A countdown of the biggest battles and most dramatic stories as athletes around the world chase selection for the London 2012 Olympics
The Olympic Games represent the pinnacle of sport, the very highest level of competition where the world’s best line up against each other just once every four years in pursuit of the ultimate sporting accolade – Olympic gold.
But with countries limited to just three athletes per event, quite often the most exciting battles do not happen in the Olympic arena – they take place weeks or months beforehand as athletes simply try to qualify for the Games.
These kind of dramas dominate the athletics headlines every Olympic year and 2012 is no different. Here are 12 of the more notable stories from this season.
When is a trial race not a trial race? When the Ethiopian federation says so, it appears. The men’s 10,000m at the FBK Games in Hengelo earlier this summer was initially billed as being the official trial race for Ethiopian athletes, upon which the selectors would base their decision. 15 of the country’s top athletes competed in the race, which even saw Haile Gebrselassie come out of track retirement in a last-ditch attempt to make the Olympic team.
On his debut at the distance, Tariku Bekele won the Hengelo race from Lilesa Desisa and Sileshi Sihine. A few weeks later, however, it transpired that the Ethiopian federation went back on their decision to use that as the trial, and that defending Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele – who was originally understood to have been pre-selected for the Games in that event – would also have to prove his fitness.
So another contingent of Ethiopian athletes took part at the British Olympic Trials, where Kenenisa Bekele beat his brother, Tariku, as Sihine finished fourth. Another 10,000m race was staged earlier this week in Naimette-Xhovémont, Belgium, where another handful of Ethiopian athletes competed. Just two finished, led by Desisa – the second-place finisher from Hengelo.
But with three 10,000m races having now been and gone, the selection picture is still no clearer and Ethiopia is yet to decide which three athletes to send to London in that event.
Ashton Eaton’s world decathlon record was one of the highlights of not just the recent US Trials, but of the year as a whole. The American combined eventer put together a stunning series of performances across 10 disciplines to break the world record with a score of 9039 points.
Trailing some way behind him was reigning Olympic champion Bryan Clay, who was not quite at his best but was still on course for a top-three finish and a possible place on the US team for the Games. In the first event of the second day, the 110m hurdles, Clay hit the ninth hurdle, lost his momentum and then pushed over the final barrier. He was initially given a time of 16.81 – two seconds below his best – but was later disqualified.
He continued regardless and headed over to the discus. It was later announced that he had been reinstated in the hurdles, but by that point it was too late as he had registered three foul throws in the discus. He completed the decathlon, but with no points banked in the discus – one of his best events – he finished in 12th place with just 7092 points, unable to defend his Olympic title in London.
According to the Olympic selection criteria, a top-20 finish in the marathon at last year’s World Championships counts as having an ‘A’ standard, but Britain’s Lee Merrien fell just two places and 18 seconds short of that marker.
His final shot of selection came at this year’s London Marathon, where he finished top Briton and smashed his PB by 46 seconds with 2:13.41. But once again it came up short of the ‘A’ standard that UKA had set at 2:12, some three minutes faster than the mark stipulated by the IAAF.
A “select Lee Merrien” facebook page was set up, which gained thousands of followers within the space of a few days. Merrien, meanwhile, went the official route and appealed the decision. It was at first rejected but the panel were asked to reconsider and he was finally added to the team.
If it seems that Merrien had it tough, spare a though for Miranda Boonstra of the Netherlands. While the IAAF had set the marathon ‘A’ standard at 2:37, the athletics federation of the Netherlands (KNAU) decided to tighten it with a mark that appears to have been plucked out of the blue – 2:27:24.
Boonstra, a former steeplechaser, took almost two minutes off her PB to finish fourth at the Rotterdam Marathon, competing in just her third race over the distance. But her time of 2:27:32 fell an agonising eight seconds short of the qualifying standard set by KNAU. That’s 0.3 seconds per mile.
She appealed to the Netherlands Olympic Committee, but they rejected it and stood by their decision. So while Merrien – who currently ranks 348th in the world this year – will be at the Games, Boonstra, ranked 70th in the world, will miss out. And at 39 years old, she knows it would have been her final chance.
One week after Jessica Ennis defeated world indoor silver medallist Tiffany Porter in the sprint hurdles at the UK Olympic Trials, another heptathlete with the same first name achieved an even more notable feat in the same event.
Competing in the 100m hurdles at the Canadian Championships, heptathlete Jessica Zelinka wasn’t one of the favourites. After all, it was the country’s highest-quality event and featured former world champion Perdita Felicien, Olympic bronze medallist Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, two-time Commonwealth silver medallist Angela Whyte, and world finalists Nikkita Holder and Phylicia George.
But Zelinka, having broken her own national heptathlon record with 6599 just two days before, pulled off a stunning victory in the sprint hurdles with a lifetime best of 12.68. Holder and George took the other top-three spots, meaning that the three most experienced and successful athletes – Felicien, Lopes-Schliep and Whyte – missed out.
The marathon selection situation in Kenya makes the cases of Merrien and Boonstra appear wholly insignificant. Imagine being the world record-holder for the event and being left off the team!
That’s exactly what happened to Patrick Makau. The Kenyan set the current world record of 2:03:38 last year. But it came within a two-year period of staggering depth for the East African nation and they had an embarrassment of riches. Ultimately they selected this year’s London Marathon champion Wilson Kipsang, two-time defending champion Abel Kirui and last year’s London Marathon champion Emmanuel Mutai, who replaced the injured Moses Mosop, the Chicago Marathon champion.
Geoffrey Mutai, who recorded the fastest time in history last year on the downhill Boston course with 2:03:02, is currently a reserve. Several other Kenyans with sub-2:06 PBs were never even in contention.
The competition was almost as brutal for the Kenyan women’s marathon team. African record-holder Mary Keitany leads the squad from world champion Edna Kiplagat and world silver medallist Priscah Jeptoo. Sub-2:20 runner Lucy Kabuu and Florence Kiplagat, who ran 2:19:44 to win in Berlin last year, never made the cut. To rub salt in the wounds, Kiplagat finished fourth in the Kenyan Trials 10,000m – an event in which she holds the national record.
Just the top 16 teams in each relay event are invited to take part at the Olympics. But few involved in the sport were unaware that the British women’s 4x100m team were on the brink of falling outside of that cut-off mark. In recent years the team had lost their funding and as such haven’t had as many opportunities to train or race as often as the British men’s 4x100m team.
It led to a situation at the European Championships whereby they had to run a solid time in the 4x100m to maintain their place as one of the top 16 teams in the world. They succeeded in doing that by posting a 43.51 clocking in their heats – but then the team was disqualified as third-leg runner Hayley Jones had stepped on the line; one of the many victims of the tight curves of the Helsinki track.
Two of the other teams competing at the European Championships went on to record times that bumped them up the rankings, pushing Britain – a team that finished fourth at the World Championships as recently as 2007 and were in contention for a medal at the last Olympics – into 17th place. “I will take all the blame in the world for us not reaching the final,” tweeted Jones after the race. “But I won’t take any for two years of missed opportunities.”
Only at major championships can you run the 100m in less than 10 seconds and expect to not necessarily finish within the top three. But at this year’s US Trials, five men broke that barrier and only the first three of them made the team – such is their strength in depth.
A similar scenario played out four years ago where six men broke 10 seconds in the US Trials final, but they were assisted significantly by a 4.1m/s tailwind. This year the wind was legal (1.8m/s) and Justin Gatlin won in 9.80 from American record-holder Tyson Gay (9.86) and Ryan Bailey (9.93).
Mike Rodgers and Darvis Patton both dipped under 10 seconds, but will not make the team – meanwhile Gatlin, who escaped a life-time ban from the sport following his two drugs positives, will be given the chance to regain the Olympic title he won in Athens 2004.
The standard in the heats of the US Trials was staggering too, with 14 men running faster than 10.25 – the winning time of the UK Trials.
Paul Kipsiele Koech is the best steeplechaser in the world this season and has been one of the top athletes in the event for the past 10 years. But he rarely gets the chance to compete at major championships because he struggles to run in the rarefied air of the Kenyan Trials, which are usually held at altitude.
This year, for example, Kipsiele Koech opened his season with a pair of sub-eight-minute runs on the Diamond League circuit, posting the third-fastest time in history with 7:54.31 in Rome. But at the Kenyan Olympic Trials held in Nairobi, Kipsiele Koech finished a distant seventh, some 25 seconds behind winner Brimin Kipruto – an athlete he beat by 30 seconds at the Doha Diamond League meeting.
Kipsiele Koech appealed against his exclusion from the team – just as he did last year when missing out on the World Championships – but the Kenyan Athletics Federation stuck to their guns.
The sport has never before had a star as big as Usain Bolt. Since his record-breaking feats at the last Olympics in 2008, the Jamaican is now a household name the world over. To the uninitiated, it is a foregone conclusion that he will triumph again in both sprints at this year’s Olympics.
So it came as quite a surprise when Bolt was beaten – by his training partner, no less – at the recent Jamaican Championships. His training partner, of course, happens to be world 100m champion Yohan Blake, and those who follow the sport had been aware of his potential. Bolt’s loss to Blake in the 100m at the Jamaican Championships was put down to a poor start. He tried his best to chase down Blake and did a good job, but ultimately ran out of track, running 9.86 to Blake’s 9.75.
The 200m, his better event, was seen as a chance for Bolt to make amends. But once again he was outshone by his younger rival. The gap was smaller than in the 100m as Blake held off Bolt 19.80 to 19.83, but the multiple world record-holder had clearly had his cage rattled and he decided to skip on competing at the Monaco Diamond League meeting in order to get in more training ahead of the Olympics.
UK Athletics could have easily adopted the IAAF selection policy for the Olympics, but instead chose to complicate the situation by creating two different qualifying periods and stipulating that athletes needed at least two qualifying marks in order to be considered for selection.
So when Lynsey Sharp, an athlete with just one ‘B’ standard, pulled off a surprise victory in the 800m at the Olympic Trials – beating several athletes with an ‘A’ standard in the process – it threw the selection battle wide open. UK leader Marilyn Okoro had two ‘A’ standards from this year, but set a suicidal pace at the Trials and paid for it at the end, finishing fifth. Sub-two runner Emma Jackson had been in PB form this year but picked up an untimely rib injury a week before the Trials and could only finish seventh.
Jemma Simpson had two ‘A’ standards from last year but had only achieved a ‘B’ standard this year and finished a well-beaten second at the Trials. Meanwhile Britain’s most successful athlete in the event in recent years, Jenny Meadows, was forced to skip the Trials altogether as she was returning from injury.
UKA could have opted to select up to three of the four ‘A’ qualifiers in the 800m. But following another superb run by Sharp at the Europeans where she came from way behind to win silver with a PB, the national governing body made the unprecedented decision to select just one ‘B’ qualifier and went with Sharp.
Okoro, Jackson and Simpson all lodged appeals, but they were all rejected.
The US selection policy is as brutal as it is simple. As harsh as it seems, USA’s “first three past the post” system works well for a nation that has so many ‘A’ qualifiers across all the events.
But what happens when there’s a dead heat for third place? The scenario had never before played out, but it happened at this year’s US Trials in the women’s 100m. Behind Carmelita Jeter and Tianna Madison, Jeneba Tarmoh was initially awarded third place ahead of three-time world 200m champion Allyson Felix, both clocking 11.07.
As often happens in such close finishes when the stakes are high, a review of the photofinish was requested. Upon closer inspection, it was decided that Tarmoh and Felix – who, to make matters all the more awkward, are training partners – were inseparable and were joint third-place finishers.
So who should get the third place on the team? Many suggestions were put forward, ranging from a toss of a coin through to wrestling in jelly. USATF held off on making a decision until after the 200m – which Felix won while Tarmoh was fifth.
Ultimately it was finally announced that there would be a race-off at the end of the US Trials. But just when the big race was starting to be hyped up, Tarmoh withdrew and took herself out of the running.