ORLANDO, Fla. -- The 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials were shown in their entirety live on television and clearly selected the three best athletes of both sexes. That's good! But nearly everything else about the event went poorly. At a sometimes contentious joint session of the men's and women's long distance running division at the USATF Annual Meeting on Friday, athletes aired their complaints and administrators vowed to address them.
Men's LDR chair Edwardo Torres and women's LDR chair Kimberly Keenan-Kirkpatrick co-led the meeting, and USATF CEO Max Siegel and chairman of the board Steve Miller spoke at the end. Keenan-Kirkpatrick said that she was "furious" with the lack of medical support on-site, as athletes who dropped out had to walk a mile or two to the finish or borrow a cell phone from a spectator. Keenan-Kirkpatrick and Torres both said that they were walking the course assisting athletes who dropped out.
The on-site problems caused by the lack of hydration and medical support reached the comical. One attendee said that the night before the race, athletes were told that if they were going drop out, they should drop out near the start or the finish. Kyle Merber cited a friend who finished the race, went to the medical tent, and was turned away because the tent was too full. Merber's friend told him that he "felt more like a professional at a local 5K than he did at the Olympic Trials." Third-place finisher (and eventual sixth-place finisher at the Olympics) Jared Ward said that he lost 15 pounds over the course of the race, and that he recovered better from the 2015 Los Angeles Marathon because he was able to hydrate better in that race with water at every mile of the course.
The wet sponges on the course contained soap. Athletes had to pay a $30 entry fee, and they had to pay their own way from the airport to the hotels.
Some of these solutions are relatively simple and affordable--have more water stops, strike the entry fee, pay for a bigger and better medical tent. No one in a position of power denied that Friday, and it's likely that those specific problems will be addressed at the next Trials. But how the hell was it possible that they happened in the first place? There are three primary reasons, some contradictory and some overlapping.
Having the Trials in LA instead of Houston
In the site selection process, the long distance running committee recommended that the 2016 Trials be held in Houston. But for the first time ever, the national office and board of directors overrode the LDR committee's recommendation, selecting Los Angeles as the Trials site. That led to a somewhat later start time than is typical for a major marathon in a warm-weather city, around 10 AM Pacific time. The focus on television was a mixed bag: It was the first time that the entire race was shown on network TV...but ratings were flat from 2012.
Will Leer was charitable towards the decision-making process but harsh on the outcome, saying "This sport is better off than it was eight years ago. The national office isn't perfect, but that is because of their efforts.
"We took a chance, if the weather was perfect and we got four million viewers [it was around a million], it would have worked out. But water is a basic human right. A $30 entry fee buys you a lot of water for 26 miles...who cares about a live broadcast if someone dies or has their career ruined by running a marathon in 100-degree weather." (The 78-degree weather at the finish was the hottest in U.S. Trials history, and 59 men and 49 women--over a quarter of the fields--dropped out.)
A failure by USATF
For most of the meeting, this was the prevailing narrative. Torres directly said to Siegel on Friday that he recommended solutions the day before the race, and was ignored. David Katz, who sits on the USATF Rules Committee as the IAAF technical nominee, addressed the athletes in the room, saying "I know exactly what you guys went through, and it was terrible…direct communication with Max is the only way to avoid it happening again."
A failure by the local organizing committee
This is where Siegel comes in. He obliquely blamed the local organizing committee, saying "we were equally as frustrated with some of our partners, but I don't want to bash anyone publicly." Siegel threaded a very thin needle, insisting that concerns of athletes and the LDR committee were heard but refusing to blame the race organizers. He didn't name Conqur Endurance Group, which put on the race, but said that he couldn't criticize any partners directly because he wants to have the opportunity to continue doing business with them.
Steve Miller, the chairman of the board of USATF board of directors and nominally who Siegel reports to, made basically the same points. Miller addressed the room, saying "It was a bad situation, and I apologize for that difficulty...I don't want you to believe for a second that we don't share the same concerns, whether it's made public or not. There have been deep, dark discussions about this, and we're doing everything we can to avoid these issues."
It was probably the LOC's fault, and the solution here is likely to just pick a better one next time.