New IAAF Standards for the Olympic Marathon, Explained

The new olympic standards, explained.

This year, the IAAF released new Olympic Qualifying Standards for the 2020 games in Tokyo. TL;DR: the standards are way higher than before.

At first I didn’t really get what it meant for our sport or why they would change it, but discussing it with some of the other Saltines helped me understand the complexity and significance of the new qualification process. Now that I get it, I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with you.

For the purpose of this discussion, we will be focusing on the womenโ€™s marathon, but the impacts will certainly be felt in the men’s field and across the sport, and if you’re interested in, say, the 10k, or the 400m the same basic principles will apply, but the qualifying times and page numbers will be different.

Now! On to the show:

The New Olympic Standard in Words You Can Understand ๐Ÿ’

For the womenโ€™s marathon, the qualifying time to compete in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics went from 2:45:00 to 2:29:30. Whoa.

However, an athlete can still qualify for the Olympics without running 2:29:30! How?

  • She must finish in the top 10 in a World Marathon Major (that’s Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago or New York City)
  • She must finish in the top 10 at the 2019 World Championships marathon this coming September in Doha, Qatar.
  • She must finish in the top 5 at an IAAF Gold Label Marathon (that’s Prague, Tet Riga, Ottowa, Lanzhou, Gold Coast, Bogotรก, Mexico City, Sydney, Cape Town and Berlin)*
  • Athletes who do not meet the above qualifications may still qualify, as the IAAF will fill the marathon to its capacity according to those who are highest in the IAAF world marathon ranking.

*Notice how the Gold Labels are top 5 and Doha is top 10? That’s added incentive for runners to participate at Doha.

Let’s go down a little sidebar, shall we? The world marathon ranking is determined by a combination of several factors. The “basics” are explained in three pages of fine print here. Basically it’s your result (in points based on your time, which you can calculate using the IAAF Scoring Tables of Athletics-Outdoor [pp 272-299], which is a 360 page document available here), plus your place (in numeral). If your course has a lot of downhill, they will adjust your time result.

Got it? Great! But there’s more. Each event in Tokyo will have a quota for the number of participants. For the marathon, it’s 80 athletes for the women’s marathon field and 80 for the men. In Rio the field was 156 women and 155 men.

What does this mean for your big, hairy goal to qualify for the Olympic Trials? ๐Ÿ™Ž

Have you been chasing the USATF Marathon Olympic Trials standard of 2:45:00 or faster? Or maybe you’ve already cracked 2:45 and now you’re wailing and moaning and gnashing your teeth, screaming that it was all for nothing because it wasn’t sub-2:29:30.

Well HOT DAMN, do we have some SaltyValuโ„ข news for you! You can still compete at the 2020 Trials in Atlanta! But you’d better train if you want to make the team, because only those running faster than 2:29:30 at the Trials will be eligible to compete in the Olympics (or those who have met the above standards of qualification via other races).

Whew! Everyone still with me? ๐Ÿ™†

So far we’ve talked about the IAAF Olympic Standard having changed a lot, and we brought up that the good news for those who want that sweet OTQ is that the Olympic Standard set by IAAF is NOT the Olympic Trials Standard, which is set by USATF.

Here’s a picture of Penny the wonky-eyed cat to help you feel like your brain isn’t broken:

A cat with two different sized eyes

Great. Let’s talk about the Olympic Trials. ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ

The old IAAF Olympic Standard (OS) of sub-2:45:00 was the basis for the current USATF Olympic Trials qualifying standard (OTQ), which has not changed. The top three finishers at the Trials were then selected for the Olympic team. You may recall that USATF had tried to raise the bar a few minutes for 2016 but then loosened it to the IAAF 2:45 at the last minute allowing a bunch of runners with near misses to be able to compete at the Trials.

The U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon is less than a year away – it will take place on February 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.

15 American women have hit the 2:29:30 OS so far, according to USATF (yes, Des is on that list, as are Amy and Shalane), and the Atlanta Trials course is predicted to be hilly and tactical. That means currently, there are 15 women eligible to try for the US Olympic marathon team, but just like past years, only the top 3 finishers will make it. Finishing under the 2:29:30 OS is going to be a tall order for anyone, even the big guns like Jordan, Sara, Molly and friends.

The only way the new IAAF OS might knock out one of the top 3 from getting a spot on the U.S. Olympic team is if she she made her OTQ in the half and was making her marathon debut in Atlanta, and also did not run a sub-2:29:30 at the Trials. So far, only 4 women have made their OTQ in the half.

What does this say about the Olympics’ ethos of inclusion? ๐ŸŒ

For perspective, there are already 300 American women qualified for the 2020 trials. As Mango pointed out to me, in past years there were participants who did not meet the IAAF standard, but were rendered eligible with “Wild Card” entries because they were running for Singapore or Luxembourg or another countries with smaller marathon fields. Without the wild card entries, those countries would not have been able to send athletes. Remember Sarah Attar? Her best time before the 2016 Olympics was 3:11:27, but because the number of Saudi Arabian women racing marathons is not particularly high, to Rio she went! Even if a slower field may not be very exciting for spectators or NBC Sports (though that’s certainly a matter of opinion, and there are other ways to make it exciting), it did add color, and stood up to the whole Point of the Olympics.

So what’s the reason for the new standard? ๐Ÿ™‹

The IAAF’s announcement of the new standard doesn’t cite any particular reason. At the annual USATF meeting, David Katz stated that the amount of available housing for athletes is limited and qualifying standards were established based on beds available.

Tokyo is building that limited housing and not using extant temporary housing solutions, like hotels, so it would seem that the limits are by choice. The numbers are likely based on prospective resale of the properties. This is a really interesting article about real estate development of the Olympic Village and the impact it will have on Tokyo’s real estate market. And also, here are some details in case you want to buy an Olympic Village apartment for just $2,243.68 USD per square foot (you don’t get to live in it until after the Olympics, sorry to crush your dreams of shacking up with Shalane).

Okay – we have absolutely no basis to claim that it has to do with real estate developers in Tokyo, and we are not making that claim! Truly we are not claiming that. But if there were any basis to such a claim, that would be pretty F’ed up, because why would the Olympics choose to screw over the athletes and also a bunch of small countries just so Tokyo could host the Olympics, even though Tokyo isn’t willing to host the amount of Olympians we’ve had in the past?

Because baby, it’s hard to find love when you cost $25 billion, and when you’re desperate, Tokyo’s half-sized athlete field sounds pretty good. The IOC isn’t really in a place to say no to any host city anymore; as you can read in that last link to the Guardian, the cost of hosting is completely bloated (the IOC “volunteer” board gets a $900/day per diem!), and over and over, citizens have been holding referendums to block or withdraw their cities’ Olympic bids.

Thinking realistically, would you want the Olympics in your city?

This is what Emma the German Katzenprinzessin thinks:
Harriet isn't going near it.

Oof, it’s making me dizzy. Kinda like the idea of $25 billion.

We Still Have More Questions ๐Ÿ™€

Will countries with small athlete fields still have “wild card” entries? We were unable to find any conclusive information about this! If anyone has a lead, please contact us or comment below.

Since 1984, the US has only used the trials system. Before 1968 Olympic marathoners were selected based on a series of marathon races. Is having a single Olympic Marathon Trials event the best way to select an Olympic marathon team?

Would we be better off skipping the trials in favor of sending athletes to the World Marathon Championships in Qatar?

What about the factors that go into the Trials race? Do the February Atlanta Trials course and weather mirror A potential Tokyo Olympic course in July enough?

If the Trials lose the suspense and prestige of selecting our Team USA marathoners, will spectators be as eager to turn up in person? Will cities see continue to see serving as a host site as a draw? Hosting the Trials has, up to this point, been a Big Deal. In comments after Atlanta was awarded the site, Atlanta Track Club executive director Rich Kenah shared a goal of 200,000-plus spectators. That’s a whole lot of tourism dollars being spent over the course of the weekend.

That’s all we’ve got for now. Let us know what you think in the comments!

Southern transplant who loves 90s boy bands, outdoor adventures and college basketball, although not necessarily in that order. Recovering running perfectionist.

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    1. And of course thanks to Sassafras for writing it! Understanding how our sport works at the top levels makes being a fan a lot easier and is a great way to promote unity among runners!

  1. note that the USATF OTQ window started way early September 1st 2017 but the 2:29:30 olympic standard window started far later on May 1st 2019 so there are less than 15 women qualified, can’t just use the OTQ list, there are only 8 currently, though it’s very likely all 15+ will re-qualify by June 2020 by time or top 5 iaaf gold

      1. Qualifying window for the marathon opened January 1, 2019. Letsrun did a deep dive on all the changes to the marathon qualification standards and the potential impact on the US trials (I know the message boards are toxic, but their actual journalism is generally pretty solid). Also, so far USATF has said they’re not going to consider the world rankings; athletes have to meet either the time qualifier or the top 10/5 in World Marathon Major, etc. Sounds like there’s still quite a bit of uncertainty as to how the whole thing will work, though.