The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials Have Been Saved
Following months of uncertainty, the most exciting marathon on U.S. soil has been upgraded to “Gold Label” status. Here’s what that means.
On Monday, USA Track and Field announced that the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials had been given “Gold Label” status by the International Association of Athletics Federations, thereby guaranteeing that the top three finishers in the race will be automatically qualified for next summer’s Games in Tokyo. The news came as a relief to those in the U.S. running community who had feared that more difficult qualification standards for the 2020 Games would neuter the thrill of the Trials Marathon—a race where in the past, the only thing that mattered for aspiring Olympians was finishing in the top three.
“We are so excited about this,” an ebullient article on Letsrun.com noted in response to the IAAF’s decision. “Having the top three across the line at the Trials makes for great drama and is easy to explain to TV viewers . . . we really think the US Trials should always be ‘first three across the line go to the Olympics,’ particularly in the marathon.”
How did we get here? As I wrote back in March, the IAAF was under pressure to reduce the number of participants in the Olympic Marathon by roughly 50 percent from 2016. In order to do this, the world governing body made the qualifying time standards for the Games exponentially harder to achieve; the standard went from 2:19 to 2:11:30 for men, and from 2:45 to 2:29:30 for women. Alternatively, an athlete can achieve the Olympic standard by finishing in the top ten at a World Marathon Major, or by finishing in the top five at a so-called “Gold Label” marathon between January 1, 2019 and May 31, 2020. (The Gold Label distinction already applies to all Majors, but also to slightly less prestigious—but still very competitive—races like the Vienna Marathon or the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia. For those interested, here is a searchable database of IAAF Gold Label races.)
In the past, achieving the Olympic standard was less of a concern for American marathoners because, simply put, it was relatively easy. The time needed to qualify for the U.S. Trials was usually identical to that needed to qualify for the Games, which meant that most elite-level U.S. marathoners went into the Trials having already secured the Olympic standard.
It’s safe to say that this won’t be the case on February 29, when the 2020 Trials take place in Atlanta. At present, 180 men have qualified for next year’s Trials, out of which a grand total of two have hit the Olympic standard. For the women, those numbers stand at 341 and nine. As if the pressure of the Trials weren’t big enough, imagine going into that race knowing that you still need to hit a time standard in an event that most pros only contest twice a year.
Thanks to this week’s fairy godmother-style intervention by the IAAF, that won’t be a concern for the men and women racing in Atlanta next February. Any runner who ends of on the podium at the Trials without having previously hit that standard would be killing two birds with one stone.
Of course, this prompts the question of why the IAAF decided to bend its rules to accommodate USATF. And that’s putting it mildly. The criteria for a Gold Label marathon state that, among other things, a single-gender race must include at least seven runners in the top 150 of the official IAAF World Rankings. While the U.S. women have exactly seven athletes who make the cut, Galen Rupp is the only male U.S. runner who cracks the top 150. Most, if not all, other Gold Label races include an international elite field. By conferring Gold status on the U.S. Olympic Trials—a single-nation event by definition—the IAAF appears to be exercising a form of favoritism.
So far, the organization hasn’t responded to an email asking for an official explanation on why it made this exception for the U.S. Trials. In Monday’s press release, USATF stated that, “athlete preparation, pre-existing commercial commitments and TV broadcast arrangements were key factors in the [IAAF’s] decision.” The national governing body also took pains to emphasize that “planning for marathon trials had begun well before the changes to the qualification system were announced.”
What does that mean? Well, for one thing, the Trials course in Atlanta, which the Atlanta Track Club revealed back in January, is dauntingly hilly. There’s reason to believe that, had the organizers known that the IAAF was going to introduce such difficult qualification standards, they would have gone with something where fast times were more feasible.
As for those pre-existing commercial commitments and TV broadcast rights, Letsrun has reported that: “The Atlanta Track Club and its sponsors have poured over a million dollars into hosting and promoting the Trials—and NBC has committed to airing it on national TV—with the understanding that the premise that had existed in years past—top three make the team—would be in place. By granting USATF an exception, the IAAF has preserved that premise, along with the drama and intensity that make the Trials easy-to-understand, must-watch TV for running fans.”
It’s not immediately clear why any of this is the IAAF’s problem. One could certainly argue that it is in the IAAF’s interest to help maintain the “drama and intensity” of its sport in a market as vast and potentially lucrative as the United States. (It’s also conceivable that NBC, which owns the rights the Olympic broadcasting in the U.S., exerted some pressure on the International Olympic Committee and the IAAF to tweak the rules as a way of protecting its investment.)
Does all this make it worth it for the athletics world governing body to magically upgrade a race to accommodate a single country’s Olympic marathon selection process? For now, the answer seems to be yes.