United States risks losing top stars via one-shot Olympic trials

We're in the countdown stage for Los Angeles now, which means it's time for that quadrennial exercise in self-destruction, the US Olympic trials. So while other nations continue fine-tuning their top prospects, the United States will pause to see how many of its leading hopes can be knocked out of action via our hopelessly illogical and antiquated one-shot qualifying system.

Of course the Great Ostrich of Colorado Springs (a.k.a. the US Olympic Committee) denies that the trials are any of these things. It prefers to believe - despite compelling evidence to the contrary - that the rest of the world is out of step.

Exhibit A this year is Joan Benoit, the women's world record holder in the marathon. After undergoing minor knee surgery April 25, Benoit had plenty of time to rest for a couple of weeks, resume light workouts, then gradually build up to peak condition for the Olympic event on Aug. 5. If she represented virtually any other nation, that is exactly what she would do.

But Benoit represents the United States, where proving you're the world's best means nothing in terms of making the Olympic team. So just like any ordinary runner, she will have to pound that knee for 26 miles and 385 yards in tomorrow's Olympic trials at Olympia, Wash.

If she doesn't finish in the top three, she's out - period. Even if by some ultra-rapid recuperative feat she should qualify, it is inconceivable that rushing back into training this way can do her any long-term good. In fact, coming back so soon and favoring the knee, she has already injured her other leg slightly. And one hardly has to mention that tomorrow's little romp is not exactly standard procedure for Day 17 after knee surgery.

So whatever happens, both Benoit and the United States lose, since in any case America's chance for gold will be a lot less than if she were just placed on the team.

Exhibit B is another marathoner, Alberto Salazar, who happens to be the men's world record holder. Physical problems also have held back his training, and he may not be 100 percent for the May 26 men's trial. Again, it would clearly be better all around if he could skip a 26-mile race that would not normally be part of his regimen at that particular time.

''But we don't do it that way,'' the ostriches always say in cases like this. ''Why?'' an incredulous public asks. For decades now, I've been waiting to hear a reasonable answer to that question.

The idea of trials isn't written in stone. Qualifying procedures, established by individual sports federations and approved by the USOC, vary from sport to sport. Skiing officials, for instance, have much more sense than to make a proven performer like Phil Mahre risk everything on a one-shot race. But the geniuses who run our track and field program (formerly the AAU and now The Athletics Congress) insist on doing this very thing.

Perhaps the most ridiculous events in which to rely solely on one qualifying race are sprints and hurdles - races in which placings are determined by hundredths of seconds. On a given day, any competitor might get beaten by a couple of eyelashes, but over a period of time the best ones rise to the top. Obviously only an organization not playing with a full deck would try to pick all three Olympians in an event like that on the basis of one wild scramble. Thus it is hardly surprising that some of the worst miscarriages of justice have occurred in these very races.

Most famous was the case of Harrison Dillard in 1948. The greatest high hurdler of his era, Dillard once won 87 consecutive races, but he happened to take one bad stride in the Olympic trials, hit a hurdle, and failed to make the top three.

That particular story had a happy ending. Dillard made the team in the 100 meters and got a gold medal after all via a surprise victory. Meanwhile the three men who had beaten him out in the hurdles finished 1-2-3, so the United States didn't even lose any medals in the deal.

But those were the days when America could get away with the luxury of a trial system. It might be hard on the individuals (not every story had quite so happy an ending), but the United States was so much stronger than the rest of the world that whoever wound up qualifying in events like the sprints and the hurdles almost always won the medals anyway.

Not anymore, though, as was seen in 1976. Steve Williams, the only solid US hope for gold in the sprints, was having physical problems approaching the trials. Instead of the rest he needed, though, Steve had to push himself beyond what his body could take at the time, re-injuring a leg and failing to make the team.

Quite an outcry ensued. US coach Leroy Walker was furious at having to leave his best sprinter home. Dillard, contacted at the time by this reporter, put it best when he said: ''Maybe we could afford a one-shot trials system in the past, but the way the rest of the world has been catching up, we can't afford to leave anybody like that off our team now.''

And sure enough, the United States wound up getting shut out in the 100 for the first time since 1928, while Jamaica's Don Quarrie breezed to victory in the 200.

Ridiculous? Of course. But that was eight years ago, and nothing has changed in Ostrichville. A year or so ago the committee setting up track and field qualifying procedures for 1984 did consider a proposal that only the 1-2 finishers at the trials would make it automatically, with the third team member to be chosen by a group of experts. But of course this was far too sensible and enlightened a suggestion to have any chance of passage, and in the end the committee did what committees usually do: it kept the status quo. Thus we'd better brace ourselves for the virtual certainty that some of those who belong on the US team won't make it for one reason or another.

Benoit and Salazar, in fact, are just the tip of the iceberg. Wait until the rest of the track and field berths go up for grabs next month. Sprinter Evelyn Ashford and middle distance runner Mary Decker, for instance, clearly dominate their events. Hurdler Edwin Moses stands supreme in his 400-meter hurdle specialty. And Carl Lewis is a latter-day Jesse Owens, excelling in the sprints and the long jump.

These four along with selected other superior performers obviously have nothing left to prove, but they will have to prove it again anyway - regardless of the fact that injury, illness, or one bad day can wipe out four years of training while at the same time drastically reducing the United States's chances for gold.

The sad thing is that it just doesn't have to be that way. The winners of the trials, or even the 1-2 finishers, can be automatic qualifiers, but surely it makes sense that at least one spot in each event should be filled on the basis of previous performance, world rankings, etc.

One final point: the best argument in favor of a trials system is the Olympic party line that the Games are strictly for the individual athletes, and that there isn't supposed to be any competiton among nations. If the USOC and other American spokesmen really believed that - if we didn't hear all this hype about the training center at Colorado Springs, the millions of dollars poured into the four-year effort to build the best possible US team, etc. - I could more easily accept the trials. I would still disagree, but at least a case could be made that on a strictly individual basis, a few potential disappointments are a fair tradeoff for giving everybody the same shot of making the team on the same day.

That's not the tune I hear these days, however. The song sounds more like, ''Everybody should donate money so we can win more medals than anybody else.'' And if that is indeed the goal, then it is long past time to stop damaging those chances via a one-shot trial system.

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