One-shot trials system leaves some top athletes off Olympic team

There are 108 outstanding athletes on the United States Olympic track and field team, including most of those you would expect to see. A few big names are missing, however, and in at least one case - that of high hurdler Greg Foster - it raises the old question of whether a one-shot trial is the right way to choose an entire Olympic squad. This is an issue that has been debated for at least 40 years - since another famous hurdler, Harrison Dillard, failed to make it in the same event for the 1948 Games. That story had a happy ending when Dillard pulled off a big upset in the 100 meters to get his gold medal anyway, but things haven't always worked out quite so well. There are far too many stories of athletes who have proved themselves the best over a period of months, or even years, only to miss out on an Olympic berth through illness, injury, a couple of hot opponents, or a rare off-day at the wrong time.

A lot of people, including this observer, think it shouldn't be that way - and Exhibit A this year is Foster. The second-fastest 110-meter hurdler of all time, Greg has won just about everything but Olympic gold in a brilliant career - and now through a combination of injury and the US selection system, he won't get a chance in what realistically had to figure as his last good shot.

Foster, now almost 30, has been at or near the top of the world rankings all through the 1980s, and has won gold medals in the World Championships and the World Cup. Four years ago in Los Angeles he was favored to add the Olympics to that list, but was edged out by teammate Roger Kingdom and had to settle for the silver.

This year everything seemed to be coming into place for one more big effort, but a month ago he broke his left arm in a training accident, and although he tried valiantly in the US Trials in Indianapolis last weekend, he hit a hurdle in his semifinal heat and failed to qualify.

But why should someone who has already proved himself the best over a period of time have to do it again in a one-shot situation? It's unfair to the athlete, and not very bright on the part of the country, which risks not having its top people on hand for the Olympics. Can anyone seriously imagine the Soviet Union or East Germany, for example, forcing athletes of the caliber of Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, or Jackie Joyner-Kersee to compete in qualifying events - and leaving them off the team if they failed to finish 1-2-3 on that particular day?

Of course not. But the United States insists on marching to its own drummer - sometimes with unfortunate consequences. The man who loomed as America's 1976 Olympic hero, much as Lewis did in '84 and does again this year, was Steve Williams. The world record holder at 100 meters and 220 yards, unbeaten at either 100 or 200 meters all that year, he appeared an almost certain multiple gold medal winner. If he had represented just about any other country, all he would have had to do was rest a minor injury in the early summer, then get ready, show up at Montreal, and do his thing. But to compete for the United States, he had to run in the trials, where he aggravated the injury and failed to qualify.

Another exercise in absurdity was the way Joan Benoit, already well established as the nation's top female marathoner, was forced to run in the 1984 trials just a couple of weeks after knee surgery. She made it, of course, winning the race and going on to win Olympic gold as well - but what was the point of risking further injury and possibly lessening her Olympic chances just to prove something everyone already knew?

Again this year Benoit, who now goes by her married name of Samuelson, had injury problems that hampered her training leading up to the trials. This time she didn't feel ready when the race took place, so she opted out and is not on the team. We'll never know for sure, of course, what might have happened under a more sensible system - if, for instance, as the reigning gold medalist and the top female marathoner in the nation, she had been exempted from qualifying and placed on the team. A good guess, though, is that by September she would have been ready, and would have wound up in Seoul with a chance to bring the United States another gold medal instead of sitting home watching the Games on TV.

It would be so easy, too, to solve this perennial problem simply by combining selection systems, picking one athlete for each event on the basis of overall performance, and awarding the other spots to the 1-2 finishers in the trials. Or if not in every event, at least in those where there is a clear-cut dominating performer - Moses, for example, or Lewis, or Joyner-Kersee. The only people who would miss out on Olympic berths this way would be a handful of third-place finishers, who get them now only because of an arbitrary, ``everyone-is-out-of-step-but-us'' system that has no basis in logic or good sense. Who can possibly argue, after all, that an athlete who finishes third in one race is a better choice for the Olympic team than one who has dominated his or her event for a year?

US track and field officials aren't exactly quick studies, though; they've been hearing this argument for 40 years and haven't done anything about it yet. And with all the great athletes in the country they still always come up with a strong team, as they did again this year.

Leading the way again for the men will be Lewis, who will try to repeat the historic quadruple he pulled off in Los Angeles with gold medals in the 100, 200, long jump, and 4x100 relay. Also going for history via a third gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles will be Moses, who won the event in 1976, missed Moscow because of the boycott, won again in L.A., and has continued to dominate the event. Other top performers include discus thrower Mac Wilkins (gold in 1976, silver in '84), triple jumper Willie Banks, 1,500-meter star Steve Scott, distance runner Sydney Maree, and steeplechaser Henry Marsh, plus the usual array of talented young newcomers.

Among the women, multiple gold medalists Valerie Brisco and Evelyn Ashford are back, as is Mary Decker Slaney, who qualified in the 3,000 (the race in which she collided with Zola Budd in L.A.) and the 1,500. The big star of the trials, though, was Florence Griffith Joyner, who set a women's world record in the 100 meters and also won the 200. And pressing her closely was sister-in-law Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the 1984 heptathlon silver medalist, who won that event and the long jump.

All in all, it looks like one of the best-ever US teams, and one that will win a lot of medals in Seoul. Whatever it accomplishes, however, one can't help feeling it would have been even more with a system that makes at least an occasional exception for a proven superstar who for one reason or another isn't 100 percent for the trials.

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