World Athletics Will Allow Countries with 3 Qualified Athletes For 2024 Olympic Marathon to Name Whoever They Want to the Team – As Long as They’ve Broken 2:11:30/2:29:30

By Jonathan Gault
June 23, 2022

On Tuesday, World Athletics issued a press release announcing a number of decisions affecting future championships. Buried in the middle was something referring to “quota reallocation places” in the marathon, and while the phrasing may not sound too sexy, it could have a significant impact on the 2024 US Olympic Marathon Trials (which still do not have a date or location). Let’s explain.

Looking back at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, World Athletics set a target marathon field size of 80 athletes per gender. They also significantly toughened the qualifying standards, dropping the auto standard from 2:19:00 to 2:11:30 for the men and 2:45:00 to 2:29:30 for the women. The aim was for half the field to qualify via the standard and half to qualify via world ranking.

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That’s not how it played out. Due to a combination of athletes rising to the challenge of the tougher standards, a qualifying window extended by the COVID-enforced postponement of the Olympics, and the supershoe revolution, 106 athletes qualified for the men’s marathon in Sapporo and 88 for the women’s, none of whom qualified via the world rankings.

World Athletics has said its aim for the 2024 Olympics in Paris is to again shoot for a 50:50 ratio between qualifiers via standard and qualifiers via world ranking, which means the standards for 2024 are going to get a lot harder (World Athletics has not yet announced the standards or target field size). 

That decision will have a major impact on the US Olympic Marathon Trials. In recent years, the top three finishers at the Trials have been essentially guaranteed an Olympic berth, either because the standards were very attainable (no man was going to finish in the top three at the Trials without breaking 2:19:00) or because the Trials was granted a special exemption by World Athletics (as was the case in 2020). 

On Tuesday, World Athletics announced two important news items regarding the 2024 Olympic marathon. The first is how athletes can qualify. As always, an athlete can qualify by hitting the time standard, which has not yet been announced. In addition, an athlete can qualify by being “ranked higher than the 65th athlete on the filtered (three athletes per national Olympic committee) ‘Road to Paris’ list.”

As of today, the 65th-ranked marathoner in the world (limit three athletes per country) is Jamsran Olonbayar of Mongolia, whose ranking is derived from two races: 2:13:38 for 82nd at the 2021 Lake Biwa Marathon and 2:11:02 for 10th at the 2022 Seoul Marathon. Currently, there are eight American men ranked above Olonbayor: Galen Rupp, Elkanah Kibet, Scott Fauble, Frank Lara, Nico Montanez, Colin Bennie, CJ Albertson, and Colin Mickow. Ben True is actually tied with the same number of ranking points as Olonbayor, but in this case that’s not good enough as he would need to be ranked higher than the #65 athlete.

On the women’s side, the #65 athlete is Kyungsun Choi of South Korea (2:35:33 for 34th at the 2021 Olympics, 2:30:42 for 7th at 2022 Seoul) and there are 16 Americans ranked above her (Molly Seidel, Keira D’Amato, Sara Hall, Emma Bates, Nell Rojas, Annie Frisbie, Dakotah Lindwurm, Stephanie Bruce, Carrie Verdon, Maegan Krifchin, Lindsay Flanagan, Laura Thweatt, Maggie Montoya, Sarah Pagano, Susanna Sullivan, Tristin Van Ord).

An important note: the #65 athlete on the ‘Road to Paris’ list will be higher than the #65 athlete in the world rankings as the ‘Road to Paris’ list will also include athletes who have hit the time standard but don’t have a high world ranking. But with the standard getting much faster for 2024 – it wouldn’t be a shock if it was 2:08:00 on the men’s side – there won’t be that many athletes with the time standard but without a high world ranking.

Now for the second part of World Athletics’ announcement: 

Any national Olympic committee may choose to reallocate a quota place to an unqualified athlete, provided the athlete has achieved at least a 2:11:30 (men) or 2:29:30 (women) eligibility performance within the qualification window.

What does that mean? We reached out to World Athletics Director of Competition and Events Jakob Larsen, who explained it to us. Basically, if a country has three qualified athletes by February 6, 2024 (either by the entry standard or by world ranking), it can sub out any or all of those three athletes as long as the replacement(s) has run at least 2:11:30 (men) or 2:29:30 (women) within the qualifying window.

It’s a carve-out aimed at protecting the US Olympic Marathon Trials (and other national marathon trials) now that the time standards are going to be significantly harder.

In practice, it likely means that the US can send whichever three athletes it wants as long as those athletes have hit the 2:11:30/2:29:30 standard (since there is a good chance the US will have three qualified athletes per gender on February 6, 2024).

Quick Take: This is a half-measure by World Athletics; why didn’t they go all the way?

World Athletics was not inclined to grant the same exemption to the 2024 US Olympic Trials as it did in 2020, namely that the top three finishers in each race would be considered to have the Olympic standard. There are reasons for that, first and foremost that WA does not want to be seen as playing favorites to one federation over another. If the US trials are granted an exemption, other federations will expect the same. 

LetsRun.com has long argued for a commonsense solution: if a country has three qualified athletes in an event, let them send whichever three athletes they want. That’s sort of what World Athletics did here, except they attached a time standard of 2:11:30/2:29:30.

We don’t understand why the time standard is necessary. If you’re going to introduce a measure such as this aimed at supporting Olympic marathon trials (and we know there are people at World Athletics who appreciate the greatness of the US Olympic Marathon Trials), why tack on a time standard? Ostensibly it’s to ensure that a federation doesn’t sub in an athlete who has no business being at the Olympic Games. But if they’re worried about that, why not grant WA the right to sign off on all substitutions? That would allow them to veto any cases of obvious fraud while still allowing a federation like the US to send a 2:12 guy who ran the race of his life at the Trials.

For the sport to be popular, track and field needs more meets where the results matter. Other than the Olympics or World Championships, there is no annual meet in the world that matters as much as the US Olympic Trials. The pressure is high and it’s much better for marketing/the fans if its simple and you can say, “The top 3 are going” as compared to “Well the top 3 are likely to go as nearly everyone capable of finishing in the top 3 has a world rank high enough to go and if someone doesn’t they can be given a discretionary spot, but we only have one discretionary spot so it’s hard to know.”

Quick Take: Is it possible someone could finish in the top 3 at the US Olympic Trials without running 2:11:30/2:29:30?

In the age of supershoes and with the US’s relative strength in the marathon, it’s unlikely someone would be good enough to finish in the top three at the Olympic Trials without running 2:11:30/2:29:30 either at the Trials or in the period before them. At the 2020 Trials, the top six men all broke 2:11:30 and the top six women all broke 2:29:30 – and that was on a windy day on a hilly Atlanta course. Put the Trials on a flat course and it will be even easier to hit the time.

But “unlikely” is not the same as “impossible.” If the Trials are held in a warm-weather city – and as of now, Orlando appears to be the only city with any sort of interest in bidding for the 2024 Trials – times could slow significantly if it’s a hot day. We only need to go back to 2016 in Los Angeles to find a race where you could run slower than 2:11:30 and get on the team – Meb Keflezighi was 2nd in 2:12:20 and Jared Ward was 3rd in 2:13:00.

The World Athletics rule change may also limit the number of cities that will be suitable hosts to the Trials. Anything that is remotely hilly will likely not be chosen as USATF will want to ensure the top three all break 2:11:30/2:29:30.

Talk about this development on our world-famous messageboard. MB: 2024 Olympic Marathon selection criteria partially announced. Find out what the 2024 US Olympic Marathon Trials will look like .

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

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