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Friday, July 6, 2012

What's Wrong with the Olympic Trials

Every four years, the track and field trials are held to select those athletes the US will send to the Olympic games. Most athletes who should qualify do, but there's always the occasional upset (or injury), which while making the trials exciting to watch, insures that we seldom field the best possible Olympic team.

Some of you may remember decathlon champion Dan O'Brien, who was the favorite to win the gold medal at in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. However, during the trials he met with disaster in the pole vault, the 8th event. After passing at the first four (i.e., lower) heights, O'Brien began competing when the bar was at 15' 9" but failed to clear the bar. As a result, he scored no points for this event, dropped from first to twelfth, and didn't make the team. Luckily for O'Brien, he did qualify for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta where he won the gold medal. However, he probably would have won it in 1992 as well but because of one bad day (actually, one bad event), he didn't make the team. His chief American rival and friend, Dave Johnson, did make the team and ultimately won the bronze at the 1992 games, but it's clear we didn't send all of our best athletes to Barcelona.

So, here's an idea that should increase the odds that such travesties don't occur and that we send the best possible track and field team to the Olympics. Slots for the team should be based on points earned a series of sanctioned meets held during the six or twelve months preceding the trials. The trials would still be held, the athletes would earn points at the trials, and the points that they could potentially earn at the trials would be more than they could earn at any single preceding meets, meaning that trials were still the most important meet in terms of earning a spot on the team. However, the points that could be earned at the trials wouldn't be so much that a leading contender (like O'Brien) could drop off the team simply because he or she had a bad day. As any current or former athlete knows: everyone eventually has a bad day. In practical terms what this would mean is that there would still be upsets (especially for the final spot in each of the events) but that the best athlete in each event would almost always qualify for the team.

I realize that the Olympics are supposed to symbolize international cooperation and competition, but like most Americans, I like to win too.

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