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Here's an idea: Bring Olympic Trials to Boston Marathon

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 4/16/2001

he last Olympic Trials were a disaster for United States distance running. Short of an earthquake swallowing up the 170 women competing in Columbia, S.C., and the 99 men in Pittsburgh, there wasn't much else that could go wrong. If paltry TV coverage and late changes in the rules weren't enough, sweltering heat guaranteed doom.

''The press conference was more like a funeral procession than anything else,'' said Rod De Haven, winner of the men's Trial in 2 hours 15 minutes 30 seconds. ''There was nothing I could say.''

Women's winner Christine Clark found herself virtually apologizing for her 2:33:31 victory.

It wasn't the athletes who failed, it was the system. Let's not let it happen again. Let's bring the next Trials, men's and women's, to the Boston Marathon.

OK, New York or Chicago would do. But let's get the event someplace that attracts national TV, where the weather is cooler, where sophisticated sponsors are in place, and where US athletes can run against a top international field that likely will produce faster times.

''I think it would be great,'' said Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won Boston in 1979 and 1983 and the trials and Olympics in 1984. ''Boston is a running-savvy and running-knowledgeable city. There would be huge crowds and great press, and I think our sport desperately needs it.''

Here's what went wrong: To send a full delegation of three men to Sydney, De Haven needed to run under 2:14. To send three women, Clark needed to break 2:33. Given the heat and humidity at both Trials, neither could. But USA Track & Field, largely to appease local organizers and sponsors, decided the winners would go to Sydney regardless of their times. Unfortunately, the international rules say if you send one person below the ''A'' standard, you can't send anyone else, even if they ran faster times in other races during the qualifying period.

So everyone else, including some very disgruntled and vocal folks, stayed home. Clark went to Sydney and ran a personal-best 2:31:35 to finish a redeeming 19th; De Haven was felled by an intestinal problem and limped in 69th in 2:30:46.

Because of the meltdown, USATF is open to suggestions, and has sent out a questionnaire asking athletes to list their priorities. Do they want big prize money? A flat, fast course? Maximum media exposure? How much time do they want between the Trials and the Olympics? Should we send the best team possible, even if it's only one athlete, or the biggest team?

Warning to USATF: Don't get bogged down in tabulating the results; the top 20 athletes are going to have a vastly different wish list from the back of the pack. You saw what went wrong last time, now go with your gut.

Advice to Boston and Chicago: If you're even vaguely interested, get moving, because New York is way ahead of you.

This fall, the New York City Marathon will host the US National Championships for men and women. It will be a race within a race - the Americans battling it out for the US title in the midst of the overall field - with a separate purse, although any US runner who breaks into the regular prize money gets that, too.

A small change in the course this year takes out a hill in Central Park; race director Allan Steinfeld calls the benefit more emotional than anything else, but hey, if athletes perceive the course as less difficult, all the better.

If all goes well this fall, Steinfeld said, New York might bid for the Trials.

Which, in all likelihood, would have to be called something else. Anything termed the Olympic Trials is owned by the United States Olympic Committee, meaning conflicts in sponsorship slow everything to a crawl. That's one reason USA Figure Skating doesn't have one; it has a national championship to select the next US Olympic team. Works for them. Races such as Boston, New York, and Chicago could keep their loyal sponsors, and find a few more if they need to boost American prize money, if everyone lets go of the notion that the trials have to be the Trials.

Speaking of letting go, drop the notion that the winner goes to Athens no matter what. If the first American in the ''selection race'' doesn't meet the standard, immediately proceed down the list to the first three finishers who do. By 2003 or 2004, there will be enough to choose from. Have faith.

As for Boston, race officials are waiting to hear what the USATF will set out as criteria. Don't. Put together a proposal and see how it flies. New York and Chicago should do the same. Everyone needs to get talking, and now.

Craig Masback, the CEO of USATF, says everything is on the table. Take him at his word. Go for it.

This story ran on page D8 of the Boston Globe on 4/16/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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