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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

John Blanchette: Track and field trials full of tribulations

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

For those who believe the NCAA basketball tournament field needs to be expanded to quell the annual wails of the few Bubbleville teams that don’t make the party of 65, consider this:

At the Olympic trials last week to pick the three athletes per event – three – who will run, jump and throw for the United States next month in Beijing, the loudest squall of complaint came from defenders of the runners ranked 25 through 31 on the performance list at 10,000 meters who were excluded from the race.

Of course, their outrage was because of the 32nd name on the list getting in, via appeal.

Still, the larger point remains: Less is often more, but more is never less.

Let 124 teams into March Madness, and Nos. 125 through 135 will howl just as loudly in protest.

And as for the trackies, that the audible hand-wringing done over filling the fields at the low end should siphon any attention from the athletes at the top bound for Beijing is only one reason why the sport is “down there with mud wrestling” in the public interest, even in the hothouse environment of an Olympic year.

Or so goes the assessment of John Chaplin, the former Washington State University coach who in Eugene, Ore., presided over the selection of another men’s Olympic team. As men’s committee chair for USA Track and Field, Chaplin plays peacemaker, buckstopper, bad news deliverer, rules interpreter, rainmaker and just about any other behind-the-scenes role there is – in a sport where behind-the-scenes is abridged to a four-letter word.

Thus, he was predictably demonized when Adam Goucher was added to the 10,000-meter final.

To recap: The race field was capped at 24, those meeting the “A” qualifying standard (who are in automatically) and fillers from the “B” list based on best times. Goucher, a five-time U.S. champion in track and cross country, filed an appeal to run based on a contention that his ability to meet the “A” standard over the past 18 months was compromised by an injury suffered representing the U.S. at last summer’s World Championships.

The appeal was approved, which didn’t sit well with the seven runners with faster times ahead of him who didn’t get to race.

“Here’s what they don’t understand,” said Chaplin, with his trademark bluntness. “If No. 32 appeals and gets in, it doesn’t mean 25, 26, 27, 28 and so on get in.”

Doesn’t seem very democratic.

“It isn’t,” he agreed. “It’s an appeal. It means you think you have a reason to appeal your situation, and it’s judged on the merits. Look, if you have a problem, save yourself some grief and get the ‘A’ standard. You have 18 months to do it.”

In the end, it didn’t mean much – Goucher finished seventh and didn’t make the team, which is probably for the best. The conspiracy cult was already in full dither, what with Goucher sponsored by Nike and coached by Nike favorite son Alberto Salazar and Nike being very much the sugar daddy of these trials.

But Gouchergate reminded us why our current way of picking the Olympic track team – unforgiving as it is – may not be the only way, but it’s certainly the American way.

Naturally, we’re hearing the usual grumping for reform. Our best sprinter, Tyson Gay, cramped up in the 200 and will not be able to run that event in Beijing. Joanna Hayes, the 2004 hurdles champ, was eliminated. Alan Webb, once the bright hope of American miling, wilted again. Surely a few U.S. medals were left behind in the glow of Hayward Field.

But most of the time, the strong do survive. The Olympians with Inland Northwest connections – Bernard Lagat, Diana Pickler, Brad Walker, Ian Waltz – were all top-three athletes entering the meet. It’s a crisis atmosphere – four years of work coming down to one audition.

Same deal at the Games, however. It’s not a lifetime achievement award.

“You want your best people to finish in the top three and have the Olympic ‘A’ standard,” Chaplin said. “You want them to run the rounds and get through OK so we know they can do what they’re going to be asked to do. And you’d like some people who are going to be around in 2012 or 2016 – and that’s the ‘B’ standard guys, who are there to get a shot and get experience.”

The fix-it folks would have the trials to select two and a third Olympian picked by committee, or something even more political, as is the case in other nations.

“So who gets to play God?” Chaplin asked. “If you don’t get to pick the guy who picks the team, or you don’t know him, or he works for the other shoe company, do you want him? No.

“It’s like democracy. There’s no worse system in the world, but try to find a better one. And after all the talk and screaming and yelling and fighting and pissing and moaning, you let the athletes select themselves.”

Because something more than the trials would certainly be less.