Friday, July 13, 2007

USATF Selection Process "Strongly Favored by the Athletes"

I recently corresponded with Jill Geer, USATF Director of Communications, regarding the USATF's current selection process. Here is the exchange:

Hi, Jill.

I hope all is well. Sanya Richards should trounce TEAM USA in the women's 400m dash at the Golden Gala in Rome. Once she does, questions will arise again about the seemingly imperfect selection process that the USATF currently has. If she wins, it could be easily argued that we aren't sending our best women's 400m team to Osaka. It could also be argued just as easily that she should have made the team when she was required to do so. Care to comment on this dilemma?


Jimmie R. Markham
Finish Line Pundit

Here is her reply:


Any selection system is imperfect, but our system is strongly favored by the athletes, since under this system, they select themselves to the team – not somebody sitting in an office ordaining a team. They understand the system and know what they need to do to make the team, instead of being subject to someone else’s judgement call or personal preferences. It is the only purely objective selection system.

Unfortunately, one consequence of this system is that sometimes you do have the stunning development such as Sanya not making the team or Dan O’Brien no-heighting in the pole vault in ’92 – situations where Team USA almost certainly loses a modal. However, the self-selection system also results in unlikely athletes making the team and then going on to win medals. For instance, in 2004, I doubt that Lauryn Williams would be on anybody’s ‘chosen’ list to make the team, but she won the Olympic silver medal and went on to become a World Champion at 100 meters. I remember Calvin Davis miraculously making the 1996 Olympic Team in the men’s 400 hurdles, taking third at the Olympic Trials. He ended up winning a bronze medal at the Games. There are countless examples like this.

It is very unfortunate that Sanya did not make the team in the 400 – to say everyone was shocked is an understatement. But it happened, and our selection system says the top 3 make the team. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best system we have, and the one that the athletes themselves want.

Also, I should point out that our system also is meant to mimic the rigors of the World Championship and Olympic models, with athletes running rounds. This helps self-select a team that is uniquely suited to Championship running. (This is an issue different from the Sanya issue but is relevant to how and why our system is what it is.) There is a difference between a runner who excels in one-off races and those who excel in the Championship model of rounds. Examples of the latter are Rich Kenah (’97 World Outdoor bronze medalist in the 800) and Lauryn Williams. Of course, many athletes excel at both.

Jill M. Geer
USATF Director of Communications

Her arguments make perfect sense to me. Besides, if we did have a subjective selection process, who would we trust to make those decisions? If I were a world-class athlete, I'd rather let my performances make those decisions for me than some committee over which I may or may not have any influence. And who could put up with all of the second guessing if the selections that were made resulted in poor showings at championship meets? Those types of irrelevent debates wouldn't be any good for the image of track & field.

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