Going Fourth at the Olympic Trials: The Worst Place to Be
The Olympic Trials are cruel their democracy: you either make or you don’t, no subjectivity involved.
Posted Monday, 7 July, 2008
Finish in the top three in your event (along with the attendant qualifying time) and you are off to Beijing and all that an Olympic experience entails. Finish fourth and you are headed home to ponder what could have been. While this uncompromising system leaves no room for complaints of bias, it does leave a lot of room for “what ifs,” and personal second-guessing. Hurdler David Oliver said it best: "The hardest event in track and field is the U.S. Olympic Trials. And life is brutish. It's not fair. So you know, things happen. It just comes with the territory."
Missing the Olympic team by one place is an agonizing result, but for some more than others. Much like a one-run loss in 12 innings in baseball is tougher to take than a blowout, so is missing out on the Olympic Games by a fraction of a second rather than by a few minutes or more. Most of three Olympic places earned in the running events in the 2008 Olympic Trials went to the favorites, confirming the runners who had the best results leading up to the trials. In some of the distance races, such as the men’s and women’s steeplechase, 5,000 and 10,000 meters, the top three finishers were so far clear of the field that the others were literally out of the (television) picture at the finish.
Then there were the men’s 800 and 1,500-meters finals, two of the most exhilarating and heartbreaking contests one could hope to see. In both, one of the pre-race favorites was shut out of the Olympic Games, left to wonder what went wrong.
The men’s 800-meter final will long be remembered for its wild sprint to the finish that jumbled the positions of the lead runners as they gunned for the finish line. While Nick Symmonds and Andrew Wheating pulled clear of the field, unheralded Christian Smith snuck up alongside Khadevis Robinson on the inside and dived for the line in a desperate lunge for third place, a move that proved to the difference.
Although he did not earn a trip to run in the Olympics, Robinson did earn the respect of nearly everyone for his poise and graciousness after the race. He said, "I'm disappointed. This is by far the worst championships I've had. I almost went out in the first round. I expected to run better today, but you have to be gracious in victory and also in defeat. The guys ran well. They're very deserving."
Still, missing the Olympic team by six-one-hundredths of a second burned within Robinson’s psyche. "It's the worst feeling in the world,'' he said. Was it fair that two relatively inexperienced runners (Wheating and Smith) were able to advance to the Olympics, while the veteran Robinson was sent home based on one single race? That’s the Olympic Trials.
In the 1,500-meter final it was Alan Webb who came up short and was left to deal with the same empty feeling Robinson experienced. (While Webb finished fifth, he was in reality fourth in the running for the Olympic team, as actual fourth place finisher Will Leer did not have the necessary “A” Olympic qualifying time.) In a race that featured constant jostling and elbowing for position—in large part due to the stiff winds that no one really wanted to battle out in front—it came down to a final 200-meter sprint, as these kinds of races often do. Favorite Bernard Lagat pulled away easily, while Leonel Manzano and Lopez Lomong (who was fifth in the wild 800) followed. Webb, forced wide into the second and third lanes for much of the race, including the final sprint, lifted his pace, but did not have enough to catch Lomong.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for Webb, whose career had been on an upward arc since he produced a 4:06:94 mile as a high school sophomore, then obliterated the American high school record by clocking 3:53:54 in 2001, on the very track on which he suffered such a colossal disappointment this past weekend.
So dismayed was Webb that he left the stadium without comment, leaving others to speculate where it all went wrong. How could Webb, who clocked an overall American record in the mile of 3:46:91 in 2007 (as well as personal bests of 1:43:84 for 800 meters and 3:30:54 for 1,5000 meters), have been unable to secure a top three finish just a year later? Was it just a case of bad timing? Was it nerves? Is Webb, at just 25, already past his peak?
At this point no one knows for sure, perhaps not even Webb himself. In the age of instant communication and Internet message boards, Webb has been one of the most scrutinized track athletes in history. As soon as he crossed the finish line in that 3:53 mile in 2001, he became America’s next great hope in the mile and 1,500 meters, one of the glamour events in the Olympics. Although he was eliminated in the first round in the 2004 Games after dominating the trials race, most chalked it up to inexperience, feeling that with four more years under his belt he would come back to contend for a medal in Beijing this summer. For the past seven years Webb has carried the heavy weight of completing what the last great American hope in the mile, Jim Ryun, was unable to do. Ryun won a silver medal in the 1,500 in the 1968 Games and four years later was tripped and fell, unable to recover.
All seemed to be going according to plan as Webb ran spectacular times throughout last summer, but then at the World Championships in Osaka, Webb ran a tactically poor race in the 1,500-meter final and finished eighth, never really in the running for a medal. He never truly seemed to bounce back from that performance. Early season road races this year proved to be a disaster and on the track he never was able to get anywhere near the kind of peak that resulted in the records he set last year. Hoping it would all come together in Eugene, instead it totally fell apart in the final.
Meanwhile, Bernard Lagat has been basking in the glory that might have been Webb’s. A naturalized U.S. citizen in 2004, Lagat won not only the 1,500 in Osaka, but the 5,000 as well, a feat he duplicated in this Olympic Trials and hopes to match again in Beijing. A gracious and personable athlete, Lagat has nonetheless touched off a debate on who should really be representing the U.S. at the Olympic Games.
Born in Kaptel, a village in Kenya's Nandi district, Lagat attended college at Washington State University and while a Kenyan citizen won a bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics and silver in 2004, in the 1,500 meters. Second-place trials finisher Manzano was born in a farming village outside Hidalgo, Mexico and crossed the border at age four to join his father, who had come to the U.S. to find work. Third-place finisher Lomong, one of the famed “Lost Boys of Sudan,” was taken from his family at age six by a government militia in that country. After escaping to a refugee camp in Kenya, Lomong was relocated to New York as part of a program that brought hundreds of Lost Boys to the U.S. Regardless of how long they have been U.S. citizens, only the truly xenophobic would find it difficult to root for these three runners .
All three are now headed to the Olympic Games while Webb watches (or not) back home. “I hope people don't get mad and say we're not from here,” Manzano said. “We all wanted to come to the United States and have a better life for ourselves. It's kind of like the American dream.” Said Lagat, “That's why America is a melting pot…This is the land of opportunity. We are here now as one country." Webb himself endorsed these three contenders when before the race he said, “If they're stronger and better, they deserve to get it.”
In the end, it’s this kind of competition that lifts the entire sport. In order for the winners to truly achieve something special, there must be “losers” who are accomplished and talented enough to infuse the victories with true meaning.
Unfortunately for Khadevis Robinsons and Alan Webb, they will fill those roles, at least in 2008. Whether they rebound and come back to make another run at the Olympic Games in 2012 remains to be seen. In any event, it will be well worth watching, as will the Olympic Games next month, in which the medalists will revel in glory, while the fourth-place finishers will struggle to come to terms with a cruel fate.