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Trials Hangover for U.S. Track?

USA Track & Field to Conduct Comprehensive Review of all Programs (Reuters wire story via ESPN.com:

The United States will conduct a post-mortem into a disappointing Olympic athletics performance that has seen U.S. sprinters eclipsed by their Jamaican rivals, the chief executive officer of USA Track & Field said. "Once the Games are complete we will be conducting a comprehensive review of all our programs," Doug Logan said in a statement.

Numerous stories of this sort have appeared on the Web and in print recently. Usain Bolt's jaw-dropping excellence notwithstanding, many of America's top track stars performed below expectations. In the case of Tyson Gay (100m) and Bernard Lagat (1500m & 5000m) injuries played a part, at least in diminishing training. In the cases of Alyson Felix (200m) and Sanya Richards (400m), they were at a loss to explain their losses. Then, the baton-dropping 4x100 relay teams placed a nice upside-down cherry on the meet for the U.S.

While I have heard many musings about selection or training of relay teams, housing and training of athletes, and even too much pampering of runners, I have not heard any discussion of maybe the most influential force on U.S. track performance at the Olympics -- the U.S. Trials system. As a fan, I love the trials, in some ways more than the Olympics themselves. They are near sacrosanct both because of the popularity and because of the equity of the qualification based on performance system. Yet, any "comprehensive" discussion of ways to improve U.S. that does not genuinely include the Trials falls short.

There are tradeoffs to the Trials, very important tradeoffs. Athletes with slight injuries or an "off day" lose out. So, for instance, the American trio in the 200m in Beijing excluded both Tyson Gay and Xavier Carter, who held the second and third fastest times in history coming into the Olympics with times earned in the last two seasons. American mile record holder, Alan Webb, did not qualify in the 1500m, while the two runners other than Lagat did not qualify for the 1500 final. (Webb is an enigma, likely not well suited to multi-heat meets like the Trials or Olympics). In 2000, Michael Johnson, the fastest 200m runner on the planet at the time, missed out on the 200m because of an injury.

The cases of Gay and Lagat highlight an insidious problem with the Trials -- injury. A multi-heat, high-intensity Trials setup along the lines of the Olympic meet schedule places tremendous physical stresses on athletes only 6 weeks to 2 months before the Olympics. Both Gay and Lagat sustained injuries during the Trials. Even though they may have healed by the Olympics, those injuries dramatically altered training with both athletes missing key tune-up races in Europe. Besides injury, there is the "peaking" problem. This may not influence an athlete way ahead of the pack (e.g. swimmer Michael Phelps). In in highly competitive events, runners must reach peak racing fitness well in advance of the Olympics. Felix and Richards may have suffered from this problem.

Realistically, the Trials are not going away, so what might be some reasonable adjustments? A no-heats, single race system would vastly diminish the strain while retaining the drama and competition. How many times does a guy like Tyson Gay need to show that he is the fastest? Limit the 100m, 110m hurdles, 200m, 400m, and 400m hurdles in the Trials to the 8 or 9 top runners based on times in the last year (or so). The top dozen or so 1500m runners and so on. Does it really diminish the trials to eliminate guys whose best times are not under 10.0? The Trials already uses such a single race system for the 10,000m for the very reason I'm forwarding.

(As a side note: While I like the Trials, I do not find the "equity" argument compelling. One can just as easily make a fairness case for a 2007 World Champion, such as Gay in the 200m, or someone performing well in a series of meets over the past year than someone sort of winning the lottery in the Trials.)