An Injury, Fall and Unforgiving U.S. System Leave Athing Mu on the Outside

The defending 800-meter gold medalist tore her hamstring weeks before trials, making her fall in the final that much more “traumatic,” her team says, while also spotlighting the cutthroat U.S. Olympic selection process. 
After falling in the women’s 800-meters during the U.S. trials, Mu won’t defend her Olympic title in Paris.
After falling in the women’s 800-meters during the U.S. trials, Mu won’t defend her Olympic title in Paris. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Out of appeals but not all options, track star Athing Mu and her representatives remain committed to finding a better resolution—better, in their view—to what happened in Eugene, Ore., on Monday night.

The quick version: Mu, an 800-meter specialist and the gold-medal winner in Tokyo, was spiked in the event’s final at U.S. Olympic Trials. She fell, rose and finished. But she didn’t qualify for the Olympics and thus, appealed to USA Track and Field (USATF) officials, arguing that she was illegally clipped by another runner on the backstretch of the first lap. They denied her petition. She appealed their decision. That was denied, too.

Turns out, though, there’s a lot more to the story.

It starts more broadly, with the system that’s in place for USATF to select Olympians. Many longtime track aficionados saw Mu fall and thought some version of “not again.” Their issue is shared by Mu’s reps, including her highly respected coach, veteran Bobby Kersee, and agent, Rocky Arceneaux. Both point toward a selection process that can be charitably described as “unforgiving,” where past races, résumés, typical or recent times, selecting the strongest team or any other factor doesn’t matter. Only the finals at trials matter. The top three finishers in the 800 qualify for the Games; period, point blank, end of discussion.

Mu and her team are only the latest example of an aggrieved athlete asking the same question: Is there not a better, fairer way?

“It’s time for the U.S. to change,” Arceneaux said on Thursday morning, while still in shock at the events of the previous three days. He points to similar trials that take place in Jamaica, home to some of the fastest sprinters who ever lived. Officials there take the top two finishers in any one race, while allowing for a third, discretionary Olympic selection. He also points to the World Athletics selection process, which allows for exemptions, in certain instances, for top performers. Kersee sees that process as “the [best] future for track and field.”

It’s June 2024, but for Kersee, it might as well be the same month in 1984, which is the first time he says he believed there was an issue with the selection process for track Olympians—a point driven home by one bad high jump performance for an Olympic heptathlete. In 40 years, nothing has changed. He starts to tick off reasons that would require some grace from track officials—a pandemic, a death in the family, any calamity that strikes without notice. 

“In some situations, there’s not a clear picture,” he says. “Of course you have to earn your spot. In all the time I’ve been in the game, I just think our process does not allow for a fair, not political, look at specific situations.” The question—in this case and all those that came before it—is what constitutes earning a spot?

Before he launches into Mu’s version of events, Arceneaux is careful and insistent on one point: Mu has not argued, nor has anyone from her team, that she should be granted an automatic Olympic slot because she was tripped in the race. Arceneaux and Kersee would like to correct the record, at least, while pushing for systematic changes, whether they benefit Mu this summer or not. He backs up, to the beginning, telling their version of events in full for the first time.

As trials approached, Mu’s lack of training and competing throughout this year came to the forefront. Arceneaux and Kersee contend that Mu was not “under-raced” before the trials. She wanted to compete in meets but simply wasn’t healthy enough to. 

Mu was injured far more than anyone knew in the weeks before she traveled to Eugene. She had planned to compete at the Los Angeles Grand Prix in mid May, but some tightness in her left hamstring surfaced. Then, a week later, ahead of the Prefontaine Classic on Memorial Day weekend, Mu got an MRI. Doctors told her she had a torn hamstring.

Mu racing on track
Despite her fall, Mu finished the race, more than 20 seconds behind the winner, Nia Akins. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Arceneaux had a press release mocked up to announce the injury, but he decided not to send it out. Mu remained in full-on, full-time recovery mode. She met with several doctors. She had “multiple PRP injections,” Arceneaux says. She was using either crutches or a one-legged mobility scooter, pedaling around by her healthy, right leg. “Four weeks before Olympic trials,” Mu says in a private video, dated May 16 and shared with SI on June 27, smiling as she scoots. “I tore my hamstring. So fun!”

Arceneaux and Kersee say Mu didn’t run for real until one week before trials. She could only partake in pool workouts through June 16. When she was finally cleared to run, she was also restricted, heavily. She completed two 300-meter sprints before she raced in Eugene.

“This is what people don’t understand,” Arceneaux says. “That’s why this was so traumatic.”

Mu’s team brought more than one doctor to Eugene; they performed multiple ultrasounds on her knee, which the hamstring connects to, before her first race. Ultimately, the medical team cleared her to compete. But no one, not even the doctors or Mu herself, knew how she might do. On Friday, June 21, she qualified for the semifinals with a 15th place finish, her time identical to the runner ahead of her, a solid 2:01.73.

When Mu’s team gathered to assess her performance and her pain levels afterward, she told them, “I really didn’t feel it. But I was afraid to open it up.” They encouraged her to push “a little more” in the next round. She simply needed to finish second or third to qualify for Monday night’s final, which would give her still-recovering hamstring another half day of rest, albeit after she competed for only the second time since she discovered the injury.

Mu didn’t push just a little more. Nor did she finish her race in second or third. Instead, she fell behind only to make a dramatic comeback down the backstretch. She gutted to the finish line, overtaking all other competitors, and leaned into an even better time than in her first round: 1:58.84. No one else ran faster in the semis. “I didn’t want to finish second or third,” Mu told her team that night. “I just wanted to try to sprint, just to make sure I had confidence for the finals.”

That she had attempted a sprint, a comeback and felt no additional pain afterward were all positive signs. Perhaps Mu could round back into enough form to qualify for Paris, then get back to training and recovery. Before the final, she told Arceneaux that she felt “100%” healthy and ready “to run a special lap.”

Mu started in the third lane from the rail. In the 800 at trials and the Olympics, runners must stay in their individual lanes for the first 100 meters of the race. At that point they can cut in toward the rail. Kersee notes that many have criticized him for usually telling Mu to stay outside, in order to avoid other-runner traffic, in part because Mu is 5'10" and her long legs make her more susceptible to getting clipped by another competitor.

Which is basically what happened. Mu did not stay outside in Monday’s final. She veered inward, perhaps a touch farther than she wanted to and definitely farther than Kersee had advised. The angle Mu chose sent her too close to a fellow Olympian from Tokyo, Raevyn Rogers. Their feet tangled around the 200-meter mark, after Mu managed to angle in front. Rogers stumbled, but didn’t fall. Mu tumbled to the track. One hand struck the ground. The other hand soon followed. She rolled onto her back, until the bright pink heels of her spikes pointed up toward the sky. Three runners behind her nearly fell in the pile-up. Mu did finish, but after falling, she never had a realistic chance to qualify. She finished in last place with a time of 2:19.69, more than 20 seconds behind Nia Akins, the winner in 1:57.36, and Juliette Whittaker, the final qualifier in 1:58.45.

After the race, her fall was described as resulting from her left foot, the one in back in this instance, clipping Rogers’s calf. And what resulted was framed, primarily, as bad luck. Which is where Mu, Arceneaux and Kersee all agree—that it was bad luck—and disagree, with the decisions USATF made in the aftermath.

Mu’s team filed a protest late Monday night. Kersee says that the track spike marks on her leg show that she was hit by the runner behind her, not the other way around. Therefore, they argued that she was impeded, and the contact wasn’t incidental. Mu’s team says all eight angles of NBC’s footage miss the most critical viewpoint: from the outside of the track, which would show who caused the contact. USATF officials also reviewed the footage but denied the appeal on Tuesday morning. No details were released publicly. On Wednesday, Mu’s reps appealed the decision, but within an hour, they were denied again.

Mu’s team is advocating for what they interpret from the rule book: that she is entitled for the final to be rerun. The USATF does not agree with that interpretation. Regardless, Arceneaux plans to follow through. The system, he says, is what needs changing, whether this particular race and specific ruling can even be changed at this point or not. 

Why do other countries with elite track and field athletes build safeguards into their processes to qualify for the Olympics? Why does the U.S. choose to take a no-safeguards-in-selection approach?

Athing Mu trails runners
Mu trailed the pack of runners after falling on the track during the first lap of the 800-meter final. / Carl Davaz/For The Register-Guard / USA

This specific issue surfaces fairly often. A New York Times article from 1988 shows that the “cutthroat aspect” of trials has been a point of contention for decades. It was highlighted in a Dan and Dave advertising campaign before the 1992 Olympics, when world decathlon champion Dan O’Brien missed his first three pole vault attempts and failed to even qualify. In 2016, Alysia Montaño got tripped in the 800, at the same Hayward Field, and didn’t qualify. This year, the USATF will not send the 2022 hammer throw world champion (Brooke Anderson) or the 2023 discus world champion (Laulauga Tausaga-Collins) to Paris; they both fouled out of their respective competitions in Eugene. 

Hence Mu’s team—and many others in the world of track—advocate for a more nuanced approach. Something like the methodology used by World Athletics for its championships. That organization reserves slots for defending champions and those who win Diamond League seasons. It also allows for a country to bring a fourth competitor, should someone else qualify one of the other ways. Also interesting to note: Mu’s primary rival, the 800-specialist and now gold medal favorite Keely Hodgkinson of Great Britain, does not have to run to qualify.

Track and field legend Michael Johnson offered a counter argument: “I think we all feel terrible for Athing. Our [U.S.] Trials selection policy works best because it eliminates politics in selection. And the strength and depth of the [U.S] team allows such a policy,” he wrote on X.

The U.S.’s choice, surely, increases the drama and suspense of trials. It plays into America's deep need for athletes to rise up, no matter the cost, and perform at their best when it matters most.

But, Arceneaux asks, at what cost? Wouldn’t the trials be just as suspenseful another way? And, if someone like Mu could compete in the Olympics despite her fall in one race on one day, wouldn’t it benefit America and its track team at the actual Games?

If there is a bright side to consider, Mu may still have a chance to go to Paris if she is selected for the 4x400-meter relay team, as she was for Tokyo, where she won a second gold. She wants to do that. She still might.

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Greg Bishop


Greg Bishop is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who has covered every kind of sport and every major event across six continents for more than two decades. He previously worked for The Seattle Times and The New York Times. He is the co-author of two books: Jim Gray's memoir, "Talking to GOATs"; and Laurent Duvernay Tardif's "Red Zone". Bishop has written for Showtime Sports, Prime Video and DAZN, and has been nominated for eight sports Emmys, winning two, both for production. He has completed more than a dozen documentary film projects, with a wide range of duties. Bishop, who graduated from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, is based in Seattle.