Imagine a world where the powers that be select a group of men and a group of women to compete, struggle, and suffer for the amusement of the elites. Imagine an arena built solely for the comfort of the spectating elite classes, one that all but ensures mass suffering of the competitors. Imagine stepping into this arena after being told for years that getting here was an honor and a privilege, only to have the sinking feeling of dread at what’s about to happen to you.
I’m not writing about the Hunger Games. I’m writing about the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. You’d think something like the Marathon Trials would be a celebration of the runners who trained, worked, struggled, and strove to earn a spot on the starting line. Instead, the race organizers treated them like props, props who had to pay their own way to be on the stage, and put the comforts and desires of corporate sponsors and NBC over the needs of the runners to meet the physical demands of the race.
It’s been over a week since the crazy-hot Olympic Trials Marathon, but that doesn’t mean athletes aren’t still steaming. And as more of them speak up about it, we’re continuing to wonder what the hell the USATF and L.A. race organizers were thinking.
The Host City
For each Trials, the USATF chooses a host race. In the past, the Trials have been held in conjunction with the New York Marathon, Boston, Houston, among others. Then, the USATF and the host race work together to put the Trials on. The selection of this host city/race is usually fairly straight-forward. The Long Distance Running Section Committee votes on the contenders and majority rules. Usually.
The 2016 host race decision-process occurred in January of 2014, when the USATF deviated from its standard procedure. According to a January 2014 Race Results Weekly article, USATF’s Long Distance Running Section Committee voted 5-0 to award Houston the 2016 Trials as it had for 2012. However, CEO Max Siegel overruled the Committee, awarding the Trials to L.A taking advantage of an ambiguity in the bylaws, which made it unclear whether or not he had the power to make that call. While we can’t be completely certain, the thought is that Siegel took the Trials to L.A. on the promise that the larger media market would help USATF sell broadcasting rights to a major network and thereby increase exposure of the event and the sport. This current contingent of leadership at USATF is working very hard to take track and field (including road events like the marathon), from a second tier sport to a major and L.A., hungry to prove itself ready to host another Olympics, was seen as a greater ally in that pursuit.
Every athlete we spoke to who ran both the Houston Trials in 2012 and the 2016 L.A. Trials raved about Houston in comparison. The weather is usually great, the logistics are simple, it’s less expensive to stay and get around there, and the race is tightly organized. Even runners who ran in the 2016 Houston Marathon and the L.A. Trials raved about Houston in comparison to the L.A. Trials. And as we’ll soon discuss, there’s no wonder why.
Foreshadows of Trouble
After USATF announced its decision, athletes assumed the L.A. Trials would be as wonderful a race experience as other recent Trials, but there were indications of problems. First came the December 11, 2015 Trials standard change. Arguably, this was something USATF could not avoid because the U.S. standard was (arguably) bound by law to match the International Olympic Committtee’s (IOC) standard and because the IOC hadn’t set this standard until then. Nonetheless it didn’t exactly instill confidence in USATF as a governing body and it potentially inspired more runners to go for a qualifier over those last few weeks of the qualifying period, which possibly exacerbated a timing issue.
Trials athletes were required to declare their intent to use their own fluids at the race one week before the Trials qualifying window ended. Say what?! When potentially dozens of athletes don’t yet even know if they can run your race, how is it fair to close the deadline for having fluids on the course? That makes no sense, particularly when the weather and time of day were considered (we’ll get to that). Sure, no one knew the weather would be as bad as it was, but odds were it would be warm and sunny, which require more fluids than your average forty degree fall marathon.
Additionally, athletes who qualified with B standards (the vast majority) had to pay their own way to the race, which is no big deal until you consider that a stay at the host hotel cost each athlete a discounted(!) rate of $300 per night for a minimum of 3 nights. The host hotel did not only house the athletes, it also housed things like packet pick-up, press conferences, the athlete hospitality suite, etc. Cheaper lodging options were not just inconvenient, but also came with the real possibility of being a logistical nightmare with L.A.’s notorious traffic, particularly on race morning with road closures.
The logo rules at the Trials have been well-publicized and were no different from previous years, and like previous years, they left many athletes scrambling to tape over logos on seemingly innocuous things like their fluid bottles. Salty buddy Keely Maguire had to find new compression socks when the New Balance logos on her usual socks were deemed to be too prominent after she had turned them inside out. At first glance this might not seem like a big deal, but when just getting to the Trials is so expensive for many of these athletes, any difficulty for their sponsors to get a little viewing time means sponsors are less inclined to help defray the costs. If USATF wants to use the Trials race to grow the sport of running, why are they creating financial disincentives for up-and-coming athletes to attend?
Less Bang for More Bucks
Like past Trials Marathons, there was an entry fee for the participants. Athletes were required to pay $30 to enter, which is very modest for a marathon, but slightly strange in that the participants of this race were purportedly competing to represent our country. Not to mention they’re the main subject of the TV coverage, and imagine how much money NBC paid to cover this race – where was that money allocated? So, what did this $30 registration fee get the athletes?
It didn’t get them a t-shirt. One athlete we talked to put it this way:
Sounds stupid, I know. But if you pay an entry fee to a race, isn’t there a reasonable expectation you will get a t-shirt with it? I’m still in disbelief. And got really mad during the race when I saw that all of the volunteers had these nice Nike technical race volunteer t-shirts. And then talked to one later and found out they not only got tshirts, but jackets as well. Are you kidding me? I’m the one who actually ran in, and paid to run in this race. Nothing?
So unbelievably grateful for our good friends GG and BG. Today, I received all this awesome @nike US Olympic Trials gear thanks to their generosity! I had been pretty disappointed after getting to the Trials (a huge reach goal of mine) that there wasn’t a single piece of gear given to the runners who had trained SO hard to get there. Not a single shirt, hat, bag or memento (even to purchase) of any sort to bring home to remember that weekend #LA2016. It was really pretty crappy on behalf of the @lamarathon, @usatf and all involved in the planning of that weekend not to put more thought into the race. Our friends received these amazing shirts and jackets as trials volunteers and sent them to @iannurse24 and me after realizing the athletes weren’t given them too. So guys, THANK YOU! And @usatf @nike – consider sending the other runners these as well- everyone deserves a little something to remember they ran in the US OLYMPIC MARATHON TEAM TRIALS! ? #LA2016 #olympicmarathontrials #teamusa #roadtorio
Surely the athletes got goodie bags when they picked up their numbers?
I did get a cheapo red bag to hold my envelopes of welcome letters from the mayor, race committee, etc. And a bottle of Coke. That was our race swag. For the Olympic Trials.
And previous Trials races provided free events to athletes, like Boston in 2008, when athletes could bring one guest to both a free pre-race reception and a post-race party. In L.A.? For $75 a Trials athlete could bring one guest to the prerace reception and then could pay another $75 to go to the post-race reception. Was it worth it?
I bought tickets, just because I figured this was such a once in a lifetime opportunity, I didn’t want to miss out. Big mistake. The pre-race reception at the science center was pretty cool because of the location, but honestly I would have enjoyed a real dinner out at a nice Italian restaurant for much less than $75. The post race “reception”? There was nothing official about it, but 1 table of food in a bar type restaurant. Appetizer type food. How they got away with charging $75 for what I would not have even paid $10 for, I don’t know. Ridiculous.
Helping Runners Through the Heat
While the Trials provided less race swag than your friendly neighborhood 5k, that’s not even the worst of it, not even close. Did you notice the weird start times for the Trials races? 10:06 a.m. for the men and 10:22 a.m. for the women. These start times weren’t chosen to assist athletes in performing their best, they were chosen to accommodate NBC’s schedule. And while an average Angelino February 13 would bring temperatures in the high 50’s around that time of day, this year, the temperatures were forecasted early to be much higher, dangerously so, in fact.
USATF had to know that most runners would be out in noonday sun, but it didn’t seem they’d thought that far ahead from the course, which featured virtually no shade, but plenty of hairpin turns, curbs, and potholes. Of course, with the red flag weather warning, you’d think the USATF and the L.A. race crew would provide extra fluids for the athletes, instead athletes had fluids at best every 5k. That’s once each 3.1 miles in the blazing sun on a hot day. And on the latter laps, those fluids were roasting hot.
It’s true that last minute race officials intended to add a second water stop, but the plan never got off the ground. They did add a sponge station they announced at the athlete technical meeting, which runners reported to us was more helpful than they’d initially expected. However, it was placed in the middle of the street, so to access the sponges women had to scramble horizontally through the pack, often while dodging faster men runners who were lapping them.
On a hot day when there aren’t a lot of fluid stations or opportunities to cool athletes down, of course the race will ensure adequate medical staff is ready to help heat-exhausted athletes, right? When Shalane Flanagan, SHALANE FLANAGAN, collapses at the finish line and her fellow exhausted athlete has to hold her up until her husband can get to her – not medical personnel – you know there’s a problem.
A photo posted by Andrea Duke (@andreaduke1) on
Yes, They Had No Bananas
Ok, so maybe USATF and the L.A. Marathon personnel were caught off guard by the weather. Surely, they didn’t intend to neglect the athletes. Surely they’d take care of them once they finished. Imagine the spread you’d get upon finishing that marathon!
You mean, a warm bottle of water and a warm bottle of Powerade?
That’s it. That was what the athletes had in the finishing area. Yes, they had no bananas that day. Or anything else. At. All.
They didn’t have any food for the athletes at the finish. Nothing, not even bananas. They did hand us bottles of water or PowerAde that we could drink as we walked by the VIP tent set up with an extensive food buffet. But for the actual runners (who I would like to reiterate, actually paid an entry fee for this race) who just finished a marathon on an ill-supported course in the heat? Nothing.
Ah yes. The VIP tent. Next to the finish area was a large tent, the VIP Hospitality tent. In Cinnamon’s Story of the Day, she briefly mentioned this VIP tent at the start. What she neglected to mention, but definitely noticed, was the fully stocked bar in the VIP tent, the silver coffee urns, the real-not-disposable plates, forks and wine glasses, and the full, catered breakfast. Not that these people didn’t have a stake in the race, some were city officials, some were likely affiliated with athlete sponsors, some were with USATF, and there was likely even a coach or two and perhaps even runners’ family members, as tickets were on sale to the public:
Watch the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon from the best seats on course! Attendees to this paid area will have access to bleachers along the Start/Finish straightaway as well as entry into the Race Hospitality Tent which includes a catered breakfast and hosted bar. The race broadcast will also be shown inside the Tent ensuring that you don’t miss a minute of the action.
Nonetheless, against a backdrop of runners pushing themselves in the hottest part of the day essentially to please a broadcasting schedule, the scene reeked a bit of luxury. And, to many athletes who didn’t even get a banana or a bagel after their race, misuse of resources.
So, what do you think? Did the USATF and the L.A. Marathon drop the ball?
[Correction: A previous version of this post credited the USATF Board with the authority to vote on the host site/city for the Olympic Trials.]