Track trials settle issues on the track

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - There are no injury waivers at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials. No automatic qualifiers. No selection shenanigans. No exceptions.

It is the most stressful and least scientific way of identifying America's elite athletes. Also the most democratic. The system has its flaws, to be sure, but fairness is not among them. Better a one-shot deal than a stacked deck. Better track's excruciating tension than gymnastics' egregious gerrymandering.

Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu will not participate in the U.S. Gymnastics Trials this week in Boston, yet both are virtually assured a place on the Olympic team. They have both obtained injury waivers that will allow them to sit on their scores from the nationals and be spared the necessity of performing under pressure for a place on the team.

Frankly, this smacks of favoritism. It invites abuse. It encourages fraud. Ours is not to question whether Miller (wrist) and Moceanu (stress fracture) are legitimately injured, but even disinterested doctors typically err on the side of caution.

Assuming Miller and Moceanu are too brittle to compete in the Trials, why should we suppose they will be any sturdier next month? Moreover, why should their rivals be expected to compete, at the risk of injury and capricious judging, if Miller and Moceanu don't face the same perils?

Thorny questions abound, not the least of which is whether spectators will spend top dollar for non-binding trials. Medals-hungry Americans want the best possible team to represent us in Atlanta, but we also have a national aversion to back-room politics. We empathized with Dan O'Brien when the world's ranking decathlete failed to qualify for the 1992 U.S. team, but we would surely resent it if he were given a bye.

No better way

We hold this truth to be self-evident: You can't have fair play and open competition if some athletes are more equal than others.

Elite athletes argue that the track trials carry too much weight. They fear their life's work may be undone by a single bad day. They think a world championship or a world record should exempt them from proving themselves a second time. But they have yet to present a compelling alternative.

''I think there should be a little flexibility - not much - for people who are world champions or world record-holders,'' said Dr. Frank Zarnowski, who addresses the issue in Olympic Glory Denied. ''The conditions should be very very rigorous and the (standard) extremely high, incredibly high.''

The difficulty inherent in making exceptions is in deciding where to draw the line. Does Butch Reynolds rate a pass in the 400 meters for the world record he set in 1988? Should a world champion be able to sit on his title a year after earning it, even if other competitors pass him by in the interim? Can you open this can of worms without creating a new set of problems?

Olan Cassell, executive director of USA Track & Field, says the issue has been debated by the Athletes Advisory Council and that their votes have favored the status quo. This is to be expected. Most athletes would not benefit from exemptions, and few can be expected to vote against their own self-interest.

Leave it up to the athletes

Yet there is something to be said for the notion that an athlete should earn his place in the Olympics on a designated day near the start of the Summer Games, under similar stress, when all his competitors must contend with the same conditions. The best man won't always win, but the winner will always be a worthy individuals.

Other countries choose their teams differently, but few have as many capable athletes in contention. Entering the Trials, seven of the nine fastest 400 meters in the world this year had been run by Americans, and all of these times were separated by less than half a second.

The most sensible solution is to let the athletes fight it out. Whenever possible, sporting justice should not be left to judgment calls.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 23, 1996.