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A Proposal for Olympic Trials Reform

Selection of national Olympic teams always sparks controversy and debate. The following proposal would lead to both optimal roster construction and less controversy.

Andrew P. Scott-USA TODAY Sports

We've already had the US Olympic Marathon Trials and teams have been selected. In July, the remainder of the United States team will be selected on the basis of the results from a meet in Eugene, Oregon. The American system is such that Olympic selection hinges (almost) entirely on the outcome of a single race. This contrasts with other national selection systems--most notably, Kenya's--in which selection is determined by a national governing body operating without clear, or at the very least, publicly available standards.

Both systems are problematic. The outcome of a single race, while an objective and measurable standard for qualification, can easily result in a non-optimal outcome in sending the strongest possible team to the Olympics. Any time an n of 1 is used to measure true talent or ability, randomness will inevitably get in the way of a proper measurement. This is especially true in the marathon. No knock on Jared Ward, who is a fine marathoner, but does anyone honestly believe he gives the United States a better shot at a medal in Rio than Dathan Ritzenhein or Luke Puskedra? A single race in running may well feature less randomness than, say, a game of baseball, but randomness is at play and can occasionally get in the way of sending the best possible set of athletes to represent the country at the Olympics.

The Kenyan system is at least as problematic. No one knows precisely how the Athletics Kenya selects their teams. One thing seems clear: the committee is easily influenced by recency bias. In 2012, they left Geoffrey Mutai off the team after he struggled in Boston that year, ultimately dropping out because of the heat. This was one race, and Mutai was otherwise more than qualified to represent Kenya in London. Aside from 2012 Boston, Mutai set course records in both Boston and New York in 2011 and won Berlin in 2012. In all likelihood, Mutai was one of the three best Kenyans that could have competed in the marathon in 2012. Yet, he didn't because Athletics Kenya probably overweighed his recent struggles in Boston.

In short, neither system works particularly well in that both can easily leave a country's best runner off the team.

So what can be done?

Let's start with a trials-based model. It works pretty well and, as I mentioned above, does ground Olympic selection in a measurable, objective, and clearly-defined standard. Yet, this process can still "snub" some athletes who clearly deserve a spot on the team. Runners fall; untimely sickness can strike in the week leading up to the event; a thrower can string a bunch of fouls together. This is largely randomness and can lead to someone really good--a medal contender, even--getting left off the team.

But let's keep the trials. Again, they're objective and usually work. From USATF's perspective, they also bring in money that wouldn't be made on some sort of austere back-room selection process. But let's limit their scope to account for the potential appearance of variance that can pop up in a single race. These new trials would be a race for two guaranteed spots on the team. Whoever finishes first or second in a trials competition would, provided they meet the Olympic qualifying standard, would automatically punch his or her ticket to the Olympics (or World Championships, depending on the year).

The third spot would fall to an at-large bid to be determined by the USATF, Athletics Kenya, or the relevant governing body. It may very well be that the third place finisher in the trials will receive that bid. In fact, I anticipate this would happen the vast majority of the time. But, it does insulate the team from a fluke occurrence like, say, Galen Rupp falling in the 10,000m in Eugene or Boris Berian getting out kicked in a tactical preliminary round.

College basketball already has a similar approach. Conference championship tournaments are opportunities for teams to secure their spots in the NCAA tournament, but, in the event that an obviously strong team does not win their conference championship, they can still make the tournament as an at-large team. Every year, this process leads to some debate over a team or two that got left out, but this debate overshadows the fact that these teams on the wrong side of the bubble never have a real chance of winning the tournament.

In track, Ajee Wilson has a real chance to medal in 800m in Rio. If she falls in the final or is out kicked in a preliminary round, she would be left off the team under the current system. The result would be that the United States would not be sending their best team to Rio. This alternative system assures that an obvious medal contender will never be left off the team.

The trials work pretty well as is and, under this new system, the top three finishers in the trials will be rewarded with a spot on the national team the vast majority of the time. But a lot is at stake in selecting an Olympic team. Sure, the stakes mostly involve nebulous factors like national pride or competitive spirit, but they are real even if soft.

More importantly, the ultimate goal of either a trials competition or a selection committee is to select the best athletes to represent a country on the world stage. Neither process on its own can reliably ensure that that occurs. So, blending the two could produce a more optimal outcome. Let the best shine through in a competition, but provide a system of insurance in the form of an at-large bid that a true medal contender isn't left on the sidelines because of one poor race at the wrong time.