A Historical Analysis of the Olympic Trials
The Olympic Trials marathons are coming up on Saturday and berths on the team to Tokyo are up for grabs. Everyone has their thoughts on who has the best chance to make it – but what do the historical trends tell us?
I analyzed some data on the 34 men and 25 women US Olympic marathoners since the Trials system began in 1968. This does not include the results of the 1980 Trials since none became Olympians, and includes the lone male and female Olympians of 2000.
I looked the hardest at the Olympians from 2004 to present, because they are most like the men and women who will be running on Saturday. After the 2000 debacle, in which the USA qualified just one man and one woman, a real effort was made to raise the USA’s marathon competitiveness and it most certainly has paid off.
Here are my findings.
This was fascinating and different than I expected. As determined by their age on the day of the Trials, male US Olympic marathoners are significantly younger than their female counterparts.
Men’s ages ranged from 24 to 40, but 86% were between 24 and 31. The only Olympians over age 33 were ageless wonders Meb Keflezighi (36 and 40) and Abdi Abdirahman (35). The average age from 2004 to the present is 30, but the above three skew the average; most recent male Olympians were 27 to 29 years old at the Trials, and two were 24 and 25.
Women Olympic marathoners followed the opposite trend. All but three were between 26 and 39 at the Trials, and all but one of the recent Olympians were between 28 and 35. Those three young outliers were Cathy O’Brien and Julie Isphording, who competed in the first three women’s Olympic marathons (O’Brien finished 8th in the first women’s Trials when she was sixteen), and women’s running is vastly different now than then.
Conclusion: your men’s Olympians will probably be in their late 20s or just barely past it, while your women’s Olympians will probably be in their early 30’s or almost there.
One thing both men and women had in common was that they were extremely good cross country runners in college or elsewhere, a trend that has only accelerated in the last few Olympic cycles.
Of the 12 men’s Olympic berths in the 21st century, 8 went to men who had been 1st or 2nd at an NCAA Cross Country Championships—which is no easy feat given the number of foreign runners (ineligible for the Trials) in the NCAA. Of the other four, two were in the top 15 and the other two in the top 50.
On the women’s side, it was a bit less dramatic but similar. Half of the last 12 spots went to NCAA XC champions or runners-up, one to a top 15 finisher, and three to top 50 finishers. Two more never ran at the NCAA cross country championships; Magdaleny Lewy-Boulet never qualified when running for Cal, and naturalized citizen Colleen De Reuck was never part of the US collegiate system but did manage to finish as high as fifth at the World Cross Country Championships.
This pattern follows as we go back into the 20th century. Bob Kempainen (’92 and ’96), Ed Eyestone (’88 and ’92), Alberto Salazar (’84), Don Kardong (’76), Margaret Groos (’88), Joan Samuelson (’84), and Julie Brown (’84) were all tremendous collegiate harriers. Even Christine Clark, whose win in 2000 was the biggest upset in the history of the marathon trials, managed a 30th place for Montana State.
Most of those who weren’t top collegiate cross country runners showed their hill-and-dale excellence elsewhere. For example, ’96 Olympian Mark Coogan (now the coach at New Balance Boston) never qualified to the NCAAs for Maryland but was a 7-time US team member for the World Cross Country Championships with a best finish of 34th place. Even further back, neither Frank Shorter nor Bill Rodgers took cross country seriously in college but they did later on; Shorter was a 4-time US champion and Rodgers was a Worlds bronze medalist. ’92 Olympian Francie Larrieu was in college before there was college cross country for women but twice finished in the top 20 at the Worlds. The same goes for ’84 Olympian Julie Brown but she was a world champion. Two-time Olympian Cathy O’Brien floundered in college but was a Foot Locker national champion.
And what about the Hanson’s-Brooks Original Distance Project, which has developed a reputation of taking unaccomplished college runners and making them competitive? Their two Olympians, Brian Sell and Desi (Davila) Linden were actually very good college runners, finishing 46th and 41st at the NCAAs as seniors. They were just off the radar but had already shown they had real talent.
Conclusion: If the runner was never in the top 50 at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, cross their name off the list. If he or she was in the top 2, put a star next to their name.
Do upsets happen at the Olympic Trials marathons? Yes.
Do they happen often? No.
When do they happen? When the field is weak, and that’s not this year.
The way I determined if an upset happened was by looking at Track and Field News‘ US marathon rankings. Virtually all Olympians of the 21st century had been in the top three in at least one of the two previous years, and those who didn’t had proven themselves as seriously competitive over 10k and half marathons. The lone exception to this rule is 2008 Olympian Magdalena Lewy Boulet, but she had finished fifth in the ’04 Trials race and could hardly be considered an unknown.
The last real upset victories at the Trials were in 2000, when Christine Clark won the women’s race, and 1988, when Mark Conover won the men’s. Jenny Spangler and Janis Klecker scored unexpected Olympic berths in 1996 and 1992. This was the era in which the USA was the least competitive in the marathon. That’s not now, so don’t expect the unexpected.
Conclusion: the Olympic berths will go to runners who are already highly accomplished.
WHO WILL MAKE THE TEAM?
Every investment commercial always has a disclaimer such as “past performance is no guarantee of future results” and that’s true here as well, especially since injury can negate everything. If I were to gamble on this—AND WHY CAN’T WE GAMBLE ON THIS?—I would not put money on Rupp and Hasay give their recent injury problems.
That said, here’s what the Trackulator™ spits out as the main contenders when you combine all of the above.
28 years old, TFN US #2 rank last year, 12th at NCAA XC
31 years old, TFN US #1 rank last year, 14th at NCAA XC
Fighting to get on the team
33 years old, TFN US #3 rank last year, 3rd at NCAA XC
33 years old, TFN US #1 rank 2018, NCAA XC champion
35 years old, TFN US #3 rank 2018, 9th at NCAA XC
28 years old, TFN US #1 rank last year, 3-time NCAA XC top-three finish
35 years old, American Records for 10k and half marathon, 6th at NCAA XC
Fighting to get on the team
36 years old, TFN US #2 last year, 2-time Olympian
36 years old, TFN US #3 last year, 3rd at NCAA XC
27 years old, TFN US #4 and #5, 2-time NCAA XC top three finish
28 years old, TFN US #4 last year, 7th at NCAA XC
Photo by Kevin Morris