A very good question that was put on the table by Track and Field News. I asked the very same question as I watched both Beijing and Berlin. Because as Mr. Hill observed (no relation to my knowledge), we have looked like gang busters at our selection meets, only to falter poorly at the actual global championship event!
Let’s review what happened in Beijing – the biggest and brightest stage that the sport is presented on. In the women's 800 meters not one of our women made it out of the first round. In the shot put, arguably one of our strongest events, not one man could manage to throw over 70 feet as only Cantwell threw over 69 feet and it took until his final throw to do so.
In the women's 400 Mary Wineberg and Dee Dee Trotter failed to make the final after posting very subpar times in their semifinals. Then their hurdle counterparts Sheena Tosta and Queen Harrison were only able to make it out of the first round as the fastest losers. Darvis Patton never seemed to get untracked in the men's 100. Our 1500 meter men were lackluster as all three bowed out in the semis; and our female sprinters seemed to be a couple steps off from round one through the final as all performed well below form while finishing off the medal stand.
Then there were the injuries. Everyone knows what happened to Tyson Gay and the injury he suffered at the Trials. Slowed him in Beijing and he was unable to get out of the semis of the men's 100 meters. But do you remember that Nicole Teter was also unable to finish her first round of the 800 meters? Or that both Diana Pickler and Jackie Johnson were unable to finish the Heptathlon and Deena Kastor and Magdalena Levy-Boulet could not finish the marathon? And this was just during the first three days of the Games! Are you getting the picture? Because that’s not a very good list of non achievement for a team that at the end of the Trials in Eugene appeared to be as strong, if not stronger, than any we've ever sent to an Olympics.
So I concur completely with the folk at Track and Field News that something is wrong with what happens between our selection meets and the actual global championship. I disagree slightly however, with what the reason for that might be. See I don’t think the time between meets is too long, I think it might not be long enough! Now, before you say, "that doesn't make sense" let me explain.
We have long touted the US Olympic Trials as the biggest meet outside of the Olympics themselves - that our Trials are the deepest and toughest in the World, and that the competition is on par with the Olympic Games. Anyone that watched the 2008 version would be hard pressed to argue with that position, because the competition in Eugene was fierce and cutthroat. Many events saw a hundredth of a second as the difference in qualifying from one round to another. And in some cases it was the difference between making the team and staying home.
For most this WAS their Olympics, as they left it all out on the track and the field in the attempt to make the US team and get that golden ticket to Beijing. And it is there that I believe the problem resides. You see, typically after the close of the Olympic Games, many athletes either end their seasons completely or compete sparingly as they still need to earn their money on the Circuit. But those that do continue to compete usually do so at a level a few steps below what they achieved at the Games.
Competing at that level for a week is as tough as it gets. The athletes have to ask their bodies to give it everything they have over and over again. And at the end they are physically taxed. Then there are the emotional highs and lows that the athletes go through mentally, and at the end of the day they are also emotionally and mentally spent. No wonder many decide that it is time to simply go home and rest.
But for the athletes that compete at the Trials and make the team, there is no option for rest as the Games themselves lie ahead. After going through the equivalent of the Olympics, we then ask them to pack their bags, board a plane, and prepare to do it all over again. And though there is some time between the Trials and the Games it appears that perhaps it may not be enough. Perhaps the athletes need more than six weeks to recover from the physical and emotional stress that the Trials put upon them. Maybe asking them to battle each other in early July then turn around and battle the world in mid August has been a bit much.
Just a thought but, maybe the athletes would have been a bit fresher if the Trials had been held in early June or even late May. An extra month certainly would have aided the recovery of Tyson Gay and Nicole Teter. I'm sure Heptathletes Pickler and Johnson could have used some additional time to recover from their seven event wars at the Trials too.
I can already hear the retorts, but the NCAA Championships are run in early June, we can't possibly move the Trials! Well perhaps the NCAA Championships need to be moved as well. It's not like they have a true dual meet season any more. The only difference between being a collegiate athlete and a professional today is the Conference, Regional, and Championships cycle. So ask them to adjust - it’s for the benefit of all, the athletes in particular.
The world has changed. Basketball showed that it realized that in '92 when they opened up the team to the NBA. We had to maximize our best athletes as the world had caught up to us. While we still have the best track and field athletes in the world, we need to make sure that we are maximizing their talents - and asking them to compete in the equivalent of two Olympics within six weeks is not looking like it has been the smartest thing we've ever done.
Now, I know that some people are thinking that having that extra time could also mean that the athletes may have too much time and end up being not as sharp – and I have considered that as well. It could mean that we have to add some sort of “fitness test” to the team selection process. As in, before the final entries are sent in to the IOC or IAAF that those athletes that have made the team should have “X” number of competitions under their belts as well as be within a certain percentage of their PR in order to keep their spots on the team. Yes, blasphemy to those who have grown attached to our “first three across the line” method of selecting our teams. But it wasn’t that long ago that we had TWO Trials meets (ended in the mid 80’s) – National championships and a Final Olympic Trials – where in essence that is exactly what we did to a degree for quite some time.
I’m not advocating a second Trials meet by any means. But I am saying that it would be fairly simple to set up some sort of rubric to ensure that the athletes we send to the Olympics or Worlds are fit enough to maintain their spots and represent the team adequately. As I said earlier, the world has changed – it’s tougher out there! And we have to make sure that we move in a direction that will help us reach that goal of 30 medals in a major. It’s not going to happen by accident. There will have to be some planning involved. And the first thing we will have to plan, or redesign, is a method to make sure our people are at their best when they step foot in the stadium of championship meets! We can’t keep moving backwards or standing in place while the rest of the world moves ahead.