A Conversation with Dave Coyne

by Charlie Mahler

 

At USA Track and Field’s annual meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii last year, the Men’s Long Distance Running Committee tightened the men’s Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying standard for the 2012 Olympics to a single 2:19:00 standard. For the 2008 Trials, runners bettering a “B” standard of 2:22:00 gained entry into the event and runners running 2:20:00 or faster earned travel funding for the competition.

The Honolulu decision caused a flurry of discussion— both pro and con. Close to home, USATF Minnesota Vice President Chris Kartschoke, formerly the Men’s LDR Chair for the state, voiced concern over the change and was eager to work toward rolling back the decision.

Minnesotan Dave Coyne, a longtime local and national USATF officer, was a member of the National Men’s LDR Committee and present in Honolulu when the decision was made. We asked him for some background on the decision and his own take on the decision.


Mahler: Can you describe how the men’s Olympic Marathon Trials standard decision took place at the Men's Long Distance Running Committee meeting? Was there much discussion there?

 

Coyne: Glenn Latimer, Chair of the Men's LDR Committee, initially brought up the idea. While I didn't take detailed notes of the discussion, my memory is that at the meeting he focused on two things. First, he said that he was in favor of a single standard—an "A" standard with all qualifiers receiving full assistance. This, of course, meant that there would be no "B" standard—for runners who gain entry to the Trials race but no travel or hotel assistance. He supported his opinion by saying that he was not in favor of “second-class citizens.” He felt that everyone should be treated the same, even if that meant that fewer runners would be in the field. He also noted that, based on his experiences at the Trials in New York [in 2007], the “B” qualifiers caused most of the headaches for the race organizers.

Second, he focused on the time standard. If there was going to be only one standard, the qualifying time would determine the size of the field. The 2:20:00 standard produced about 85 “A” qualifiers, which he felt was a manageable number. A relaxed standard, he said, would produce a field size that would be too expensive for the Trials organizers. Also, given the improvements in American marathoning, he said that a stricter standard would probably be warranted. I don't remember him proposing a specific time though.

 

Most people, and there were several Trials runners
in the group, felt that a stricter standard would be proper
given the improvements in men's long distance running.

 


Mahler: If you can say, how much discussion did the change in the standard get at the executive committee meeting of Men's LDR? Was the matter something that had long been on the M-LDR agenda?

 

Coyne: It hadn't been on the agenda before since the 2008 Olympics haven't even happened yet. Latimer placed it on the agenda for that meeting. He may have discussed it with some individuals beforehand, but I don't know about that. At the meeting, everyone seemed to go along with his idea that there should only be one standard. The discussion focused on the time standard. Most people, and there were several Trials runners in the group, felt that a stricter standard would be proper given the improvements in men's long distance running. Someone noted that the standard in 1984 was 2:19:04, and someone else suggested a 2:19:35 standard on the grounds that a man should be able to beat the best American woman to get into the Trials. After some (not long) discussion, people centered on a 2:19:00 standard and Latimer went with it.

 

Mahler: Did things come to light from the NYC Trials that prompted the changes?

 


Coyne: I think the issue of the demands of the runners came to light at the New York Trials, as well as the improvements in American distance running.

 


Mahler: What were the perceived advantages of the tightened standard?
Coyne: Treating everyone the same, and producing a smaller field.

 

Mahler: What negatives were noted?

 


Coyne: The main negative was that a number of people would be excluded from the field. The counter-argument was that for some, a 2:19:00 standard would mean that they would train for that time rather than 2:20:00, and that many would make it. For others, there was the reduced-distance alternative: runners could qualify for the Trials with a 65:00 half-marathon or a 28:30 track 10K. (The 5K qualifier was dropped, since 5K success doesn't easily translate to marathon success, and since none of the 2007 Trials runners had entered by way of that standard.) For those who could not meet any of those standards, it was noted that the men's committee, unlike the women's, had always focused on selecting the Olympic team rather than on giving younger or less-talented runners the Trials experience, and that a smaller field was a consequence of that decision.

 

"We want a stand-alone event where those vying for
the Olympic team are the focus of everyone's attention,
where it isn't just a few people out on the course,
and where a Cinderella story is always a possibility."

 

Mahler: You've been a longtime national and local USATF person, Dave, what's your own opinion on the matter?

 


Coyne: When it came up at the meeting, I hadn't really developed my opinions, since I thought we would have another year to think about it and discuss it. Since then, I have given it a fair amount of thought. The stricter time standard for the “A” qualifier is, I think, justified. American distance running has clearly improved in recent years, and the Trials standard should advance in recognition of that fact. We had a silver medal performance at the last Olympics, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if we get an American on the top of the podium in Beijing. Further down the line, more and more American runners are running fast enough to make the “old” standard. Given the economics of the Trials (it costs a lot of money for each “A” qualifier), a tighter standard is inevitable. In fact, we can look at it as a sign of success, as a recognition of our improving quality.

The lack of a “B” qualifier is the tougher one. In the end, I feel that we should keep it. The basic arguments against having a “B” standard come down to three points. First is the argument that having a “B” standard makes those who qualify for it into “second-class citizens.” Certainly, “A” and “B” qualifiers are treated differently, in that one group gets travel and hotel assistance, while the other gets only an entry to the race and elite treatment once they get to the Trials. They have to pay their own way to the race, and pay for their own hotel. It's a tough argument that this makes them into second-class citizens, though. Those who qualify under the “B” standard are happy to be there—nobody said that if you ran from 2:20:01 to 2:22:00 you had to go to the Trials. Those who qualified did so in the hope of going to the Trials, and those who actually ran in the Trials did so because they wanted to. So they don't think of themselves as second-class citizens.

The standard is a bright line, known in advance. They know what they have to do to get to the Trials, and what they have to do to get full assistance. In my experience, “B” qualifiers are happy to run in the Trials, and recognize that their times didn't qualify them for that assistance. Heck, I would have been thrilled to run in the Trials (if I had the talent), travel assistance or not. And I remember a discussion with Kristi Norling [Larson], on the eve of her trip to the 1988 Trials. She said that she had no pretension that she was going to make the Olympic team, but that one day, she'd have a grandchild on her knee, and she'd be able to tell her grandchild that she ran in the Olympic Trials. That's a great attitude toward the Trials and I'm sure it's shared by most “B” qualifiers. So in the end, I don't think that argument is a good one.

The second argument is that the “B” qualifiers are a headache at the event. I was lucky enough to be at the Trials in New York, but I was not there as a USATF official or as a Trials worker, so I don't have any first-hand knowledge of that. In my experience with elite runners, though, it's always true that some are very easy to work with and others are more difficult. And more often than not, it's not the supremely talented runners who are the difficult ones. So I'm not entirely surprised at this argument. Also in my experience, the difficult ones are few in number. Elite runners are not like professional football or basketball players—they are people who recognize they have a gift, and are grateful for the opportunities they've been given. So one or two (or even five or ten) difficult runners is a price of putting on a Trials race, and one that should not be used to narrow the field in the hope of excluding some, or even most of them.

The third argument is that the men's committee has always looked at the Trials as the means for selecting the Olympic team and not for other purposes, that the team is going to come from the “A” qualifiers, and that purpose should be the determining factor in setting the qualifying standard. This is the strongest argument, and does in fact reflect the long-standing philosophy of the Men's LDR Committee. The women's standard is and always has been looser, with a larger “B” window. This is a conscious decision on the part of the women's committee, made for reasons that I'll get to shortly. The men's committee, on the other hand, has always had a stricter standard, with a smaller “B” window. As a result, the men's Trials field has always been smaller than the women's. Of course, eliminating the “B” standard is not necessary to reflect that philosophy, but it is consistent with it, and could be said to be a logical extension of it.

Whether it's a winning argument, though, is another matter. As to whether the Olympic team is likely to include a “B” qualifier, it's pretty obvious that the odds are against it. There have been surprises in the past (Pete Pfitzinger and Margaret Groos come to mind), but they came from the “A” field, as did all of the top finishers in the New York Trials. The one situation in which a “B” qualifier is likely to be a contender is an athlete coming back from injury during the qualifying race, or suffering from an illness, etc. He might squeak in with a 2:21 and then be at full strength by the time of the Trials. Of course, there are the alternative qualifiers (a 65:00 half-marathon, for example), and this argument could be used to justify a 2:25:00 or even a 2:30:00, so we can't take it too far.

On the other side, if selecting the current year's Olympic team were the only factor in determining the Trials standard, it might justify a stricter standard, say 2:17:00 or faster. In the end, then, I think this argument does support the committee's decision, but only if we take team selection as the only factor. And there are others.

This gets us back to the women's standard, and the reasons for the women's committee's relative leniency. To my memory, three arguments have been made for that leniency. The first is that many women are not able to make a stricter standard, no matter how hard they train, yet are very good athletes and should be afforded the opportunity to run in the Trials in recognition of their talent. The same is true on the men's side, so this would support keeping a “B” standard, or even relaxing that standard. (I won't address relaxing the standard here, since the issue at hand is whether there should be a “B” standard at all.) This argument, though, is the weakest of the three. No matter what reasonable standard you use (I'm excluding, for example, a 4 hour standard), you will exclude some very good athletes, and not because they didn't work hard enough. The standard should create an exclusive club of the very best, and a 2:19:00 requirement certainly does that. The “old” standard of 2:20:00/2:22:00, of course, also did that, but [the club] was not quite as exclusive.

The question, then, is how large a field do you want at the Trials? If a single 2:19:00 standard is likely to produce a field of 65-80 runners, a 2:22:00 “B” standard is likely to push the field size up to 130-150. The spectators and television cameras are going to focus on the top twenty runners in either case, so size for the sake of size is not determinative. And that's where the other arguments come in.

The second argument is that young and up-and-coming runners, who may be our Olympians in four or eight years' time, may not yet be able to make the “A” standard, but their development would be greatly aided by participation in an “early” Trials race. This is a better argument. Many of the elites I've spoken to have pointed to early opportunities to run in championship races against the best runners in the country as keys to their athletic development. If they have a good day, they see that they too can be among the best. Even if they don't, the perspectives gained by running against the best can be quite a boost to their careers, and may be just the inspiration they need to devote themselves to a brighter athletic future, rather than retiring and seeking work elsewhere. In fact, USATF has a program devoted to precisely that purpose—the Associations Athlete Development Program (AADP), which selects promising runners across the country to participate in championship races. So this is certainly a recognized good, and a strong argument in favor of a “B” standard.

I'm sure that many of those who have made the Olympic team, or have finished in the top ten at the Trials, have benefited from just such opportunities. Even if they don't end up in the Olympics, they will have raised the talent pool in their areas and at the national level, which can only be good for the sport.

The third argument is that there is another purpose to the Trials, other than selection of the Olympic team. That purpose is to assist in the development of long distance running in the United States—from the citizen runner to the local elite to the national and international competitor. And that purpose is aided tremendously by drawing favorable attention to runners and their achievements. Football never has a problem getting into the newspaper and onto ESPN, but running has to struggle for every inch of type and every second of video it gets. If only more people saw running as a sport, with its own drama, excitement, personalities, heroes, and achievements, they would be drawn to it, increasing participation and its benefits, and also bringing better and better athletes into the sport.

When a local athlete qualifies for the Olympic Trials, that attention is far easier to get—much more so than for any national championship not carrying the Olympic title. The local newspaper runs stories on the athlete, and pays more attention to the Trials race and that athlete's performance. The local television station runs a story his training and accomplishments. And people across the area take a greater interest in the Trials and in running as something more than a participant activity—as a sport deserving of their attention. With Minnesota's history of great runners, I've seen that here, and I've heard that it's true everywhere there's a qualifying runner.

Obviously, reducing the size of the field does not aid that effort. Granted, this is an argument that could be used to support further relaxations of the standard, but it really only works if the standard is still a stringent one, making the qualifying runner a special individual. Again, a 2:19:00 standard is not necessary to achieve this. 2:22:00 is a stringent standard, and brings with it an increase in the number of localities with qualifying runners, and a concomitant increase in local running attention from the media and from the citizenry. That argument, then, is a good one, and supports keeping the “B” standard.

Another argument, not a part of the women's discussion, is that in track and field, every event other than the men's marathon has an “A” and a “B”standard. Is there something unique about the men's marathon that might justify this exceptional treatment? I haven't heard anyone address this issue directly, but it raises questions for me. Absent that something, I see no reason to depart from the established norm.

A final counter-argument is financial. More runners mean more expense. I've heard that the New York Road Runners spent 1.2 million dollars to put on the Trials, and I know from experience that the expense of such an endeavor makes it difficult if not impossible for many worthy races to host the Trials. The question, though, is of variable cost. Many (most) of those expenses are fixed costs—if you put on a Trials race of any reasonable size, those costs will be the same. Variable costs are certainly significant, but are not the major portion. The question then comes down to costs and benefits. The Trials race could probably be reduced to twenty athletes, and run during an existing event, at a fairly low cost. Neither USATF nor the sport of long distance running, however, would benefit greatly from such cost cutting.

We want a stand-alone event where those vying for the Olympic team are the focus of everyone's attention, where it isn't just a few people out on the course, and where a Cinderella story is always a possibility. Thus, we need to find the ideal field size, where the benefits discussed above balance the cost of putting on the race. My inclination is that 65-80 runners is still on the upward slope of the cost-benefit curve, with the gains of a larger field more than balancing the added costs. I haven't done a statistical analysis of this question, but I would venture that a thoughtful analysis would come to the same conclusion. After much ado, then, I favor keeping the “B” standard, but with acceptance of the more stringent “A” standard.

 

Mahler: There was talk at the December 2007 USATF Minnesota meeting of taking steps to try to roll back the decision at next year’s convention. What's your sense of how realistic such an effort might be? Have any other USATF decisions ever been nullified by a grassroots movement?

 

Coyne: Good question. I'm not aware of any such reversals, but then again, I haven't been at the level to see them happen. It is possible, though. Many members of the executive committee might be swayed by a true grassroots movement, but it would be tough. It would require a concerted effort by many people, from USATF and from the general running community, to effect such a change.

Luckily, there is time – a change at the 2008 conference, to be held in late November, would still be in time for runners to train for and qualify for the next Trials race.