Merrien – so near, yet so far

British marathon man misses London 2012 after failure to meet UKA’s qualifying criteria, but his non-selection brings rules under renewed scrutiny

Posted on April 24, 2012 by
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Lee Merrien (Mark Shearman)

British marathon men aiming to run in the London Olympics knew exactly what they had to do. Either a sub-2:12 clocking or top 20 position at the 2011 IAAF World Championships was necessary – and only two athletes, Scott Overall and Dave Webb, managed it.

Still, strong feelings of sympathy, injustice and downright bemusement are swirling through the harrier houses of British athletics this week after Lee Merrien was left out of the team. The Guernsey runner, who turns 33 this week, is taking it on the chin, but there are many who feel he is a victim of an elitist and rigid selection policy that is about as flexible as your average marathoner runner’s hamstring.

In its defence, UKA had to set up some kind of guidelines so athletes would know the score and the governing body stuck faithfully to its criteria when recommending its selections to the British Olympic Association after the Virgin London Marathon on Sunday. Head coach Charles van Commenee and head of endurance Ian Stewart were also in the capital to watch the final big act of the marathon selection period unfold.

Yet complicated criteria aside (with its A and B standards, Daegu footnotes and domestic/international discrepancies) the harsh fact is that most general punters simply cannot understand why Britain is not filling its third place in the men’s marathon team for London 2012 with the No.1 British finisher in the world’s premier 26-miler.

A bit like last year’s Boston Marathon being the fastest on record but not a world record, it is one of many examples of the sport shooting itself in the foot with bizarre rules and procedures. It might all make perfect sense to athletics insiders with an administrative or statistical bent, but to Joe Public it is madness divine.

Consider this:

» The qualifying “A” standard set by the global governing body, the IAAF, is 2:15:00 (the B standard is 2:18:00). Merrien clocked 2:13:41 in London, so there will be plenty of slower athletes at the Games.

» Despite a lonely, solo effort from halfway onwards, Merrien smashed his PB by 46 seconds – with a time that is two minutes quicker than Webb’s best of 2:15:42.

» There are three places to fill and these, let’s not forget, are a host Olympics.

» Shouldn’t ambitious (and struggling) British distance runners be rewarded after meeting realistic targets, rather than getting snubbed after dedicating their life to the sport to become No.1 domestic runner in the country’s premier marathon? What message does this send out?

Not surprisingly, a Facebook campaign page has been launched, with well around 1500 ‘likes’ within 24 hours of the BOA’s selection announcement.

Notably, Jon Brown, who was fourth for Britain in the Olympic marathon in 2000 and 2004, has shown his support for Merrien. Brown, who also held the UK 10,000m record before Mo Farah, said: “I do think Lee Merrien’s run merits selection. Running another PB in THE selection race in less than ideal conditions should be appreciated.”

Even the comedian and endurance charity-raiser John Bishop has tweeted his support for the Guernsey Island athlete.

Athletics Weekly’s mailbag has also been busy.

“Merrien has run inside the IAAF A standard twice within the qualifying period, so by the standard used by the rest of the world he is quick enough to run in the Olympics,” says Jonathan Bean, who has also blogged about the controversy. “If he was from another country he would probably have been selected.”

Brian Holden, a former Commonwealth Games marathoner for Guernsey, calls Merrien’s omission a disgrace and adds: “Lee was first UK athlete in London last year in 2:14 and then selected for the World Championships where he had to finish in the top 20 to be sure of an Olympic place, but finished 22nd.

“This year, he found the conditions difficult over the latter stages, due to wind and no company, as the other UK athletes were not up for it. I am sure if given the third place he would not let his country down.”

At Athletics Weekly, the debate has divided opinion, with some staff agreeing the rules were clear from the start and should not be bent for one athlete. However, a number of experienced marathoners and athletics writers/statisticians associated with AW, such as Will Cockerell and Tim Grose among others, have privately questioned the decision to omit Merrien.

It goes without saying that most athletes are supportive of Merrien’s plight, too. Not that the sport has a tremendous history of actually listening to them.

Ultimately, UKA and the BOA have done nothing wrong other than apply the rules. Like a football referee who makes an unpopular decision, they are also inevitably going to get a few boos. In addition, this is hardly in the same league as previous selection controversies either – such as the ‘Coe must go’ campaign in 1988 when IOC present Juan Antonio Samaranch nearly intervened with a ‘wild card’ idea.

It is nevertheless disappointing, though, and I hope it is not a sign of things to come and merely the first of many similarly painful selection decisions in the run-up to the most important sporting event in the history of British athletics.

» See Athletics Weekly on Thursday April 26 for in-depth coverage of the Virgin London Marathon.

31 Responses to “Merrien – so near, yet so far”

  1. dandeville says:

    Interesting debate, and the powers that be will no doubt be criticised as they have in the past, but surely a selection policy has to be adhered to, else at what point do you draw the line? For example, if you select Lee on basis of being faster than Webb then what about Wickes and Lemoncello? Breaking a policy doesn't just involve the athlete everyone feels sorry for, but any other athlete in a similar position outside the original criteria. And last time I checked we don't have 5 places on offer?

  2. Steve Balmer says:

    He deserves selection – Amen!!!

  3. Teresa Merrien says:

    The support Lee is getting is amazing, and justly deserved. It would be criminal not to have 3 British athletes to support in one of the few non ticket events.

  4. Kbell says:

    Lee is an inspiration to young athletes, and I have seen this myself. He has worked incredibly hard for this dream and is only JUST outside the standard time and his PB is better than an already selected athlete. Would it be the end of the world if you filled the third place with the ONLY person who deserves it and will work so hard to represent himself and GB?!

  5. Cara Saul says:

    I don't think that it is about feeling sorry for Lee – he is an excellent athlete. Unfortunately the selectors set criteria that back-fired on them. This meant that only 2 of the 3 slots were filled. I for one want Team GB use all their allotted places, how often do we have the Olympics at home. There are 3 women competing, so enter 3 men. Lee is the best athlete for that 3rd slot. As a spectator the marathon is my one chance to see a UK athlete in action – for free ,no ticket. We have all paid a lot of money to stage the Olympics and deserve a full compliment of runners to watch at this special event. I don't think it is unreasonable to ask the selectors to have another think. It would not be weakness it would be wisdom and courage.

  6. Slow Runner says:

    Wicks isn't quicker (2:15:xx) and Lemoncello is only one second quicker and that time was set two years ago, not at the selection race for the Olympics (although it was the same course – but there are many other factors to consider).

    Lee Merrien should have a place for the Olympics. The only reason we aren't sending him is that our governing body sees fit to set higher standard than the international federation. Why?! It is only setting barriers to our athletes succeeding.

    • BoSelecta says:

      This is going to be one of the big issues of the summer for UK athletics in many events – where there are places available, should athletes be selected if they have met the IAAF criteria but not the UKA criteria? The theory behind the harsher UKA criteria is to push athletes to perform better, and the thinking may well be that if they are seen to relent now for the marathon, others may think they can “back off” in the next few months and still be selected.____I just wonder though if the situation might change after late June, early July when the rest of the team is selected – this precedent argument on criteria disappears and the clamour to select the biggest possible team is likely to be very loud indeed. I expect that there might be a few late additions to the team, so Merrien should keep training just in case…____Just to clarify one point, the London marathon wasn’t a selection race – there was no selection race – it just happened to be the last race before they selected the team. I am surprised the UK athletes on the borderline didn’t run Rotterdam

      • Paul Ingrouille says:

        I, like you, thought that UKA standards across all events were stricter than IAAF but have since researched it and found that it is only for the marathon (both men and women). In all other events the UKA standard matches the IAAF. So we have a runner who is effectively the national champion(The race was the English Championship for the Jim Peters Trophy, I suppose the equivalent to the old AAA's) and who ran the IAAF 'A' standard whilst achieving that title but is not selected. It will not be a case of opening the floodgates as UKA cannot drop the standard for other events below the IAAF standard, they could however drop their standard for the marathon TO the IAAF standard and everyone is happy.

  7. Paul Ingrouille says:

    Merrien sacrificed the chance of faster courses to run his "home" Marathon in LONDON. The expected pacemakers did not materialise(why not?) but despite this he ran a brave solo race well within the IOC standard and was 3 minutes clear of the next Briton. His chamionship record places him amongst the top Europeans – 2010 Europeans: 8th/1st GB, 2011 Worlds 22nd/6th EU/2nd GB. He has been first Briton in London 2011&2012. Unlike many events he will not get the chance to "try again next week" though he is clearly good enough, arguably best Briton….and improving. Revisit the criteria, select Lee Merrien.

  8. DarkFishCake says:

    I’ve witnessed enough decisions by the selectors in the last few years to realise that they are essentially total muppets.

    Only pick 2 athletes when you can have 3, and 1 of your athletes ran 2:13 is improving, has the B standard, it’s our home Olympics, essentially ran the 2:13 largely on his todd, course goes from SE London, wind was from the East, etc, etc, etc. Makes no sense whatsoever, and sticks a big 2 fingers up at anyone who aspires to make it, when we have enough trouble getting people to take the sport up in the first place. Imbeciles.
    For my money both Webb and Merrien should be picked along with Overall.

    Oh hang on a minute, I didn’t consider the costs. Would cost a fortune to transport Merrien from Guernsey to London, could run into millions easily. If I had a smilie character that displayed the image of a moron, I’d insert several just here >.

  9. james says:

    He does deserve a place was a great solo run, i think more could have been done with pacemakers. However the selection criteria probably cannot be changed now. As other athletes may say they are at a dissadvantage and did not attempt london as they were not in 2.12 shape. I think for future years a trials race like in the US should take place with sub 2.20 – 2.25 or 66 half brits. racing for the places top 3 go. This would be awesome and benifit the depth of british distance running.

  10. Tasha says:

    Britain to host this years Olympics, so why don't we show the rest of the world how good we are and fill all three places rather than putting out a message that says we don't have three fantastic athletes??

  11. Will Bodkin says:

    The only vaguely logical reason I can see for the refusal of Merrien is the floodgates argument that choosing Merrien will open the case for more athletes who have not achieved the BOA standard. However, I do not believe that this would happen. As only two of the three positions have been filled it seems appropriate to fill the third by selecting the next fastest athlete within the international standard, which in this case is Merrien. This slight 'rule-bending' is exceptional as this year is a home Olympics and we do not have three athletes that have qualified to run. With most rules there are exceptions, such as in the judicial process where judgments may be made in the interest of public policy. Rules should never be completely rigid as sometimes common sense must prevail, and in this case, there is no compelling reason why it shouldn't.

    • Paul Ingrouille says:

      Hi Will, hopefully a response to boselcta below will answer your query – there is not a floodgate argument., All other UKA standards are the same as IAAF – they have only set the marathon higher (why ?).

      Let common sense prevail.

  12. Helen says:

    dandeville is right, it's true that maybe it's harsh on some other guys who blew up in other races trying to run 2:12, maybe they could've run somewhere between that and Lee Merrien's time. It is a tricky one.. thanks to AW for presenting all the arguments in a balanced way. Given all the information I'd still argue for them to fill the spot and select him though. Olympic stories, dreams and inspiration go way beyond just the medalists surely for a home Olympics UKA should make allowances when athletes have qualified under IOC/ IAAF standards. If GB have managed to conjure up a handball team for the Olympics handball competition surely they should allow the maximum possible qualified athletes to compete in the Olympic marathon?
    Formed in 1969,[2] the team took part in international competitions from 1972 to 1984 and has recently been reformed with the aim of taking part in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which it is automatically qualified for as the host.[3]

  13. Jonathan Robbins says:

    I totally agree with the comments above, especially Paul Ingrouille's point about Lee's championship record.

    As it stands, for one of the few events which the general public will get to see, Britain has picked one runner who stopped after 15k on Sunday with a hamstring injury and another whose last race was just under 25mins for 5 miles. Scott Overall and Dave Webb both deserve to be selected because they met the selection criteria (and I hope they both have good runs) but if there is a risk that one or the other won't make the start line then having a third runner who we know to be in good form, and who we know performs well in championships, clearly makes sense.

    If this were an overseas games there may be reasons for restricting the size of the team but there is no extra cost in selecting Lee, and DarkFishCake can rest assured that if the cost of his air fare from Guernsey was the issue the Island would find the money!

  14. Dan A says:

    It's OK, because David Beckham will be at the Olympics. Despite effectively retiring from the top level of his sport in 2006.

    If the Team GB officials can't see that putting in an improving athlete like Merrien (who might well run sub 2h12 at London) might have a longer term benefit, then they are myopic imbeciles.

    Namely that he is young enough that he can reasonably be expected to improve further by the games of 2016, and the experience of having an Olympic marathon under his belt might be the critical factor in his success in Rio.

  15. anon says:

    This decision has changed my opinion on the Olympics. Particularly, the point of us hosting it. The marathon is one of the favourite "go along to watch without any sport knowledge" events, because everyone just likes to watch the marathon. And here we are, team GB, hosting in GB itself…and we don't put one of our best athletes through despite his hard work, sacrifice, consistency and inspirational qualities. I think the teamGB decision-makers have let a good few THOUSAND of people down and probably dashed a few kids aspirations. Hosting the Olympics is not supposed to be be about these rules and regulations. It's supposed to be about bringing people together, increasing the patriotism among our country and inspiring the upcoming generations. If there are 3 GB spots for men, USE three GB spots. There is no easier time to do this than now….with the Olympics right down the road from us all! In the same way, drug bans are there so sport is fair. This decision is hardly fair, considering the actual times run by each picked athlete in comparison to Lee. It may sound like an exaggeration comparing these two, but it is simply to prove my point.
    GB team pickers…you've disheartened a lot of people. Lee Merrien deserved…deserves that place!

  16. Karl says:

    Look at China in Beiging… They had every man and their dog out representing their country and pulled quite a few surprises. They bagged so many medals even from those who wasn't rated as highly to get one .We are a joke, doesnt matter what the rules state. We MUST fill all available places and Lee Merrien is the most worthy of that last place. We must back him and let him run.

  17. Tim Bush says:

    Lee Merrien ran a superb Marathon and deserves to be at the Olympics. I struggle to see the logic in not letting him run when he has run a Olympic qualifying time and he is not taking anyone elses place. The selectors seem so bound up in rules and red tape they seem to have lost sight of what the Olympics is all about. What is to be the great legacy of the Olympics? That our best athletes miss out because of some narrow interpretation of some self imposed and self contradictory rules? I am sure that if Lee was a more high profile name then the rules would be bent to accommodate. I am delighted that Overall and Webb can take part, there is no reason why Lee Merrien cannot run alongside them.

  18. Christian says:

    I find it a bit weird there was no real explanation I have read as to why the brits chose to not go with the pacemakers. Thought Scott Overall's lack of sympathy was a bit unusual as well to be honest. You'd expect the marathon guys to be a close group but he doesn;t seem in the slightest sympathetic to Lee. I understand the reasons for having the standard but to me as host nation it is a bizarre decision to handicap ourselves and also deny Lee a chance of a lifetime.

  19. Scott Overall says:

    There are a few points I would like to clear up here.

    Firstly, Jonathan Robbins – It was reported on the BBC that I was “injured” and that was the reason for me stopping at 15km, this is not the case. My hamstring was getting tight and therefore I decided to stop rather than risk injury to myself. Seeing as there were no British guys with the pacemakers, and that is what I was there for it seemed silly to carry on.

    Secondly, in response to Christian and my apparent lack of sympathy for Lee.
    The London marathon got in three pace makers to pace the race at 2:12, we were told to come through half way in 65:30, which in my opinion would give the best possible chance to run the qualifying time. ALL the British guys knew this, and a few, including Lee, said they were going to come with the pace makers. As it turned out not one of them did, for reasons I don’t know. If they thought the pace was going to be too quick and would rather have come through in 66mins then they could have said in the meeting before the race, after all we were there to pace them and would have done what they wanted. I am more disappointed and annoyed that none of the British guys gave it a go and came with us.

    As for the selection policy, that came out over a year ago and the athletes knew what we had to do. Yes it is faster than the IAAF standard, but making the Olympics isn’t going to be easy. The women’s time was faster and six of them hit the standard, it just shows that the harder standards can push athletes to perform.

    Myself and Lee are friends, and I would love to see him on the start line at the Olympics, but at the end of the day he hasn’t got an A-standard. It might just be that athletes are used to this cut throat selection, but every athlete I have spoken to agrees with me. The argument needed to be made when the selection criteria was released not when athletes fail to make the standard.

    • Cara Saul says:

      Scott I am sorry but as a Team GB spectator I do not agree with the selection decision – there is flexibility in the UKA rules and as this is a home event I want to see all 3 of you run. The Olympics is not the time to "teach" lessons – you all 3 deserve a place. I will be there cheering you to the rafters but as we have paid handsomely for London 2012 the British people deserve at least a few crumbs at the table. This is the people race. The marathon has a special place in London and Lee been the fastest UK man twice. The London 2012 marathon is free and unticketed – it may be many peoples only chance of seeing a Team GB vest. So we should have a full compliment of runners to support. As I get older I find that the inability to change you mind shows weakness not strength.

    • Christian says:

      Scott, Thanks for responding and clearing up your stance. I think the points you make around the pacing are spot on and can totally understand your frustration. I guess your view does come across as cut-throat but like you say maybe that is the culture and you guys are used to it so fair enough. I wasn't suggested there was anything ulterior in your comments it just looked harsh but understand your point.

      Anyway good luck with the training and fingers crossed for London.

    • Jonathan Robbins says:

      It's good to hear you aren't injured and hopefully you will have a good run at the Olympics. My point was not about you (or Dave Webb) it was about the fact that UKA should be filling as many places in the team as possible, especially when last minute withdrawals are possible from any team.

      As others have pointed out below, the marathon is the only event where the UKA standard is different to the IAAF standard, so Lee does have an "A standard". What he doesn't have is the UKA standard which for some unknown reason has been set at a higher level.

      Thankfully, whether as a result of this public outcry or not, Lee has now been added to the team and UK fans can look forward to supporting all three runners on the streets of London.

  20. Cara Saul says:

    I can't believe that UKA are passing up the chance to have as many Olympians as possible to inspire children and young athletes. This is a wasted opportunity in so many ways.

  21. Paul Jordan says:

    Lee, it is a disgrace that you have not been selected but it does not surprise me in this modern day age of pc crap and red tape that we live in now. I think that you have proved to everybody that you deserve to represent your country beyond any doubt especially when GB are allowed to enter a third runner, it's not as if they have to kick another athlete out of the team to put you in. I am really sorry for you, with all the hard work you have put in but unfortunately once again the people who make the decisions are so blinkered they are blind to being able to make the right decision. In the meantime you can hold your head high and know that you were the number one british runner last Sunday and that the whole of Guernsey and prob GB general public are behind you as we're most of the other British runners last Sunday !!!! good luck for your future running mate, stick in there.

  22. Andrew says:

    When can we expect a response from the powers that be? And please, make it the right response…..Merrien must be selected….rules are only guide lines….please stand up and be counted with common sense at the fore front of your minds.

  23. WillC says:

    By the way, it is very interesting to note that the Boston Marathon a week ago was WON in 2:12:41, going down to 2:14:56 for 5th. Yes, the weather conditions were very hot, but it illuminates the arbitrary nature of the 2:12 figure UKA set. What if it was very hot in London? As it was it was merely quite windy.

    Also, they're taking Webb due to an IAAF ruling. Why use one set of guidelines for him, and not use another equally good set for Merrien?

    Also, Overall states that six women made the target – implying that plenty of men should have too; but that's because the women's target was more straightforward: 14:35 off the world record compared to only 8:22 for the men.

  24. Pearce says:

    It does appear that team GB is shooting itself in the foot. The guidelines are clear but they are guidelines they are not set in stone we are not breaking any laws if Lee is given the place. A place that is free and not stopping anyone else who has filled the criteria. Surely common sense can prevail and our guide lines should be closely looked at. The fact is Lee did run faster than Webb now if anyone was suggesting someone lose a place it would be a different argument but we are talking about a fit young man who has dedicated himself to a sport and he deserves a chance and the experience. We don't exactly support our athletes let not actually hinder and dishearten them! Be sensible give Lee Merrien the place he richly deserves!

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