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