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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Beau Dure

Athing Mu’s fall exposed the self-defeating cruelty of the US Olympic trials

Athing Mu was in tears after her fall at the US Olympic track trials.
Athing Mu was in tears after her fall at the US Olympic track trials. Photograph: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

The track and field events at this summer’s Olympics don’t start until August, but Team USA are already losing medals in June.

Athing Mu, who won gold in the women’s 800m in Tokyo and followed up with a world championship the next year at the age of 20, isn’t going to Paris. Neither are Brooke Andersen, the 2022 world champion in the women’s hammer throw, or Laulauga Tausaga-Collins, the 2023 world champion in the women’s discus.

What happened? Simple. The USATF Olympic trials happened.

Tausaga-Collins fouled out of the discus qualification round in spectacular fashion, with throws that missed the legal target area by such a wide margin that organizers can count themselves lucky that no one was on the track. Andersen, whose best throws this year rank first, fourth, seventh, 10th and 12th in the world, fouled out in more mundane fashion in the final.

But the lingering image of these trials may be of a tearful Mu, who crossed the finish line last after she fell on the first lap of the final in Eugene, at the showcase venue for the sport in the United States. She had battled back from injury and a self-imposed break to rediscover her love of running, and she looked great winning her semi-final.

USA Track and Field denied Mu’s appeal, in which veteran coach Bobby Kersee claimed she was clipped by another runner.

Mu’s ability is not in doubt. Her 10 fastest times are all well under 1:58, including a national record 1:54.97 last fall at the Prefontaine Classic. In place of Mu, the United States will send Juliette Whittaker, who hadn’t broken the 1:59 mark until Monday’s final, when she took third in 1:58.45. Whittaker is a rising star who won the NCAA championship for Stanford earlier this month, but reaching an Olympic podium in a few weeks will require a tactical race and perhaps some good fortune.

At least Whittaker has met the Olympic qualifying standard, doing so in the trials final. In the hammer throw, three athletes who’ve met the standard are looking up at Erin Reese, who took third place in the trials but does not yet have a place in Paris.

All of which means the track and field community in the US has to ask itself: Is the current format – in which athletes’ place on the Olympic team is decided solely by performance at the trials – really the best way to choose a team?

It’s a question that has come up before, especially in 1992, when Reebok’s ubiquitous “Dan and Dave” ad campaign built around world decathlon champion Dan O’Brien and 1990 Goodwill Games champion Dave Johnson came to a screeching halt when O’Brien missed his three attempts in the pole vault at the US Olympic trials. One bad day in an event with literal pitfalls flushed away millions of dollars in marketing along with a prime opportunity to put the sport firmly in the consciousness of a country with a limited attention span.

The trials are, for the most part, peculiar to the United States. And in some respects, rightfully so. One reason is the country’s embarrassment of riches. In many countries, qualification is rather simple. Anyone who meets World Athletics’ high standards for qualification is in.

Consider Ireland. For a country with a little more than five million people, Ireland does quite well in athletics. The women’s and mixed 4x400m relay teams are legitimate medal contenders. Yet even in the 400m, in which Ireland is obviously strong, only three athletes are currently ranked high enough to take an Olympic berth. Holding trials for the individual 400m would therefore be meaningless. The USA, on the other hand, has 12 sprinters in the men’s 100m who’ve met the automatic standard, then another four who would currently qualify based on world ranking if they lived in almost any other country on Earth. Whittling down that number through trials makes sense.

Another factor behind the trials is the USA’s obsession with “playoffs” and “clutch performances.” US pro and college sports reward tournament winners, not “regular-season” winners. In Olympic sports, the media and viewing audiences pay attention almost exclusively to the Olympics themselves, with world championships a distant second and any Diamond League or World Cup competitions hardly registering. The trials – as an extension of the Olympics – are held by many in the US Olympic community as the best possible test of would-be Olympians. Others disagree. Kersee called Mu’s exclusion “another indication that regardless of how good we are, we can leave some better athletes home than other countries have. It’s part of our American way.”

And so the trials are undoubtedly dramatic. Viewers are treated to cathartic moments like Sha’Carri Richardson, who lost her spot on the Tokyo Olympic team after testing positive for the drug found in cannabis, emphatically streaking to victory in the 100m to claim a berth for Paris.

But they’re also subjected to closeup shots of Mu, crying as she finished and walked under the stands, a journey of only a few meters that must have seemed like miles. And as we see in the women’s hammer throw and other events in which some top-three US athletes haven’t met the standards, that drama is left unresolved when everyone packs up and leaves Eugene.

What’s the solution? The world championship model hints at a way to make sure athletes like Mu aren’t left out. World Athletics reserves spaces for defending champions and for Diamond League season winners, and a country that has a defending champion can bring a fourth person to the championships.

Even without a fourth spot, would the trials be diminished if a defending Olympic or world champion who meets the Olympic standard gets an automatic berth on the team?

And even if they were, is a bit of fleeting drama in Eugene worth sacrificing a shot at something even more thrilling in Paris?

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