he was met by blank stares and empty faces.

“Our immediate reaction was this just doesn’t make any economic sense,” Kenah says. “As much as we live and breathe track and field and road racing and marathoning and cross country at all levels, we just couldn’t figure out how we could justify the investment of time and resources.”

Kenah grasped the limitations on sponsors, yet the more he thought about it, the more he felt the Trials was something worth doing. The ATC hosts the Peachtree Road Race, the world’s largest 10K, but the race was still largely a local and regional phenomenon. Kenah wanted to expose the city to a larger audience and felt that the Trials, while expensive, could achieve that.

“Our strategy was quite simple: we’re looking to build Atlanta as a running destination,” Kenah says. “…And from that perspective, we checked all the boxes. It was everything that we had hoped it would be and more.”

Kotch, likewise, feels that hosting the 2012 Trials elevated Houston’s status in the running world — one of the goals of the event — even if that precise value is hard to quantify.

“A lot of my sense that it was worth it for us, I’ll freely admit, is anecdotal,” Kotch says. “Talking to people, when I go someplace, I do get maybe more respect than I used to.”

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As a spectacle, the 2020 Trials was a massive success. Atlanta Police Department estimates put the number of spectators on the course at 200,000, both races featured dramatic finishes, and athletes, coaches, and fans praised the event in its aftermath. Yet Kenah and ATC will not be bidding again to host in 2024. Financially, Kenah says, the organization simply cannot afford to take the same sort of hit it did by hosting in 2020 (long-term, Kenah still believes the 2020 Trials will lead to more out-of-town participants in ATC events, but any short-term bumps were stunted by the pandemic).

Essentially, the Olympic Trials operates under a similar model to the Olympics themselves: the host city spends years preparing to host a big party with a nebulous, hard-to-quantify long-term impact, and once it’s over, the IOC (or in the case of the Trials, USATF and USOPC) leaves the host city to foot the bill.

For those reasons, fewer cities have become interested in bidding for the Olympics in recent cycles, and some in the industry are worried USATF could soon reach a similar position with the Olympic Marathon Trials.

So far, no city has publicly announced plans to bid for the 2024 Trials. We already know Atlanta is out. Kotch also said that Houston will not bidding.

“Coming out of the COVID crunch, our budget took a big hit and if nothing else, we still have to replenish our reserves to some degree,” Kotch said.

Houston is hardly alone in that respect. Almost every US marathon had to cancel its event in either 2020 or 2021, putting even the biggest marathons in a tough financial position — and making them less willing to lose a bunch more money hosting the Trials.

Kenah says Orlando, who also bid for the 2020 Trials, is the only city he knows of that has expressed interest in hosting the 2024 Trials, though neither of the two key figures associated with the 2020 bid — Track Shack co-founder Jon Hughes and Central Florida Sports Commission Jason Siegel — responded to interview requests for this story.

Both Kotch and Kenah are worried that, unless the current Trials model is overhauled, we could soon reach a point where no one is bidding to host the Trials.

“The point I’ve made time and again is that nothing is going to change until nobody bids,” Kotch says. “That could happen this time or it could happen next time. At some point, it’s going to become clear that this model is broken.”

How to fix the Trials

The biggest problem with the current Trials model is that local organizing committees are left footing an enormous bill. There are three main ways to fix that problem: USATF or USOPC can kick in money to support the Trials; the LOC can lower its bill by offering fewer amenities; or the LOC can find ways to increase its revenue. Let’s run through all three.

USATF/USOPC kicks in money

Kenah says his comments about the current Trials model being broken are not meant to target the failures of one specific person or entity. But when sponsors pay millions of dollars to USATF or USOPC for the right to be associated with events such as the Olympic Marathon Trials, Kenah believes it is only fair for some of those dollars to be invested into the event itself.

“It’s not going to take a significant amount of money in the grand scheme of things, to allow some of those dollars to flow from sponsors,” Kenah says. “Earmark those dollars to Olympic Trials events to help the LOCs offset costs…Where the system falls short is recognizing that the USOPC and USATF, with due respect to both organizations for the work that they do, they don’t actually do anything [when it comes to staging the Trials]. They are dependent on the LOCs to bring these assets to life. And as our sports and the Olympic movements mature, it’s my hope that local organizers and our federations are able to sit down and negotiate fair, equitable revenue shares so that Olympic partners know that their dollars are actually helping pick the Olympic teams.”

Sound Running’s Jesse Williams, who has organized a number of elite track meets such as The Ten and The Track Meet, suggested an arrangement where USATF agrees to cover a couple key expenses such as prize money and lodging, leaving everything else to the LOC.

“As a partnership, it just would feel better for an LOC that way,” Williams says. “I think bids would get better, more would go to the athletes. I think it stretches an LOC pretty thin to put all of this on them.”

One other possible solution would be to follow what figure skating does, where the US Championships serve as the de facto Olympic Trials but don’t feature any sort of Olympic branding. If the Olympic Marathon Trials are no longer a USOPC event, those exclusive USOPC sponsorship restrictions can be lifted (though the USATF sponsorship restrictions would remain). But USATF might be reluctant to take such a step; in 2019 USOPC grants accounted for more than $5 million (16%) of USATF revenue.

“If you did something like that, you would probably jeopardize your funding,” Monti says.

The LOC offers fewer amenities

It’s pretty simple: if the Trials costs less to host, LOCs will lose less money overall. And if this is the path USATF and the LOC choose to go down, there are some pretty obvious cuts. First is the $100,000 fee that the winning LOC pays USATF for the right to host the Trials.

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Or, as Kotch puts it: “Isn’t it great that you pay a $100,000 rights fee just to lose more money?”

Paying a rights fee in order to host a large event such as the Trials is not uncommon. But usually those events have ways to recoup that cost, such as ticket sales. The Marathon Trials does not. Kenah also wonders what USATF uses that $100,000 for — because currently, it is not invested back into the Trials.

(LetsRun.com reached out to USATF on April 4 requesting an interview with USATF CEO Max Siegel for this story, as well as anyone at USATF responsible for drafting the RFP or the overall structure of the Trials. A USATF spokesperson said they were “working on it” but the organization was also busy preparing to stage the USATF Bermuda Games on April 9. LetsRun sent multiple follow-up interview requests in the following weeks but received no response.)

Hotel rooms and flights for athletes are two more costs that could be scaled back. One of the reasons USATF selected Atlanta for the 2020 Trials is that the Atlanta Track Club offered to pay for the travel and lodging of every athlete who qualified — not just those with the “A” standard, as required by USATF. For the 2024 Trials, USATF eliminated “A” and “B” standards. There is only one qualifying standard, and the LOC is now required to cover the flights and lodging of anyone who hits it.

It is nice, of course, for athletes who qualify for the Trials to have their expenses paid — particularly since the majority of the fields will not have lucrative sponsorship contracts. But that is not the way it works at the Track & Field Trials, where USATF only pays for a select number of athletes’ travel expenses. If they did the same for the Marathon Trials — say, by requiring the LOC to only cover lodging for the top 20 qualifiers — the LOC could potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“This idea that [the LOC] has to pay for the housing is absolutely ludicrous,” says HOKA Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario, who coached 2020 Trials winner Aliphine Tuliamuk and helped put on the Marathon Project later that year. “…If I’m a beancounter for an organization, I’m sitting there right away saying, Wait a minute. We have no idea how much this is going to be. How do we know there’s not going to be 1,000 qualifiers?

It’s also worth noting that USATF’s bid “requirements” are not set in stone. In his welcome letter in the RFP, Max Siegel writes, “even if you are unable to meet certain suggested criteria or guidelines, we urge you to continue on a positive course of action by submitting a counteroffer for consideration.” And the fewer cities interested in bidding, the more flexible USATF will have to be. If only two cities bid for the 2024 Trials, and neither agrees to pay the $100,000 rights fee, then guess what? USATF isn’t getting that rights fee.

The LOC finds new revenue sources

This is the toughest of the three options — LOCs have been searching for new revenue sources for decades. Here are a few ideas.

One is to allow the LOC to collect a larger entry fee (it was $30 in 2020). Currently, any entry fee paid goes to USATF. Raising the entry fee and giving the proceeds to the LOC to help cover costs is not an ideal solution, but if the option is between a Trials with an entry fee and no Trials at all, everyone is going to pick the former.

“To ask the athletes at the Olympic Trials to pay, let’s say a $200 entry fee, which is equal to what folks have to pay to run the New York City Marathon, Boston Marathon, etc., I do not think that that is out of bounds,” Rosario says. “I think that is very fair. And if you were to say we’ll waive the fee for anyone who has run under 2:12 and 2:29, I think that would be okay. I don’t think anybody would balk at that. But I also don’t think anyone would balk at it if every single person had to pay $200. Because for their best people, their sponsors are just gonna pay that. And for the people that aren’t at that level, they’re going to pay it. They’re not going to not go to the Olympic Trials. That might sound harsh, but we’ve got to be living in reality here about the financial challenges that this event poses.”

You could even take this idea to the next level and institute a sliding qualifying scale. If you break 2:12, your entry is comped. Break 2:15 and you have to pay $200. Break 2:18 and it’s $500.

Rosario offered another possible source of revenue: selling tickets. Rosario likens the Trials to a golf tournament or music festival — large, outdoor events that are able to sell tickets by establishing a large security perimeter. That would not be feasible for a course like Atlanta’s, but Rosario believes the right host could find an area that could work.

“A Marathon Project-type course that was basically inside in a resort?” Rosario says. “That’s possible. A Formula 1 racetrack-type deal like Eliud Kipchoge ran on? That’s possible…This could be a gamechanger if we could get a host or an LOC that was willing to host it in an area like that.”

Are the right organizations bidding?

All of the changes above are under the assumption that the Trials will be awarded to a race organization as it was in Atlanta in 2020, Los Angeles in 2016, Houston in 2012, and New York and Boston in 2008. But that’s not the way it works in other sports. When the most recent Olympic Gymnastics Trials were awarded in 2019, they were awarded to the St. Louis Sports Commission. And when USA Swimming recently named its host for its 2024 Trials, it awarded them to the Indiana Sports Corp.

What do the St. Louis Sports Commission and Indiana Sports Corp have in common? Neither are sport-specific nonprofits like the ones responsible for hosting the Marathon Trials.

“It’s been the NYRR, the BAA, the LA Marathon, the Houston Marathon, most recently the Atlanta Track Club,” Rosario says. “And those organizations aren’t meant to lose $1 million on an event…That’s the biggest broken part of the system, is the wrong organizations are bidding to host this thing.”

Instead, Rosario says, it should be local sports commissions or visitors’ bureaus bidding for the Marathon Trials. The actual staging of the race still can be contracted out to an organization like the Atlanta Track Club, but the sports commission would be the one fronting the costs.

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“Those organizations, they raise money all year long,” Rosario says. “That’s all they do, is raise money consistently to then bid on these types of events, bring them to the city. They know that as an organization, they’re probably not going to make money. But the city is going to make money through hotel nights, through people eating out at restaurants, visiting tourist attractions, etc.”

After Houston won the right to host the 2012 Trials, Kotch learned that the Texas Comptroller’s office had a fund that disbursed grants to entities holding major sporting events within the state. Houston applied for the grant and received roughly $1 million from the fund. (That $1 million contribution was based on a projected $1.07 million in additional tax revenue for the state of Texas due to the event; a post-event report concluded the Trials was responsible for an extra $1.16 million in state tax revenue).

“That [grant] really saved our skin,” Kotch says.

After accounting for other sponsorships and partnerships, the Houston Marathon still wound up losing $400,000 on the event, but the loss was manageable enough that Houston bid again for the Trials in 2016. For the 2020 swimming trials in Omaha, the Omaha City Council and state of Nebraska contributed a combined $1.15 million. Can race organizations or USATF convince other sports commissions to make a similar investment?

Kenah said that when Atlanta hosted in 2020, it received the backing of the Atlanta Sports Council, a local body that recruits major sporting events for the city, but that the ATC “did not plan for or expect fees from the Sports Council if we won the bid.”

USATF claims in its RFP that the 2024 Trials is worth $20 million in economic impact to the host city and $27 million worth of media coverage, though it’s unclear where those numbers come from. By comparison, local visitors bureaus calculated the economic impact of the 2016 Olympic Track Trials as $37 million for Eugene and the economic impact of the 2016 Olympic Swimming Trials as $74 million for Omaha.

USATF also claims the last three Trials have attracted an average of 200,000+ non-ticketed spectators, and while Atlanta PD put estimates for the 2020 Trials at 200,000, Houston said it had only 40,000 in 2012 (LetsRun.com was unsuccessful in reaching Tracey Russell, head of the LOC for the 2016 Trials in Los Angeles).

Rosario believes the 2020 edition showed that the Olympic Marathon Trials is a valuable property for a sports commission to bid on, but Kenah isn’t as confident.

“An event like the Olympic Trials Marathon doesn’t generate a fraction of the revenue for the city that the Super Bowl, Final Four, CFP Championship Game, and FIFA’s World Cup do,” Kenah says. “So I don’t see a sustainable model for medium or large cities where CVB’s (Convention & Visitors Bureau) or sports councils pay a significant rights fee for the Trials. But there might be this option in mid to small markets where they are looking for a bigger event to make a splash.”

The 2024 Trials and beyond

Every serious fan of American distance running loves the Olympic Trials, and it’s not hard to figure out why. The stakes, for a domestic race, could not be higher. Diehards love it because it’s the one race every four years that features all of America’s top marathoners. And casual fans can easily appreciate its appeal.

“The Trials is a beautiful thing,” Monti says. “I mean, who doesn’t want to watch the Trials? Who doesn’t understand the trials? The top three. Its simplicity is its beauty.”

But that simplicity could be in jeopardy. The top three finishers are only guaranteed a spot on the Olympic team if they have the Olympic standard. For the 2020 Olympics, World Athletics made those standards significantly tougher than in years past — 2:11:30 for men, 2:29:30 for women — but granted the Olympic Trials Gold Label status, meaning the top five finishers would automatically be granted the Olympic standard.

Looking ahead to 2024, however, World Athletics may not be so generous. For 2020, WA targeted a field size of 80 for each Olympic marathon, with roughly half qualifying via the standard and half via world rankings. Instead, due to super shoes and the COVID-lengthened qualifying window, there were 106 athletes in the men’s marathon and 88 in the women’s marathon, none of whom got in off their world ranking. The IOC also reduced track & field’s overall athlete quota from 1,900 to 1,820 for Paris 2024, so WA will not want to overshoot its field size again.

As a result, the Olympic standard in the marathon is likely to get significantly faster, leaving the US Trials in an uncertain place. No other country has an Olympic qualifying system like the US, a full marathon with the top three finishers with the standard guaranteed to make the team (Japan held a trials in 2019 but only the top two spots were guaranteed; Ethiopia held a small trials in 2021, but it was not nearly as well-organized and was only a 35k race). If the Olympic standard is lowered to, say, 2:09:00 and 2:26:30 (times only two US men and seven US women hit during the last qualifying period), it would be a lot to ask of World Athletics to carve out an exemption for the US that does not exist for any other country.

Mike Scott, chair of USATF’s Long Distance Running Division, says USATF is aware that the 2024 standards will likely be faster and that “USATF’s representatives are actively engaging with World Athletics to make the Trials meaningful.”

LetsRun reached out to World Athletics about the 2024 Olympic standards, which have not yet been released. WA head of communications Nicole Jeffery replied that “The Paris 2024 Olympic Qualifying System is currently a work in progress and we can’t yet release information about it.”

Kenah is worried if the easy-to-understand “top three go” system is lost, the Trials will suffer.

“If you can’t, as the athletes are standing on the start line, explain to those who are standing on the streets or are watching on television or any other broadcast platform, what the race means in terms of how many people in the race will have the opportunity to represent the United States at the Olympic Games, then we’ve lost,” Kenah says.

USATF has been through a situation like this before. In June 1999, the IAAF released the qualifying standards for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Back then, the IAAF (now World Athletics) still used “A” and “B” standards. A country could send up to three athletes in an event as long as all three had attained the “A” standard; if a country wanted to send an athlete with the “B” standard, it was not allowed to enter any other athletes in that event. The marathon standards for 2000 were significantly faster than they had been for 1996, with the “A” standard dropping from 2:16:00 to 2:14:00 for the men and 2:35:00 to 2:33:00 for the women.

Those times may not seem like much in the age of super shoes, but in 2000 — when US marathoning reached its nadir — it was not a given the top three at the Trials would all hit those times. USATF decided that only the winners would be guaranteed a spot on the Olympic team. If they did not have the “A” standard, the US would only send one athlete.

Some suggested moving the US Trials — particularly the men’s race, to be staged in May 2000 on a hilly course in Pittsburgh — to a faster, flatter course. It didn’t happen.

“[USATF’s] excuse was Pittsburgh and Columbia [S.C., site of the women’s Trials in February 2000] were the only sites to guarantee housing, airfare and prize money to elite marathoners,” reported the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

You can guess what happened next.

Both Trials races fell on unseasonably warm days, with temperatures in the high 70s, and neither winner — Rod DeHaven and Christine Clark — had the “A” standard. So for the first time in Olympic history, the US sent just one man and one woman in the marathon to Sydney (it could have sent four as two men and two women had the “A” standard).

Prior to the race, USATF justified its selection policy as one of fairness and one that protected the value of the Olympic Trials for sponsors.

“There is no motivation for a sponsor to spend the kind of money which enables the payment of $250,000 in prizes unless it can be assured that the selected Olympians will be the leading performers at the trials,” USATF said at the time. “Therefore the notion that the team may be selected, even in part, by a process alternative to the trials would likely result in a reduction or even a withdrawal of money from most if not all sponsors.”

Depending on how fast World Athletics sets the standards for future Olympics, USATF could face a similar scenario as soon as the 2024 Trials.

For now, that issue is beyond USATF’s control. It cannot set the standards for the Olympic marathon. But USATF can reform how its own Olympic Trials operate. Three months after the 2020 Trials, Kenah gave an interview with Road Race Management in which he said the Atlanta Track Club wouldn’t bid on future Trials unless there is a “significant change” in the bid requirements. It did not go unnoticed.

“Think about who that’s coming from,” Williams says. “The Atlanta Track Club is very well-funded. They put on some of the best races in the United States…And if that’s their takeaway, that’s so telling, from someone who really understands the business side of the sport, which is Rich…My biggest fear is, it seems like every time we do this, less people bid and more people are aware of how hard this is to pull all this off and be profitable. Every time that happens, we’re running the risk of getting to a situation where there’s no bid. And then we’re a whole different situation. I mean, imagine a sport where nobody wants the Trials. That’s not good. That’s scary.”

For 2016, USATF announced three bidders (Cincinnati, LA, and Houston). For the 2020 Trials, USATF announced four — Atlanta, Chattanooga, Austin, and Orlando. After losing out on 2020, Orlando and Austin both said they would bid again for the ’24 Trials, but neither organization responded when LetsRun reached out for this article. Final bids for the 2024 Trials are due by May 20; USATF has said it will award the Trials by July 14.

Perhaps the Trials can march on, as the Olympics have, without major reform; after all, it only requires one city stepping up every four years. Orlando could well host in 2024, and chances are someone will want to host the 2028 Trials ahead of a home Olympics. But if everyone who hosts continues to lose money, will that cycle continue forever? The fate of America’s greatest marathon is at stake.


Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Brant Kotch is still the race director of the Houston Marathon. Carly Caulfield has been the race director since February 2020. Kotch remains president of the Houston Marathon Board of Directors and race director emeritus.