Last week at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Atlanta,
world-record holder Mike Powell delivered one of the most
remarkable pressure long jumps in history. He sailed 27'6 1/2"
on his final attempt, vaulting from sixth place to first and
onto his third Olympic team. When his distance was posted on an
infield scoreboard, Powell shrieked with joy and relief. The
urgency of the situation--that an athlete finish in the top
three at the trials or not make the team--defined the moment.
Yet afterward, Powell shunned the process that had made his jump
so memorable. "I don't like the trials, I just deal with them,"
he said. "There really should be some kind of wild-card system,
for world-record holders and Olympic champions who don't make
What sad, selfish thinking that is. Here we have an event that
is pure and fair and riveting, without judging or politics and
with more drama than 10 Super Bowls combined, yet some of the
best athletes are angling to circumvent it for their own
security. Powell isn't alone in his thinking. Joe Douglas, who
manages Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell, both of whom failed to
qualify for the team in the 100 meters, proposed that marquee
athletes be seeded into the semifinals of four-round events such
as the 100. Decathlete Dan O'Brien, who missed the 1992 Olympics
after a notorious no-height in the pole vault at the trials,
said before this year's meet, "I think we need to send our best
team to the Olympics," which is shorthand for "send me," seeing
as how O'Brien is the best U.S. decathlete in history.
Shame on all of them. The concept of handing out free passes
into the Olympics is galling. Lewis's desire to make his fifth
Olympic team is no more important than Rich Kenah's desire to
make his first. "This is the land of opportunity," said Kenah,
who was narrowly beaten by Jose Parrilla for third place in the
800-meter run. "Everybody has an equal chance, right?"
O'Brien says we need to send "our best team." Fine. The best
team isn't a Dream Team of past--or current--heroes. The best
team is the one chosen by a fair and, yes, brutal competition.
You have to be right and ready on one particular day. The
Olympics are like that too. Gwen Torrence is the defending
Olympic champion in the 200 meters, but she wasn't quite right
in last Sunday's 200 trials. Torrence finished fourth, .001 of a
second out of third. Sad, but the rules apply to everyone.
In truth, when O'Brien says, "We need to send our best team,"
what he means is, "Don't make me pole-vault at the trials again,
because I need a gold medal to make more money." Athletes'
market values--for endorsements and for appearance fees at
European meets--soar with Olympic success. They want a Get Out
of the Trials Free card because it's good business.
There are precedents for giving favored treatment to stars.
Injured U.S. gymnasts Dominique Moceanu and Shannon Miller are
skipping their sport's trials but could make the Olympic team
through petitions. Figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was granted a
spot on the '94 Olympic team after she missed the trials because
of injuries suffered in an assault. Other countries (Great
Britain and Germany, to name two) allow certain past champions
to pass up their track and field trials. None of this is cause
for U.S. track and field to change its system of selecting
Olympians, which has a refreshing purity. The removal of
politics from sport is always a worthy pursuit.
In any case, the track and field trials are much more than a
qualifier for the Olympics. They are compelling, exhausting
theater. One jump after Powell leaped into first place, Erick
Walder fell three inches short of making the team and collapsed
on the infield sobbing. Nearly two hours later he was still
inconsolable as he leaned against a wall beneath the stadium and
cried. Kenah's eyes were still wet 90 minutes after his 800
loss. "I worked my whole life for this night," he said.
But because they are for everyone, the trials can also produce
miracles. They open a door of opportunity for athletes such as
26-year-old Dan Middleman, who wrote an unpublished novel he
calls "semiautobiographical" about an Olympic hopeful who
contemplates suicide. Middleman finished third in the 10,000
meters. "How about that," he said afterward. "I'm on the Olympic
He might not have made it in a world of exemptions and wild
cards. Defending Olympic champion Quincy Watts might have
undeservedly taken an automatic spot in the 400 meters, denying
an Olympic bid to the trials' third-place finisher, 22-year-old
Alvin Harrison, who one year ago was living in a car with his
twin brother, Calvin. Powell might not have reacted as he did
after his magnificent leap. "No question, a wild card would have
taken away from my celebration," he said. "But without the
pressure, I would have jumped farther."
Without the pressure, who cares?