How To Qualify for an Olympic Team in Track Events

Just a few short steps before you can go for the gold.
Just a few short steps before you can go for the gold.

10000, 5000, 1500, oh my! U.S.A. Track Trials are coming up and Rio is right around the corner. Sure there’s a little doping going on, but it’s time to put the jadedness aside and get pumped!

Before we get our spectating on later this week as Americans hit the track for a chance at gold in Rio, we thought we’d take a look at what runners need to do to be eligible to compete in the 2016 Olympics. As we detailed last week, Canadian runner Lanni Marchant is super fast, but Canada, which does not stage a Trials competition as we do here in the states, has yet to decide if she’ll compete. And even here in the U.S. with our Trials, the standards for making it to the Olympics are far from easily understood.

So, let’s change that and explain how athletes make it to the track in the Olympics.

United States

In the U.S., to participate in the Track Trials, athletes must do two things:

  1. Qualify for the Olympic Trials
  2. Qualify for the Olympic Team

Obviously, this is way oversimplified, so let’s dig deeper.

Qualifying for the Trials

For an American athlete, the first step to making the Olympic team is to qualify for the Olympic Trials. As we know, the USATF, the governing body of track and field in the U.S., determines eligibility standards for the Trials. To be eligible for the Track Trials, athletes must have run a qualifying times between May 1, 2015 and June 26, 2016 or between January 1, 2015 and June 26, 2016 for the 10,000 meters, specifically. The athlete must also run this qualifying time during the qualifying window at a meet with stringent standards of competition such as an IAAF or USATF sanctioned meet, or NFHS structure for high school meets (yes, there will be high schoolers!). Competitors also need to be USATF members and pay a $30 entry fee.

The USATF states the qualifying time that will guarantee a spot at the Trials; however USATF will add to the field of automatic qualifiers from a descending order list. In addition, the published field size is an approximation not a minimum; USATF may choose to include only the athletes with the Trials standard. With athletes scratching up to 48 hours before a race, a spot on the starting line may not be certain until the last minute. Note that athletes must submit an entry and declare intent to compete in order to be considered from the descending order list.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 1.36.18 PM
Standards straight from the source.

The field for the Women’s 10k is a great example. As you can see here, there are 24 women with qualifiers and intent to race, and all those who were close but not quite under the standard were denied entry by the USATF. In 2012, the standard was 20 seconds slower, 32:45, and as you can see here, the USATF let in a couple of athletes who did not meet that standard.

To recap, to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Track Trials, athletes must:

  1. Be a USATF member; and
  2. Run a qualifying time (or really close to a qualifying time and hope the USATF is feeling generous),
  3. In a qualifying race,
  4. Within the qualifying window; and
  5. Submit an entry to declare intent to compete; and
  6. Pay $30 (always a fee!)

Qualifying for the Olympic Team

Despite the race of her life Notosha Rodgers's second place at the 2012 10,000 Trials was not enough and Janet Bawcom went to London instead.
Despite the race of her life, Notosha Rodgers’s second place at the 2012 10,000 Trials was not enough, and Janet Bawcom went to London instead.

Every country may enter three qualifying athletes per event. The American system is fittingly democratic with its Trials meet beginning June 30, but it isn’t quite so simple as achieving a top-three finish; athletes must also achieve the Olympic standard which is equal to or more stringent than the Olympic Trials standard. For example, the Trials standard for the 10,000 is 32:25.00 while the Olympic Games standard is 32:15.00.

Occasionally a top finisher lacks the Olympic Games standard and is left at home, such as Natosha Rogers in 2012, or an athlete might choose to compete in a different event, like Shalane Flanagan who placed third and had a qualifier in the 10,000, but chose to race the marathon in London instead. This opened the door for Lisa Uhl and Janet Bawcom to compete in London in the 10k. However, most trials races will be well under the standard and the top three will represent the USA.

In addition, the Olympics have age standards. Marathoners and 50k race walkers must be born in 1996 or prior. Throwers and multi-event athletes must be born before 2000, and anyone turning 16 in 2016 is eligible for the rest of the events. It’s also notable that athletes must be male to enter the 50km race walk; there is no female race.

Other Countries


Our neighbor Canada uses a selection committee approach rather than a specific trials race. Well, two committees actually. First, Athletics Canada (Canada’s track and field governing body) nominates athletes and then the final selection falls to the Canadian Olympic Committee. Unlike the USA, Canadian standards may be more stringent than the Olympic standards, by more than 15 minutes in the case of the marathon!

Ethiopia, Kenya, and Great Britain

Long-distance powerhouses Ethiopia and Kenya along with Great Britain use a combination of a trials race and selection committee to name their Olympic team.

Refugees like South Sudanese 1500 meter runner Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, plan to run in Rio under the Olympic Flag.

Azerbaijan, Monrovia, Lichtenstein, etc.

Many nations, however, lack a depth of talent to require any sort of selection, essentially automatically sending the few athletes who have achieved the Olympic standard. The IAAF may even use its discretion to allow some athletes who have not met the Olympics qualifications to compete, usually if they are from nations in which no athlete has met the standard to compete.

Independent Athletes

Some athletes will compete in Rio independently, meaning not on any country’s team. These athletes are said to compete under the “Olympic Flag.” These athletes include refugees and this year are likely to include Russian athletes who have been training in “clean” countries, like whistleblower, Yuliya Rusinova.

Will you be following the Olympic Trials? Do you think a Trials race is the best way to pick a team? Who will you be cheering for?


I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

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  1. I am obsessed with the drama of the Olympic Trials. I’m going on this amazing trip abroad, but I was actually so devastated when I realized I would be out of the country for the Trials. Runner nerd problems. This does kind of feel like the first year where I feel like I’m cheering for actual people. Social media has made it easier for me to remember that these SUPER FAST people are actually just humans who have big dreams and big struggles, and that makes me even more invested in seeing how things turn out. I think I’m most excited to hear how the 800 turns out because there are just so many fast ladies in that race. But I’m also a 10K girl at heart, so can’t wait for that either.

    1. I was totally thinking about that the other day Lemon! I feel like I have a much better grasp on who some of the athletes are now, and makes it easier to root for someone that way. Social media has definitely allowed us to see inside the pro’s lives a bit more- and feel more of a connection. I’ve always loved the Olympics and rooted for all things USA whether I knew the athlete or not, but I love the fact that now I can root for people because they are USA but also because of who they are. Then again, this also makes me not want to root for some USA people, knowing more about them (see Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay- before I would have rooted for them as USA athletes, but now it’s hard knowing they are previous dopers and I don’t want them representing our country).

  2. I think it creates interesting dynamics that each country has different selection process for their respective teams. I mean, in the case of Lanni-it’s crazy to me that Canada can have a standard so much faster than the Olympic standard for the marathon (Actually to better word it, I don’t understand how this is legal…..considering I thought US changed trials standard because it was violating an act that a standard cannot be faster than Olympic standard…).

    In the case of Great Britain et al, I do see the pro’s of having a selection committee where if an athlete just has a bad day at the trials they aren’t necessarily out. I think for distance races that is something to certainly take into account, where as shorter distances and sprints I think that a trials and top 3 finish is effective (yes sprinters can have off days too, but I think an off day at a 10k or marathon is going to be a much larger gap from normal times if that makes sense). I do like the simplicity of trials though, because it takes the personal feelings out of it. If I were in the position to be a contender (never will be), I would want to know I did or didn’t get in because I did/did not make it happen at the trials on that day and not because some person on a committee who doesn’t know me…,made a choice about me as if they did know me.

    1. Yes, definitely makes for an interesting playing field! Some of the best runners may not end up competing at the Olympics (see: Kenya).

      re; “considering I thought US changed trials standard because it was violating an act that a standard cannot be faster than Olympic standard” — This refers to the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports act. You’re correct, on what it means for standards, however it’s a USA act, so has no influence in Canada etc.

        1. It’s going to have a huge impact on OTQ standards in the marathon for a long time for sure! Especially on the women’s side where the Oly standard is relatively more relaxed due to less worldwide marathon depth.

  3. Thanks for this! As a Canadian looking in, I’ve tried to make sense of the US process, but didn’t quite understand. The LetsRun article was very useful as well.

    1. Hi Jesse! Thanks for stopping by! It definitely can be confusing. At least this year we don’t have to deal with the confusion of Olympic A vs B standards and having podium finishers without Olympic qualifiers!

  4. I want to be in the Olympics so bad its my dream. I want to be in it for 5000m but I’m a freshman and my best 5k this cross country season is 22.00

    1. Keep dreaming big, Lydia! You might not be ready for 2020, but you never know what the future could hold. It takes a lot of hard work to become an Olympian, and it’s definitely not in the cards for everyone, but I encourage you to follow your interest and learn as much as you can. Train hard, recover well, eat and sleep right (and do your school work!) and your 22 minute CC 5k will almost certainly come down on the track!

      In your spare time, you can learn about how others did it by reading everything you can about great American olympian runners: Kim Conley, Lauren Fleshman, Shannon Rowbury, Molly Huddle, Shalane and Des (this is a great list, broken down by event: You can even talk to some of these ladies on Twitter and Instagram! Take it from me, I’ve met a handful of these awesome women – they seem like giants from far away but up close they are just like you and me, chicks who love to run. And every one of them started somewhere!