The Non Track Fan’s Guide to the Olympic Trials

If you haven’t been paying attention to track and field at all, then this post is for you.

Once every four years, you join serious track fans like myself in enjoying the spectacle of the Olympic Trials and the Olympics.  Track die-hards appreciate the influx of attention that the sport receives, but we also like how instantly the sport becomes palatable for the general public.  In Olympic years the confusing racing schedules, the infrequent appearances by star athletes and strange obsessions with times give way to a very simple formula.

For the Olympic Trials, which begin on Thursday, the only number anyone needs to know is three, as in top three advance* in each event and the rest go home (they don’t actually have to go home, they just don’t qualify for the Olympics).  No prior knowledge is necessary.  The system is so simple it has been accused of being unforgiving, but I believe it is the main reason that it draws in an audience outside of the usual suspects.

*As with everything in track and field, there is a catch.  Qualifiers also have to meet a time/distance standard for performance.  This should only impact a small amount of events.  For a more in-depth explanation of the “A” and “B” standards see this post from Track Focus.

To help those who are just now tuning in, I created the Non Track Fan’s Guide to the Olympic Trials.  It is 2012, and with greater access to information comes higher expectations for even the most casual of viewers.  Regardless of whether you are watching the meet with knowledgeable track fans, or neophytes such as yourself you need to be equipped with some basic knowledge and handy one-liners that can improve your reputation as a well-rounded sports fan.

Today we will cover the men’s events and tomorrow we will go through the women’s.  All the times listed are in PST and are for that event’s final.

100Sunday June 24, 4:48 p.m. NBC

Names to know: Tyson Gay, Justin Gatlin, Walter Dix, Mike Rodgers, Jeff Demps

Why you should watch: Gay appears to be back from injuries, but has only raced once in the last calendar year.  Will America embrace Gatlin, a former gold medalist who returned in 2010 from a four-year doping ban?  He has represented the United States since his return, but the Olympics are something different.

Some smart things to say:

Before:  “Gay hasn’t been fully healthy since 2007, his first 30 meters will tell us a lot.”  If Gay isn’t in the race, you can substitute anyone in his place and even the distance. i.e. “Gatlin’s first 40 meters will tell us a lot.”

During:  “Wow, he really reacted to the gun!” (you don’t need to specify who because the race will be almost over by the time you say it).

After:  “I think Jamaica is going to pretty nervous/confident.”   If the top 3 are under 9.90 choose “nervous,” if the top 3 are over 9.90 choose “confident.”

200Sunday, July 1st, 4:50 p.m. NBC

Names to know: Wallace Spearmon, Walter Dix, Doc Patton, Maurice Mitchell

Why you should watch:  This will be the last final on the last day of competition.  The third spot appears to be wide open behind Spearmon and Dix.  Also, this event always seems to have a high percentage of people pulling up with cramps if that sort of thing interests you.

Some smart things to say:

Before:  “Call me sentimental, but ever since Spearmon got disqualified for stepping out of his lane in Beijing I have been pulling for the guy.”

During:” ________(whoever looks to be ahead) is really making up the stagger.”

After:  “Trust me, I know he looks really tall, but Spearmon is only 6’3.”

400Sunday June 24, 4:20 p.m. NBC

Names to know: Lashawn Merritt, Jeremy Wariner, Tony McQuay, Mike Berry

Why you should watch:  Merritt is the heavy favorite, but after that it is battle of youth versus experience.  Collegians Berry and McQuay should battle Wariner (the guy with the sunglasses who won gold in 2004) for the remaining spots.

Some smart things to say:

Before:  “Jeremy Wariner hasn’t been the same since leaving his coach, Clyde Hart, in 2008.”

During: “Merritt is moving up really well on the backstretch” (you need to say this when they are running on the backstretch).

After:  “And to think, one year ago Merritt didn’t even know IF he was going to even be eligible to run in the Olympics.”

800Monday June 25, 7:47 p.m. NBCSN

Names to know: Nick Symmonds, Khadevis Robinson, Charles Jock, Robby Andrews

Why you should watch:  The 800 is always exciting and it was especially so in the 2008 trials.  Symmonds is the hometown favorite and is openly pursuing Paris Hilton.  Jock runs fast from the start and spent his early years in a refugee camp in Africa.  Also, who doesn’t like diving at the finish line?

Some smart things to say:

Before:  “With no rabbit in this race………. anything can happen.”

During:  “Keep your eye on Symmonds!”  (In the rare event that Symmonds is not in contention, or is clearly in front, pick a runner that is in about 4th or 5th place that is be gaining on the others.)

After:  “What a race, but I can’t help thinking how far in front David Rudisha would have been.”

1500Sunday July 1, 4:37 p.m. NBC

Names to know: Matt Centrowitz, Andrew Wheating, David Torrence, Leo Manzano

Why you should watch:  This should be the most unpredictable of all the events.  Some of the names listed above may not even make it through to the final.  Think of the 1500 as the 5 vs.12 match-up in the NCAA basketball tournament.  You have established favorites, but many times it comes down to who has the hot hand.  Wheating and Centrowitz are both former Oregon Ducks, which will get the crowd going.

Some smart things to say:

Before:  “So many talented guys in this field, you would hate to see it come down to a kick.”

During:  “Why are they leaving it to a kick?”

After:  “_______(race winner) kicked last, and he kicked best.”

5,000Thursday June 28, 7:38 p.m. NBCSN

Names to know: Bernard Lagat, Galen Rupp, Lopez Lomong, Dathan Ritzenhein

Why you should watch:  Lomong is the guy you have been seeing in the Visa and Tide commercials who is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  You would think he would be the fan favorite in this race, but Lagat has a charisma and competitiveness that people find irresistible.  That aside, Rupp, Lomong, and Lagat should make a really great race, but I’m not sure if anyone else will emerge to make it a fight for a top three placing.

Some smart things to say:

Before:  “Quick trivia, who holds the trials record in this event………?  Come on, take a guess….?”   When your fellow spectators correctly guess the only name that they are familiar with, Pre, it will be a moment of shared expertise.

During:  Is Lagat ever in the wrong spot during a race?

After:  Lagat. What more can you say?

10,000Friday June 22, 6:45 p.m. NBCSN

Names to know: Galen Rupp, Dathan Ritzenhein, Chris Derrick, Matt Tegenkamp

Why you should watch:  What should be a 25 lap coronation for Galen Rupp will be made a bit more interesting by the possibility of a team dynamic in the race.  Rupp’s teammate Ritzenhein, still needs the Olympic “A” standard (27:45) so he and Rupp may need to push the pace a bit in the first half.  Still not interested?  Ok, Rupp taking off his mask is bizarrely compelling television.

Some smart things to say:

Before:  “This race is all about who has the standard.” (note: not even passionate track fans have a clue about how the always changing A/B standard works, so you are in the clear here as long as you mention “A,” “B,” and “they can’t chase this year,” in your explanation).

During: In all likelihood they will cut away at some point during this race to show field events.  If they go to high jump or pole vault commenting on the “hip height” always works.  Long jump is also in action that day, so feel free to throw in a good, “he really attacked the board.”

After:  “But does (name of 3rd place) have the standard?”

110 HurdlesSaturday June 30, 6:40 p.m. NBC

Names to know: Jason Richardson, David Oliver, Aries Merritt, Dexter Faulk

Why you should watch: Someone will get left off the Olympic team who could make the Olympic final.  Also, someone probably will false start in the final, which always raises the ire of track fans.  Jason Richardson is as athletic as his NBA counterpart and David Oliver could move mountains.

Some smart things to say:

Before:  “They have to do something about this false start rule!” (only say this if there is a false start).

During:  “Oliver did not get out well.”

After:  “Hard to believe (name of 4th place) won’t be going to London.”

400 HurdlesSunday July 1, 4:12 p.m. NBC

Names to know: Bershawn Jackson, Angelo Taylor, Jeshua Anderson, Micheal Tinsley

Why you should watch: This is the event that Robert Griffin III could have dominated if he opted for the lucrative path of professional track instead of deciding to slum it in the NFL.  It is also the event that has seen the most early season trash talk.   Bershawn “Batman” Jackson has the best, and most widely used, nickname in the sport.

Some smart things to say:

Before:  “America has been so dominant in this event, but I’m not sold on any of these guys yet.”

During: ” ______________ is taking it out fast, BUT (lots of emphasis on “but) is it too fast?”

After:  Ad-lib an interesting story about how Bershawn Jackson got his nickname.

3,000 SteeplechaseThursday June 28, 6:30 p.m. NBCSN

Names to know: Evan Jager, Donn Cabral, Billy Nelson, Dan Huling

Why you should watch:  For those of you who enjoy the pain and suffering of others, there is always the potential for someone to fall either over a barrier or in the water pit.  This event won’t produce any medal threats for the US, but Cabral and Jager are both up-and-comers going for their first Olympic team.

Some smart things to say:

Before: “7 ½ laps. 28 barriers. 7 water jumps. For just 3 spots to London.” (must be said in a dramatic tone).

During:  “He was really choppy coming  into that last barrier.”

After:  “I still don’t see any threats to Kenya.”


More tomorrow!