The Olympic Trials Marathon: Pressure, Glory and Heartbreak

Paul Pilkington <br><em>Photo by Glenn Cratty/Getty Images Sport</em>

There are hundreds of marathons held in the U.S., but none quite like the Olympic Trials. First, the event is held only once every four years, since its express purpose is to determine the three athletes that will represent the country in the next Olympic Games. Second, not just anyone can compete. Only truly elite, national-class marathoners, usually fewer than a couple of hundred, are invited to run, based upon stringent time qualifying standards. (This year that standard is 2:22, or five-km and ten-km qualifiers of 13:40 and 28:45, respectively.)

 

Finally, for those with serious Olympic ambitions, winning is not necessarily accomplished by finishing first, but rather by placing among the top three finishers, since any of those spots will yield an Olympic berth. (Although there is a total prize money purse of $250,000, tiered among the top 10 finishers.) As if all that were not enough, the trials for the 2008 Olympic Games will take place in the biggest city in the country, New York City.

History of the Olympic Trials Marathon

Throughout the years since the modern Olympic Games started in 1896, there has been much discussion and analysis regarding the best and most fair way to select the three men and three women that will go on to represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games Marathon. On the face of it, the process should be simple: just select the three fastest marathoners, right? Well yes, that is the goal, but what exactly does that mean?

The three fastest on any one day, or the three fastest during the past six months or year? Head-to-head competition would seem to be the most democratic way to go, but what happens if a marathoner who has dominated the sport during the past few years ends up sick or injured on the appointed day of competition? Should an exception be made for that runner? Going by statistical results over a period of a year or two years may seem an objective method of determining the worthy Olympians, but becomes complicated by different runners on different courses on different days. A 2:12 run a hot day on a hilly course may be a higher quality marathon than a 2:08 run on a cool, windless day on a flat course, thus rendering a comparison of raw results nearly meaningless.

Before 1968, a subjective selection process, multiple trials, races or some combination of both was used to select the Olympic Marathon team. Back in the early part of the 20th century, when athletics was very much a gentleman's game, a straight selection process was a well-accepted practice. Eventually, multiple trials races were used, a process sometimes so complicated that even those running did not know its status. In 1952, Ted Corbitt learned that he had made the Olympic Marathon team through a phone call from a New York Times reporter. "You had better get training" the reporter advised Corbitt, who thought he had been eliminated from consideration for the team.

In 1960, the Boston and Yonkers Marathons served as dual selection races. The rules stipulated that a runner complete both races in order to be eligible for consideration for the team. Johnny Kelley, the overwhelming favorite, dropped out of Boston however, thus eliminating him from contention. But he came back to soundly defeat all of his rivals in the Yonkers Marathon, and Pincus Sober, a USOC official, took up his cause to be named to the team, his Boston DNF notwithstanding. That is exactly what happened. Poor Robert Cons, the third man named to the team previously, was instead relegated to alternate status. As some compensation, he was allowed to travel with the team to Rome for the Olympic Games.

Since 1968, the governing body of the sport has opted for a one-day trials race, with the top three finishers (as long as they all have met the Olympic Games time standard) going to the Games, and everyone else going home. This selection process has resulted in plenty of excitement and plenty of heartbreak, making the trials 26-miler one of the most eagerly anticipated on the calendar. For many, the trials marathon incorporates more drama than the actual Olympic Marathon.

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