Opinion: A Better Road to the Olympics

Author Stephen Lane has a novel fix for U.S. Olympic Marathon Team selection process, one which would perhaps revolutionize American distance running in the process

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Stephen Lane
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Stephen Lane is the author of the book Long Run to Glory, about the first women's Olympic marathon, and meet director for the Adrian Martinez Classic.

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Opinion: A Better Road to the Olympics 1
Photo: Steven Anderson/MH illustration

On my flight home from Orlando, I was still so energized and inspired by the Olympic Marathon Trials that I vowed never to miss another one so long as I’m able to travel. I also came home convinced that the Trials is, as Amby Burfoot pointed out in his typically thoughtful way, a stupid and misguided way to choose the Olympic team.

The Trials are beautiful magic: To make an Olympic team is career-defining, the pinnacle of marathoning dreams in America. That the dream comes down to a single race, in an event as capricious as the marathon, is almost cruel. But that crucible conjures a gloriously tense atmosphere. The fans feel it: in Orlando they were supportive, knowledgeable, positively shaking with anticipation on each loop, and deafening as the lead packs went by.

And still, Amby is right—at least partially.

Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.” Perhaps the same is true of our current system: it’s stupid and misguided, and the worst way to do it, except for all the other ways that we could do it. But it is worth looking at alternatives, in the hopes of finding a better way. And better is the key word: there’s no perfect way to choose a team. Any system has drawbacks.



The drawback of a one-race Trial is that it doesn’t allow for an athlete to be sick, slightly injured, or just have a fluky off day. Most other countries form a selection committee to choose their Olympic team, which solves for that drawback: Athletes are selected based on a larger body of work, which would potentially be fairer.

Potentially.

Selection committees have their own drawbacks. Who would be on it? The U.S. marathoning community is so incestuous that it would be hard to find people with the stature and authority to be on the committee, and without at least a perceived conflict of interest: even if committee members could be completely objective, selections would carry the whiff of unfair favoritism or backroom dealing.

Opinion: A Better Road to the Olympics 2
Photo: Michael Doyle/MH illustration

Further, our sport’s governing body, USATF, has negative credibility. Some of that distrust is well-earned, but at least some is unfair: any time USATF announces a decision on anything—start times, rule changes, schedules—there’s a reflexive assumption that they got it wrong, both among fans and the running media. Imagine putting USATF in charge of forming a selection committee, or worse, choosing a team. Running sites and message boards would melt; the narrative wouldn’t be about who earned a spot on the team, but who got cheated and why.


A selection committee seems unworkable, but there is another alternative—one that is fairer than a single race, still requires athletes to earn their spot, and minimizes the potential for politics to sabotage the process: Evaluate athletes in a series of races over a longer period of time.

The details are less important than the concept, but here’s an example of how it might have worked in the leadup to the 2024 Olympics:

  • Pick three marathons: one in the fall of 2022 (Chicago or New York), one spring 2023 (Boston), one winter 2024 (Houston)
  • Pick two half marathons, timed to fit with the buildups to the marathons—maybe February and September 2023
  • Add the U.S. Cross-Country Championships, because it is a great test of strength
  • Award athletes points for how they place in each race
  • The top three point-getters make the team

The system could be tweaked in a number of ways: Award more points for marathons than for the half or USXC. Add bonus points for an American record or a course record. Allow athletes to miss one or two events (or have an off day) by using only their four best scores from the six events. Weight the events closer to the Olympics more heavily. The final race could count double. It should mean more, and would allow us to retain some of the drama of the Trials.

This system has its own drawbacks: an athlete who misses a significant chunk of time due to injury probably won’t make the squad. In this scenario, Molly Seidel doesn’t make the 2021 team, nor would Fiona O’Keeffe make it this year. (Nor, of course, would either of them have made a team chosen by committee.) But it is objective, and does allow for a great runner—say Keira D’Amato, one of two active American women to have broken 2:20—to have an off day and still make the team.

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Photo: Steven Anderson/MH illustration

Further, a race series, a true road to the Olympics, would build greater fan interest over a longer period of time. Sports need stories. The one-race U.S. Trials is the story, and does generate interest. But it is one day every four years, and there’s no coherent lead-up to it. Each race in the qualifying series would build on what came before; each would generate more buzz, both before and after. Narratives would develop: Can D’Amato bounce back? Can O’Keeffe keep her momentum? The races would have greater meaning.

And, the fields would be stacked—the top Americans would be on the line for each one. No more dilution of talent across multiple fall or spring marathons—at least in the 18-24 months leading up to the Olympics. The other two years of the cycle, athletes could pick and choose among the majors as they do now.



There would be more races on the U.S. calendar with higher stakes, and the special pressure that comes with trying to make an Olympic team. Athletes would have to show consistent excellence over an extended period, against the best of their peers—but they could still afford an off day. The U.S. would end up with stronger, more battle-tested Olympic teams. The selection process would be less stupid, less misguided, and more fair.

But boy would I miss the Trials.

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Stephen Lane is the author of the book Long Run to Glory, about the first women's Olympic marathon, and meet director for the Adrian Martinez Classic.

5 thoughts on “Opinion: A Better Road to the Olympics”

  1. It’s a reasonable discussion to be having… But I consider one point to be non-negotiable: any and all selection races need to be marathon-length. If I were to imagine a faster version of my younger self — maybe Brian Sell in his prime? — I’d be enraged if someone could keep me off the team by racking up points in half-marathons or, for God’s sake, cross-country, when my strength was gutting out the entire distance, despite a relative lack of footspeed. Let the marathon honors go to the true marathoners!

    Reply
    • Greg, you were a faster version of my younger self–and now I suspect you’re a faster version of my older self… And you raise a very reasonable (and, I suspect widely held) objection. My counter is this: first, the details of the scoring would matter–if you weighted the marathons more heavily than that halves and USXC, AND the final race (a marathon) was worth double the others, people would probably have to run at least two good marathons to qualify. Second, the top half marathoners tend to be roughly the same group as the marathoners–there are a few specialists who can run a fast half but haven’t quite figured out the marathon, but for the most part, it’s the same group. Third, I just think our top marathoners need to race more, and race faster–right now our top men would finish almost 1.5 miles behind the best in the world (based on PRs); the top women over a mile back (though they are much more competitive than our men). Maybe getting their legs used to running at faster paces would benefit, and mixing it up regularly with other top Americans (even at shorter distances) would improve their ability to run a fast marathon. But yes, I think most folks would prefer all marathons for qualifying for the marathon…

      Reply
  2. Why aren’t the athletes who unlocked those Olympic Marathon spots for the United States given the first opportunity to take them without having to run the Trials? I otherwise agree with the author’s premise of the problems with the Trials and including USATF in a selection committee. Although I would not want to see races other than full road marathons counted in a selection process.

    Reply
  3. The Trials is an event that all but markets itself. Having said that, a way that the selection process can be objectively tweaked is to automatically grant spots to competitors who earned medals in the previous Olympics (Worlds??) so that they can focus on the next Olympics so long as they met the Olympic Standard in the designated window. Molly Seidel got her standard at Chicago 2023. Forcing her to run the Trials is shameful when she could have had the extra time to recover and prepare for Paris. She was a big story in 2021 and would have been bigger story in 2024.

    Reply

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