Friday, July 11, 2008

Belated thoughts on the US Olympic Track and Field Trials

As always, this was a great track meet. I think holding it in Eugene, Oregon was a plus, as there's probably not a town in America more supportive of Track and Field. As always happens, some favorites didn't make the team, either because of injury or having an off day. This year's prime example was probably Tyson Gay defending world champion in the 100 and 200 meter sprints. Gay is a supremely talented athlete, who apparently works hard, isn't afraid to compete against his rivals unlike some sprinters of the past, and just seems to be a class act and nice guy from the interviews I've read. He made the team in the 100 meters, but pulled up lame in a 200 race, so he won't running that event (which is arguably his best perhaps) in Beijing. This mishap has ignited what seems to be an every four years debate regarding how the U.S.A. selects it's track teams. Those who don't like our system of only taking the top three in each event, based on the trials races/events only, always point to something like this and complain that we are leaving our best people off the team. Their proposed solution is usually some way of allowing a top ranked athlete a guaranteed spot on the team in case of a mishap such as the one that affected Gay in the 200.
And they're probably right.
However, the key word here is probably.
Gay, defending world champion in the 200 is a great runner, but there is still no guarantee that he would have beaten first place finisher Walter Dix, or second place finisher Shawn Crawford, or third placer Wallace Spearmon in the 200 if he had not been injured. Indeed Spearmon said as much after the race. And if you think that Gay should have been guaranteed a spot on the team in the 200, what do you say about Crawford, who is the defending Gold Medalist from the 2004 Athens games? Or Dix, who is a rising young star and national collegiate champion and who actually won the trials race? Or Spearmon, who has medaled in the 200 in both the 2005 and 2007 World Championships, and just happens to have the fourth fastest legal time in history for the event? Which one of these athletes would you kick off the team for a guaranteed spot for Gay?
My answer would be that you don't. You go with the top three placers in the trials, just like always. That's the fairest most objective way. No one can claim politics, or favoritism, etc. that way. You're one of the top three, you're on the team and may the best person win in a similar winner take all format at the Olympics themselves. First place? You get a Gold Medal, and so on.
I wasn't alive in 1948, but there's a classic story about the 1948 games that I think pertains to this debate. Harrison Dillard was the all out favorite to win the 110 Meter High Hurdles and go to the 1948 London Olympics and win the Gold in that event. In the trials, Dillard (you guessed it) failed to place in the top three and didn't get to race in the 110 Hurdles. However, the United States still took all three medals in the event, thanks to William Porter, Clyde Scott and Craig Dixon.
As for Dillard? Well, he did make the 1948 team in his second event, the 100 Meter Dash, in which he was manifestly not the favorite, having barely made the team by placing third in that event. What happened in London? Dillard won the 100 meters, beating out the favorites. He also won another Gold medal as part of the 4 X 110 relay team. In 1952 he made the team finally as a hurdler, won the Gold and took another Gold as a member once again of the 4 X 110 relay team. The point of the story isn't that he should have been on the 1948 team as hurdler but was kept off due to a poor trials performance. The point is that the beauty of Olympic track competition like most athletic competition is that favorites don't always win, and sometimes heroics come from those from who we least expect it. I'll be rooting for Tyson Gay in the 100 if he makes the final, but I'll also be rooting for Dix, Crawford, and / or Spearmon if any of them make the 200 final, because they all deserve to be on the team.

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