U.S. tracksters better at the Trials than at the Games

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 29, 2008 – The Olympic Games are over and for the world’s top track & field athletes, it’s back to business as usual.

The highlight will be Jamaican world-record holder Usain Bolt in the 100 meters, who is probably taking an accountant with him to carry all the checks and arrange all the bank transfers he is collecting in his post-Olympic tour. Not counting bonuses for new world records, Bolt could be $300,000 richer in the next couple of weeks. He’s riding the crest of one of the great runs in the history of track & field.

The American contingent is not doing as well. Although the U.S. easily led the medal count in Beijing once again and had the best team in eight-place scoring (eight points for first, down to one point for eighth, generally the best measure of team strength), there were notable trouble spots:

• The U.S. qualified only one male athlete – pole vaulter Derek Miles – for the Olympic final out of 12 entries in the high jump, vault, long jump and triple jump and won no medals, a collapse of historic proportions.

• The U.S. was 0-7 in qualification for the final in the discus, hammer and javelin, so in the eight field events, only four of the 22 American entries (18.2%) made the final and three of those were the shot putters. The U.S. men won a total of one medal in these eight events: Christian Cantwell’s silver in the shot.

• American women weren’t quite as bad, qualifying five entrants out of 11 in the four jumping events and four out of 11 in the throws for a field total of nine out of 22 (40.9%). The U.S. women won two medals in the field: Stephanie Brown Trafton’s surprise gold in the discus and Jenn Stuczynski’s silver in the vault.

Even more of a problem was the stark reality that the best performances by American athletes came at the Olympic Trials in Eugene than in the Olympic Games in Beijing:

• Of the 55 American men who competed in Beijing, only 13 posted better marks in the Games than in the Trials, a miserable 23.6%.

• Of the 55 American women who competed in the Games, only nine did better in Beijing, an even worse mark of 16.4%.

• Overall, 22 out of 110 Americans – 20% – did better in the Games than at the Trials.

In the sprints, especially, American performances suffered at the Games. In the 100 and 200-meter events, all 12 entrants were worse in August than in June, although the men’s 100 and women’s 200 in Eugene were wind-aided.

What’s the solution?

Perhaps the U.S. national team coordinator for women’s gymnastics, Marta Karolyi, might have it right. She kept the “trials” portion of the gymnastics competition rolling until nearly the last moment so that she could pick the athletes who were fittest closest to the competition dates.

If that had been done for track & field, the U.S. Trials would not have been held from June 27-July 6, but two weeks later from July 12-20, just ahead of the final IAAF entry deadline of July 23. The Olympic track competition was three weeks later, beginning on August 15.

It’s a concept worth considering, especially as London’s dates are earlier for 2012, with the Games scheduled for July 27-August 12 with the track events likely to be held from August 4-12.

American athletes just weren’t as fit in Beijing as they were for the Trials. That’s what has to change; the USA Track & Field high-performance staff should be taking a close look at how the fitness levels of American athletes increase or decrease at the end of this season for a clue about how long it takes to regain top form after a layoff.

Usain Bolt figured it out. Now the Americans need to, too.

1 Comment

  1. I am in total agreement with this article. The U.S. trials is the most competitive trials of any in the world. In order to make the team, athletes aren’t taking any chances, meaning they are peaking for the trials and then competing on fumes and guts for the Worlds or the Olympics. The trials need to be closer to the Worlds and Olympics.

    Another reason the trials need to be closer to the Worlds and Olympics is for fan and TV continuity. As it has already been expressed on this website, audiences might be more captivated if they can see the drama of qualifying for the international majors and then the drama of competing at the international majors shown close together. The current format creates a lapse, in particular for the fringe fan who can lose interest during the gap or be easily distracted by other sports.

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