Posts Tagged ‘grand rapids michigan’

h1

#54 – Improving the Olympic Trials

19 April 2008

A pack of runners during the men’s Olympic Trials (photo credit RunMichigan.com)

This Sunday the women’s US Olympic Marathon Trials will be run in Boston.  NBC is providing a live webcast just like they did for the men’s Trials back in November, a welcome development in the media coverage of distance running.  Back then, however, I found myself wondering why the men’s race didn’t get more coverage.  It certainly helped that the event was tied to the NYC Marathon, as it will also help the women’s Trials to be partnered with the Boston Marathon.  But why couldn’t America’s most competitive, once-every-four-years marathon garner live television coverage? 

Inspired in part by Dane Rauschenberg’s analysis of lowering the qualifying standards and Hansons-Brooks runner Marty Rosendahl’s reflection of his participation in the Trials, I decided to explore two options of making the Olympic marathon trials a marquee event.  Would a larger field generate more interest, or should the participants be limited to the truly Olympic-caliber elite?  First let’s look at some numbers from the men’s trials:

2008 Qualification
“A” standard – 2:20:00 marathon. 
“B” standard – 2:22:00 marathon, 28:45 10K track, or 13:40 5K track.

179 runners ran qualifying times, 131 participated in the trials:
65 via sub-2:20 marathon, 60 participated
73 via sub-2:22 marathon, 63 participated
26 via sub-28:45 10K, 8 participated
15 via sub-13:40 5K, 0 participated

Would bigger be better?
One idea to increase public interest in the trials would be to expand the field to about 500-1000 runners.  By comparison, the Grand Rapids Marathon fielded 496 runners in 2004, growing to 1396 running the full 26.2 in 2007.  Logistically that would require a large course since the field would be more spread out, preventing the convenience of a six-lap course that the women’s Trials will feature.  The starting line would have to be strictly seeded by qualifying time to prevent back-of-the-packers from lining up in front of true contenders.  Could the aid stations handle such a large field running by within minutes?  If by some small chance the Trials organizers are reading this, they would be in shock at the thought of planning such an event.  Not only would the logistics be difficult, but financially it’s even more daunting.  After all, the men’s Trials in November actually cost more money than it earned despite the NBC coverage.

However, a large field could generate more revenue.  Rather than set a qualifying time standard, simply choose a field limit (e.g. 500) and in the several months leading up to the Trials a public leader board would create ongoing buzz.  Hopeful contenders could check to see where they stand among our nation’s runners and after a cutoff date, only the top 500 are invited to the Trials.  With so many runners participating there could be hundreds of towns following their local hero, thousands of friends and family members tuning in to watch their loved one run alongside (however briefly) our country’s eventual Olympians.  The longer total course would allow more spectators, and enough marking effort coupled with so many personal ties to the race could create a large following. 

One example is Joel Klooster.  You probably don’t know who he is; in fact, most of the avid runners in my company haven’t heard of him.  Truth is, I didn’t know either until I joined his department and recognized my new colleague as the same guy who had won a 5K I’d ran in.  Last spring Joel ran his first marathon in 2:30:09!  He finished third behind a guy who had already qualified for the Trials (Nathan Usher) and another one who missed by 17 seconds (Nick Allen).  He’s no threat to Trials winner Ryan Hall but the point is, would my local office of 1000+ employees watch the Trials if one of our own was running?  Maybe.

Maybe not.  There were at least 19 Michigan runners in the Trials including 13 from the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project.  I recall the local TV news broadcast, after the Trials were over, briefly noting that #2 finisher Dathan Ritzenhein (who grew up in nearby Rockford) and Ryan Shay are Michigan natives and that #3 finisher Brian Sell lives in the state.  Trials participant Kyle Baker, who lives and races right here in Grand Rapids, didn’t warrant a mention.  Extensive archive searching of Olympic sponsor NBC’s local affiliate Wood TV and of Michigan’s online newspaper hub M-Live.com resulted in just one article about the Trials, a story syndicated from the AP.  If the city of Grand Rapids, annual host of the 25K National Championship (in which Baker, Sell and Shay all raced in 2007) and home to some elite runners, can allow the Olympic Trials to be virtually ignored by the local media, then perhaps pulling together such a large field wouldn’t create the interest that some envision.

Would faster be better?
For a plodder like me it’s hard to imagine going faster than 2:22 over 26.2 miles, but a core argument for a smaller field is that 2:22 or even 2:20 won’t come close to winning Olympic medals.  Do we really want a 2:20 marathoner to pull a rabbit out of his shoes at the Trials and make the team?  The odds are slim that he could repeat that performance.  It may be an honor to qualify for the Trials but most elite athletes race to win, not to take home a finisher’s medal.  Marty Rosendahl said it well when he wrote: “I did run in the trials, and my name is on that finishers list for all of time … but I don’t just want to be there, I want to be competitive there.”

Cutting the standard down to 2:19 certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s enough to change the atmosphere of the Trials.  USATF estimates that 65-85 will make the cut in 2012 but that doesn’t really change the scope of the race.  The field will still consist of a handful of true contenders, another dozen who might place if they run the race of their life, and the remaining 50+ would just be there to get their name on that finishers list.  If the current format of the Trials doesn’t seem to interest the general public, reducing the number of relatively unknown runners from 150 to 50 would hardly be noticed.

Looking at the qualifying times and results of the men’s Trials, each of the top four finishers had qualified in the top ten, with Ritzenhein qualifying with the 10th best marathon.  However, he also had the 4th best 10K during the qualifying period so his performance was certainly no fluke.  Jason Lehmkuhle finished fifth in the Trials despite qualifying 49th, the most extreme jump aside from Steve Sundell finishing 15th after qualifying 103rd.  Lehmkuhle does have a 2:16:27 marathon PR from a few years ago so he can certainly burn, but apparently couldn’t do better than his 2:19:03 during the qualifying period.  If his Trials finish was two minutes faster he’d have made the Olympic team… no offense to Lehmkuhle but he wouldn’t seem likely to threaten a world-class field that easily notches sub-2:08’s.

Interestingly, five of the top 11 qualifiers suffered a DNF at the Trials and the #7 qualifier, Fernando Cabada, did not even race (although I’m not sure why).  I’m not entirely surprised at the DNF’s – these cream-of-the-crop runners were racing to make the team or bust.  If an Olympic team had to be chosen based on history and not on a Trials race, it seems that Ryan Hall, Khalid Khannouchi and Abdi Abdirahman are the strongest marathoners we have.  However, it’s important that an athlete be able to deliver on race day and for whatever reason, Khannouchi and Abdirahman couldn’t quite make it while Ritzenhein and Sell proved that they know how to prepare for a major contest.

Even faster is even better!
My suggestion for invigorating the coverage of the Olympic Trials would be to limit the field to around 25 qualifiers.  All but three of the top ten Trials finishers had a top 25 qualifying marathon.  Daniel Browne and Josh Rohatinsky finished 6th and 8th respectively despite not posting a qualifying marathon time – instead they had qualified via the 10K, where Browne was the 17th ranked qualifier and Rohatinsky was ranked #10 at that distance.  Lehmkuhle did qualify 33rd with his 10K time, but with his 49th-ranked marathon he stands as the biggest statistical surprise in the top ten at the Trials.

There were 48 runners who posted a 2:19 or better qualifying time, which would be good enough to meet the new 2012 standard.  Even if you’re a die-hard fan of running, you probably haven’t heard of many of those names.  Incidentally the #25 qualifier, Jason Hartmann, posted a 2:15:50 and was the “slowest” man to crack 2:16 before the Trials.  However rather than using a time-based cutoff, the Trials would simply invite the 25 fastest marathoners during the qualifying period.  If your 2:16 happens to place you 26th in the country, then sorry for you but great for Team USA as it means our Trials will feature some truly elite racers. 

A very fast time standard could be used for an automatic entry, maybe 2:14 or 2:15, where any runner beating that time is guaranteed entry into the Trials.  For some background, nine runners qualified for the men’s Trials with times under 2:14 (Ritzenhein was 10th at 2:14:01) and 14 finished under 2:15 (Ryan Shay was #14 at 2:14:58 and Chad Johnson was #15 at 2:15:03).  If more than 25 runners can beat 2:15, then the Trials would accept however many meet that standard but it almost certainly wouldn’t be over 30.  If the USA wants world-class runners, we might as well require world-class qualifying standards.

The big benefit that I see to such a small field is that it allows the public a chance to get to know all competitors.  Major League Baseball rosters have 25 players; NASCAR lines up 32 or so cars in a race.  Limiting the Trials field to 25 runners means that press kits could include bios of each and every competitor.  Maybe NBC could incorporate chip-timed splits live in their TV coverage with real-time updates showing who’s gaining ground, who posted the fastest recent mile, who’s slowing down, etc… much like what NASCAR broadcasts already feature.  Knowing that every runner has a chance to place in the top three and make the Olympic team adds real excitement, and a smaller but stronger field means that the packs will remain tight longer into the race.

Now watch the women!
If you’ve read this far, hopefully you haven’t forgotten to watch the women’s Trials tomorrow morning!  As you tune in, think about what could make the Trials a more exciting, fan-friendly event and let me know your opinions.  Bigger?  Faster?  Something else?

Advertisements