The finish of the men’s 1500 Meter Final at 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.
Photo: Patrick Smith (Getty)

No one in the world is better at creating needless controversy and riling up its own athletes and fans than USA Track & Field. Their latest hit: nuking by far its single greatest asset, the Olympic Trials.

There are two track meets every four years that casual American sports fans are aware of: the Trials and the Olympics a few weeks later. The Olympics are great, but the Trials are better. There’s something lightly antiseptic about the Olympics—everyone’s happy to be there, and the pageantry feels like a threat to overwhelm the sports at any time. The Trials are far more savage; a fourth-place finish there can derail a career. The genius of the Olympic Trials in the United States is that it’s the one thing USATF has gotten completely right: get the hell out of the way and let the athletes pick the team. In other countries, the governing body generally has some discretion in selecting athletes for the Olympic team, meaning their best athletes are risking nothing before the Olympics. This maybe produces slightly better national teams, but our system produces the most dramatic and exciting Trials.

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As insufferable as that sounds, it’s true. But that last paragraph might now be describing a relic. Last week, the IAAF, track’s international governing body, announced a new Olympic qualifying procedure. Athletes have always had to hit qualifying times in order to be Olympic-eligible, but those standards were historically within reach of any athlete who would be a contender to make an Olympic final. What that meant in the United States—and other countries that pick their track teams the way we do—was that nearly every athlete who had even a remote shot at making the Olympic team usually had the standard by the time the Trials rolled around. There are a few exceptions here, and USATF has occasionally permitted athletes to chase standards after the Trials, but the bottom line is: the top three finishers at the Olympic Trials have almost always clinched their Olympic berth as soon as they crossed the finish line. Unless USATF and/or the IAAF reverse the decisions of the last nine days—a distinct possibility and one I’ll discuss in a bit—that won’t be the case any more.

The two things you need to know about the new IAAF standards are that (1) they’re very difficult to hit and (2) not designed to be the only method of qualifying athletes to the Olympics. Point (1) looks like an enormous problem—very few athletes in any country hit those marks in any given year. While a faster standard in any given event just means that more athletes will structure their season around making sure they get the standard, these standards are so fast that there’s just a very limited number of athletes capable of hitting them, period. That’s where point (2) comes in: athletes without the standard can qualify for the Olympics based on an algorithmic world rankings system. The IAAF says that “the process is designed to achieve about 50 percent of the target numbers for each event through entry standards and the remaining 50 percent through the IAAF world ranking system,” and in theory, that means that the Olympics are about as easy to qualify for as ever.

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And that’s where USATF took its talent for self-sabotage to the next level. Rather than saying that while the new system is annoying, they’d still select the top three finishers from each event and just assume that someone good enough to be top-three in the United States would end up ranked high enough to qualify in the new system even without hitting the standard (which is true), they told LetsRun on Friday night that (emphasis mine):

For the U.S., the three highest-placing finishers at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, and who have the 2020 Olympic Games qualifying standard, will select themselves for the U.S. Team.

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The consequences of this could be extreme. Athletes well off the podium at the Trials could qualify if they’re one of a tiny number in the field who have previously hit the standard; even worse, the U.S. could end up needlessly sending only a one- or two-person team in an event where rankings would allow a full complement of athletes.

As an example, in the 2016 Olympic Trials men’s 1500 meters, the top two finishers had the new standard. The next runner with it—and therefore the third Olympian—would have been ninth-place finisher Kyle Merber. I spoke with Merber, who thinks the backlash to the changes has been a little overblown and that athletes are going to adapt: “In 2012 the standard was 3:35.5 and now it’s 3:35.0,” he told me. “Just looks like we gotta run 3:34.”

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While USATF was right to point out in its statement to LetsRun that “Over the years, the standards for all national and international championships increased in difficulty for all competitors, and athletes have risen to the challenge time and time again,” the new standards are beyond what many Olympic-level athletes are currently hitting. In 2017, exactly one American hit the men’s 1500 meter standard, four women hit the steeplechase standard, three women hit the 10K standard, and two men hit the 10K standard. (Also, hilariously, it’s worth pointing out that the IAAF’s entire stated purpose for instituting the hybrid rankings/standard system was an increased emphasis on competition. USATF’s decision, if it stands, will lead to athletes seeking out increasingly esoteric and weird time trials to hit the standards.)

Even if, say, five athletes in an event have the standard, that still leeches most of the drama from the Trials—five athletes would be half or less of the field in a given final, and they’d be the only ones racing for anything at all. If USATF simply accepted the method that involved the world rankings instead of the standard, then the IAAF’s simulations show that that would restore most of the magic of the trials.

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Of note also is that LetsRun says that USATF didn’t simply misspeak or make an unclear statement when it said “qualifying standard”; that statement was in response to detailed questions and hypotheticals. Also of note is that this really only ruins distance races at the Trials; something like a plurality of the world’s best sprinters live in the United States, and a huge number of American sprinters hit global qualifying marks every year. But the bottom line is that the distance races at the Trials, as it stands, have gone from one of the wildest and most wide-open events in sports to a coronation for athletes that already possess qualifying marks.

The saving grace here is that the bureaucrats who run the sport domestically and internationally are craven ditherers with long records of protracting and reversing their own decisions once they take public heat. Those 2020 Trials were supposed to be in suburban Los Angeles; USATF moved them to Eugene, Oregon, a year after announcing that. The hybrid rankings/standards system itself was originally supposed to be applied to the 2019 world championships; the IAAF went back on that after a year of criticism.

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The best part of the Trials as we know it is that it leaves zero decision-making discretion to USATF, and one cause for optimism here is that USATF knows it has a comically bad history of picking athletes when it’s forced to. In 2014, it disqualified two athletes from the U.S. indoor championships for reasons that were obviously ridiculous and not worth getting into here. It took a full day to reinstate one as a national champion, and nine months to reinstate the other as an eighth-place finisher, but they did it. In general, USATF’s ability to fuck up is only surpassed by its cowardice, and that could work out for the best here.