May 17, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Jenny Simpson (9) wins the womens 800m in 2:00.45 in the 2013 USATF High Performance meet at Occidental College. From left: Latavia Thomas and Simpson and Phoebe Wright. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Chasing For The Truth

I was casually browsing the USA Track & Field website on Tuesday evening (as one does) when I stumbled upon the selection procedures for the World Championships this summer in Moscow. Unlike qualifying last year when athletes needed ‘A’ standards by the conclusion of the Olympic Trials, USATF allows for the “chasing” of standards post-USA Championships in World Championship years. This year, the cutoff date is July 20.

These guidelines are especially prevalent in events like the men’s 1500 meters where none of the likely contestants have yet achieved the ‘A’ standard. Without this flexibility, athletes overexert themselves in time trials the weeks leading up to the championship meet rather than focusing on performing their best at the championship itself.

Without reading the guidelines particularly carefully, I just assumed the top three placers in each event would have the privilege of chasing for the standard if they didn’t already have it. I was soon corrected by UC Davis head track and field coach Drew Wartenburg that the top FOUR actually get to chase.

Confusing? Consider this case study.

Heading into the women’s 5000 meters at the 2011 USATF Championships, only one women starting the race, American record holder Molly Huddle, had the ‘A’ standard.

Huddle won the race handily, but the drama came in the next two slots, where Mammoth Track Club teammates Amy Hastings and Angela Bizzarri finished second and third, respectively. Since neither had the ‘A’ standard of 15:14.00, both headed to Europe in pursuit of the mark. If either hit it, the other would also go to Daegu. But after extensive chasing – and arguably but understandably over-racing – neither was able to dip under the standard.

Huddle and Hastings were on the team. Since the U.S. is allowed to take up to two ‘A’ and one ‘B’ qualifier, USATF expanded its scope beyond just the top four at nationals, thus technically violating its own rules. Going down the order of finishers at USA’s, the next person with an ‘A’ qualifier was Desi Davila in sixth place, but since she already started fall marathon preparation, the Hansons-Brooks team member passed on the opportunity. Next in line was Lauren Fleshman, who despite finishing just eighth at USA’s looked impressive in winning a Diamond League race at Crystal Palace with an ‘A’ standard time.

In this case, reaching down to select Fleshman was clearly a wise decision as the Stanford grad went on to finish seventh at the World Championships, one spot higher than she placed at USA’s. I do not blame USATF was what they did in the Fleshman case. However, I do fault the organization for having a lack of clarity about the rules. If more than just the top four are allowed to chase for standards, then that must be explicitly stated in the guidelines. All I’m asking for clarity so that sthletes outside the top four at U.S. championships can plan their European seasons according to whether they have a real hope of being selected for the U.S. team.

Then again, the bottom line may lie in a tweet from agent Dan Lilot: “The simple answer is that USATF reserves the right to decide what to do on the fly.”

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