The Marathon On Trial: Selection vs. The Race

Is the Trials race necessary, or even the best way, to decide who represents the U.S. at the Olympics?

If there were no Trials race in 2008, would an underdog like Brian Sell (left) have been chosen to join favorites such as Ryan Hall (center) and Dathan Ritzenhein (right) on the Olympic team? Photo:

Is the Trials race necessary, or even the best way, to decide who represents the U.S. at the Olympics?

Written by: Kevin Beck

This weekend in Houston, less than three hours of racing will determine the three men and three women who will represent the United States in the Olympic Marathon in London this summer. The process is elegantly simple: The first three men and the first three women across the line in the respective men’s and women’s Olympic Team Trials races are on the team, and that’s that. (There are caveats here based on IAAF time standards, but that’s for a different discussion and is unlikely to be an issue this year.)

Some, however, might prefer the word painfully to elegantly, since despite its simplicity, this means of picking an Olympic contingent – unique among countries that send marathoners to the Olympics – is fraught with glaringly obvious hazards in terms of the potential for leaving the best marathon runners off the team. In his collection of essays Runners and Other Dreamers, John L. Parker, writing about the Olympic Marathon itself, noted that four years of diligent and relentless training could be summarily negated on race day by the effects of an undercooked egg.

Poll: Who will make the U.S. men’s marathon team?

An ill-prepared breakfast is only one manner in which an ideally prepared and superior athlete might find herself out of contention in a one-off event such as the Olympic Trials Marathon. A respiratory infection, an injury in the weeks before the race, a calf pull or some such malady during the race itself – anyone who has ever laced up shoes for an all-out 26.2-mile footrace knows too well that the possibilities for mayhem are without bound. While this is precisely what makes a superb race so satisfying for pack runners – not only have I proven my fitness and dug deep, but I’ve also beaten the odds! – it’s a reality that imperils the exploits of elite runners in a way that suggests to some observers that the trials marathon system should be abandoned in favor of the selection system used by other countries.

In a selection scheme, as you can probably guess if you don’t already know, nations’ athletics governing bodies examine the performances of their marathon runners over the past several years (the window might be since the last Olympic Marathon with or without including it; it might only encompass, say, 2010 and 2011 and parts of 2012 for the 2012 Olympic contest) and choose three men and three women based on their top performances during this period. In this way, the pitfalls of putting the burden of excellence solely on one race are neatly avoided, and bad luck is excised from the equation.

Poll: Who will make the U.S. women’s Olympic Marathon team?

This process, however, is saddled with dangers of its own. The advantage of a trials system is that it knocks politics completely out of the equation. You show up at the Olympic Trials prepared, you execute a sound race, you land yourself first, second or third, and you’re on the team. Period. No arbitrariness involved, no hand-wringing by sports governing bodies over whether a 2:08 in Boston for fifth is better than a 2:06 in London for sixth, no potential for favoritism or shadiness of any kind. You either make the grade or you do not.

Kenya in particular has faced a number of controversies regarding its selection of Olympians. This country with its surreal glut of world-class marathon runners used to pick its marathon team based on performances at the Boston and London marathons, but that has gone out the window, as in September Athletics Kenya chose to fill two of its three slots with world-record holder Patrick Makau and two-time world champ Abel Kirui. This means that among Geoffrey Mutai (2:03:02 to win Boston last year; 2:05:05 to win New York), 2011 Frankfurt Marathon winner Wilson Kipsang (2:03:42, the second-fastest time in history), and Emmanuel Mutai (2:04:40 to win London last year), only one man will get to line up in London. And that assessment omits many, many other names with thermonuclear distinction. (This opens the door to a discussion of whether the Olympics’ limiting countries to three marathon runners is even fair in the first place, but this, too, is a debate for another day.) Whatever happens in the end – that third spot has yet to be filled – there is no question that the choice will have been an agonizing, and more importantly to some degree whimsical, one.

Another element of the trials scheme employed by the U.S. is that it allows for the possibility of novice marathoners to make the team. In the past, because there are time standards runners must meet to make the Trials – 2:19:00 for men in the current cycle, 2:46:00 for women – elite runners who wished to make their marathon debut at the Olympic Trials didn’t have this option. In other words, a man who had run sub-28:00 on the track and 1:02:00 in the half marathon and was thus an obvious top marathoner waiting to happen, but who had never gone the full 42.2 kilometers, would have no shot at the Olympic team in the marathon. That changed in 2008, when USA Track and Field decided to allow runners who had reached certain standards in the 10,000 meters and the half marathon without ever having raced a marathon to enter the Trials. While this seems fantastic in principle, one might take issue with the idea of a newcomer squeaking onto the team in third place and having the Olympic Marathon represent only her second attempt at the distance, as experience is a huge factor in this event. (Cynics will remind us that Americans are not apt to place high at the Olympics anyway, but leave that aside for now.)

In any case, it’s not an easy call, as strong arguments can clearly be made for either system. But just for fun, ask yourself whom you would choose for this year’s American squads if the trials scheme were scrapped. Would you look merely at top times? Would you place emphasis on performances turned in at the major domestic races (Boston, Chicago, New York)? Some combination? I’m pondering this myself right now and am already at loggerheads with my own sense of fairness.

The marathon is grueling. Picking an Olympic team without any lingering sense of doubt is seemingly just as much of a test.