From Oregon, With Love ⏱️

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Lap 174: Supported by New Balance

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If you’ve been living under a rock or somehow are a diehard track fan who prefers to stay up on current events via a single weekly newsletter, we’ve got some news: The first half of the U.S. Olympic Trials is in the books, and it’s already been a barn-burner.

If you haven’t been following along… what the heck do you do with your time? Read fiction? Spend time with your family? Put in an honest day’s work? All overrated!! Really, you should be spending your mornings, noons, and nights glued to the trio of CITIUS MAG live shows, eagerly dissecting each of our dozens of mixed-zone interviews, and devouring every word of our daily Trials newsletter. Oh, and watching a couple of hours of high-quality track and field every day. 

We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time and effort bringing you breakdowns, analysis, and banter about every single event contested so far, so we won’t spill much more Lap Count ink recapping results, but as we hit the second day of the inter-session pause in Eugene, we do have some big-picture thoughts on the lessons and takeaways from the first four days of action.

Trials and Tribulations of the Top-3 System 🧐

Photo by Justin Britton / @JustinBritton

The biggest news out of the first part of the Olympic Trials may not have been who made the team. It was who didn’t, and why.

First, pole vault American record holder KC Lightfoot failed to advance to the final with an uncharacteristically shaky performance in the qualifying round on Friday. Two days later, 2022 World hammer throw champion Brooke Andersen fouled out of the Trials final. On Monday, reigning World discus champion Lagi Tausaga-Collins didn’t even make it out of her qualifying round with three fouls as well. And then, most dramatically, Monday evening ended with the fall heard ‘round the world as reigning Olympic champion Athing Mu got tripped up in the first lap of the 800m final and couldn’t close the gap on the field in time. Proven championship performers and big-name talents are going to be watching Paris from home thanks to USATF’s perform-on-the-day Trials selection policy.

American track and field acolytes may not realize that, like our stubborn insistence on measuring everything in feet and inches, our top-three system is pretty unusual compared with the rest of the world. Many other countries set their teams with a mix of Trials competitions and provisional selections by their federation’s selection committees. Jamaica, for example, allows for a complicated exemption process that allows them to possibly send double Olympic champ Elaine Thompson-Herah to her third Olympic Games despite the fact that she’s battled injuries all season and has a 100m season’s best nearly a full second off her PB.

If your goal is to field the team with the highest upside, leaving yourself a little wiggle room is a huge asset. But if your goal is to prioritize fairness and limit subjectivity, discretionary spots can be a huge liability. Notoriously, both Athletics Kenya and the Ethiopian Athletics Federation decisions about teams can be intensely political and subject to internal machinations, with balancing of considerations like training group, brand affiliation, and agent influence against performance and potential. It’s not hard to envision the conflicts of interest that abound in a world where the USATF adopts a subjective selection process amidst its multi-decade sponsorship agreement with Nike, for example.

But still, every couple of years there’s a compelling enough omission that complaints about the status quo start to arise. This week, it was Athing Mu, but what about established marathoners like Keira D’Amato or Galen Rupp having one bad day in Orlando? Does 3x global medalist Emma Coburn deserve a spot if she can get back from her ill-timed ankle injury in time? The what-ifs only get louder and more insistent when, inevitably, someone like Mu rips a 1:53 at some random meet in August.

Even when accounting for the randomness of circumstances, it’s worth noting that our Olympic Trials is specifically designed to mimic – to the greatest extent possible – the Olympic Games themselves. Few other countries spend 10 days selecting their teams, but the benefit we get is that we know that the athletes we sent have demonstrated the ability to perform in championship settings, without rabbits, over the same number of rounds as the championship they’re qualifying for. And for every big star who gets knocked out, you get pleasant surprises like Molly Seidel in 2021 and Clayton Murphy in 2016, who overperform at Trials and then do it again at the Olympics.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.” The American Trials system may be harsh, inelegant, and at times arbitrary, but it’s the best of all our bad options when it comes to picking Team USA.

Making Sense of the Men’s Steeple 🤷‍♂️

Photo by Justin Britton / @JustinBritton

You thought that after the whole months-long fiasco with the U.S. men and the marathon you’d get to smooth out the wrinkle in your brain dedicated to understanding arcane qualifying procedures in athletics? Buddy, think again.

In the men’s steeplechase final, Kenneth Rooks closed out the final two laps in 2:01 to decisively claim his second U.S. championship. Ranked 23rd in the world at the time he broke the tape, Rooks is comfortably within 36-man quota for the steeple in Paris. A little over a second behind him came Minnesota man and Division III folk hero Matthew Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s Road to Paris ranking? 36th (and likely to rise after this). Phew. Safe. And uncomplicated. Wilkinson’s and Rooks’s rankings within the Olympic field will ultimately be even higher, once Kenyan, Ethiopian, and French athletes not in their nation’s top-three are removed from the list.

But in third, rather than Hillary Bor nor Anthony Rotich – the only two American men coming into the Trials who’d run under the 8:15 Olympic Standard – we got 22-year-old BYU sophomore James Corrigan.

Corrigan, who placed ninth at NCAAs the other week, doesn’t have a top-100 World Athletics ranking to his name. His personal best is the 8:21.22 he posted in the prelims on Friday. Based on current ranking and time, he isn’t making the Olympic squad… emphasis on current. We’ll come back to Corrigan in a moment.

So what about fourth place, the next man up? Why, it’s none other than Evan Jager, the greatest American steepler ever. Who’d have thought it? The 35-year-old seemed to be in the twilight of his fantastic career, having run a best mark of 8:25.77 this season, and a best time of 8:22.55 within the qualifying window. HOWEVER. That time was enough to make him the 2022 NACAC champion, which greatly elevated his ranking score. So much so that he’s ranked 43rd in the world… which puts him within the ranking quota once the list is pared down to three men per country.

Evan Jager: Olympian. Again. Right?

Well, technically, it seems athletes have until June 30th to hit the standard. What that means is Corrigan can still take a stab at a sub-8:15 performance, so long as the attempt is made at a World Athletics-approved meet. He’s planning to make his bid this Saturday at Franklin Field in an otherwise low-key, all-comers sort of affair that has added a men’s steeplechase to its programming for the occasion. If he hits the standard, he’s in. If he doesn’t, Jager is.

Either way, we have quite the Rorschach test on our hands. When you squint at these two possible outcomes, who do you end up rooting for?

…Corrigan’s sudden emergence after an up-and-down spring, showing that even if your high school PRs were modest and you’re entering an Olympic year with an 8:52 steeple PB, you’ve got a chance? 

…Or Jager’s possible Olympic return 12 years after his first team after multiple injuries, his club relocating, a year away from his specialty event, and a spring season that can only be described as underwhelming until now?

Both athletes are worth supporting. And even the most diehard of Jagerheads shouldn’t be rooting for their guy’s success as the result of another guy’s failure. But the continued murkiness around rankings, point calculations, and Trials placings serves to underscore the public’s frustration with a system that leads to championship races ending in persistent confusion over a satisfying conclusion.

A 20/28 Vision For Olympic Trials 🇺🇸

Photo by Justin Britton / @JustinBritton

Los Angeles is hosting the 2028 Olympic Games. Maybe it was crazy of us, but many American track & field fans assumed that that meant the Olympic Trials would also be held in LA. Give the facilities a test run… drum up local excitement around the sport… give everybody a break from Eugene and the logistical headaches and financial burdens that traveling there brings…

But no. In a press conference this past weekend with USATF CEO Max Siegel, LA28 chairman Casey Wasserman said that he didn’t think the planned track venue would host the 2028 Trials, basically because it would be too annoying while making final preparations for the big show.

With LA hosting not just the next Olympics but also now Grand Slam Track, too, it would have been a nice fit. The City of Angels may never truly become TrackTown, USA, but building up an enduring fan base in a large, international city by hosting a bunch of big, cool events there can’t be a bad idea for the sport’s growth, right?

Rather than waste a few hundred words speculating over which cities might have a genuine shot at hosting the 2028 Olympic Track & Field Trials… let’s just assume that it’s probably gonna be in Eugene again. That will surely anger a lot of diehard fans, but there are at least a few reasons it makes sense.

By North American standards, Eugene has decent summertime weather. Plenty of people like to toss Indianapolis as an alternative host – especially now that the U.S. Swimming Trials have packed the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Colts. But the reality is that any meet held outdoors in the Midwest this time of year is subject to extreme weather. Just ask any NCAA east regional qualifier who’s had to hunker down during a tornado warning at the meet hotel. 

Eugene’s pollen count may approach city-sized beehive levels, but at least it’s rarely humid and, 10,000m notwithstanding, usually offering temperature ranges favorable to racing. And there’s been a ton of time and money poured into making the venue itself an awesome place to watch track. Old Hayward was charming and historic, but New Hayward is gorgeous and a truly state-of-the-art monument to the sport of track & field.

As recently as 2019, we were willing to host championships elsewhere (okay, it was also WHILE Hayward was under construction). Des Moines, Iowa, has many of the same drawbacks as Eugene, and while it’s equally inconvenient for athletes and fans regardless of where in the U.S. they live, making everybody suffer the same is not exactly tourism board material. Cities like New York and Philadelphia have – and do – host incredible high-quality meets like the NYC Grand Prix and the Penn Relays, and while Franklin Field has some wonky inner lane lengths that technically render it ineligible to host, it seems worth a shot to spend a little time looking for a workaround. But championship bids need organizations, institutions, and people power, and until someone steps up, we haven’t seen that kind of commitment out of cities easily distracted by their “big four” sports franchises.

No single host city is going to check all the boxes. Los Angeles comes close, except for the whole “willingness to actually host it” category. So let’s keep an open mind to new ideas and an open heart to the likely outcome that we’ll all be booking pricey tickets to Oregon once again in four years time.

A Call For Chaos In The Distance Finals 🤪

Photo by Justin Britton / @JustinBritton

To most of the 50 or so athletes making up the men’s 5,000m and women’s 10,000m fields, this newsletter asks something of you. Do as the late, great singer Prince once implored: go crazy, get nuts.

Why not lead a portion of your race at an aggressive clip?

We get that to even qualify for the Trials you need to be at least a little deluded in your self-belief. Just about everyone on the line thinks there’s at minimum a tiny shot they can get to Paris. But if you are, mathematically speaking, not going to make the Olympic team, please consider becoming an agent of chaos.

Placing eighth at the Trials is cool. But you know what’s really cool? Spontaneously hitting the front and injecting a sub-60-second 5th lap in the second heat of the 5,000m. Or leading from the gun and grinding yourself into a fine paste for the first third of Saturday’s 10,000m final at the legendary Hayward Field! (Editor’s note: This particular section does not reflect the views of the full Lap Count family and definitely should not be considered coaching advice.)

Raise every single eyebrow possessed by those in possession of the Olympic standard in your event. Force them to immediately discard their race plan and actually race. You saw it in the men’s 10,000m on night one: Conner Mantz led the first four miles of the race, going out in 4:18 then getting incrementally slower, but still holding on for an impressive sixth place showing. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t even really have to be in the race at all, having already secured a spot on the marathon starting line in Paris. But he did need to be in Eugene for athlete processing, so why not also sacrifice yourself and pick up a couple thousand bucks in the process?

On paper, the men’s 10,000m should have been a real snoozefest. The outcome that we got – a three man team of Grant Fisher, Woody Kincaid, and Nico Young – was not only what everyone expected. Those three were the only men in possession of the Olympic standard; it was basically the only possible outcome, unless Paul Chelimo suddenly found himself in 2021 form again.

But Mantz wasn’t alone in his commitment to entertainment. There were wildly unpredictable lead changes, including a short stint where Sam Chelenga hit the front seemingly out of nowhere, a late infusion of pace courtesy of Andrew Colley, an even later bid for the win by Nico Young, the classic Grant Fisher 1200m surge, a classic Woody Kick, and an edge-of-your-seat final 200m where it looked as though reformed miler Drew Hunter might finish in the top three in just his second-ever 10,000m race.

With every unexpected twist and turn, we were reminded of something that often gets lost in discussions around the Olympic Trials. While yes, they serve primarily as the selection mechanism for Team USA, they’re also a national championship. For those who have no path forward to Paris, the chance to take the lead and actually race against the best in the nation is one that should not be passed up.

So to those in distance events that have a tendency to get tactical if left untouched: do something about it. If your gamble pays off, you become the stuff of legend, if only for a handful of track-obsessed dorks. But you also make an incredible memory of taking an insane chance at what could very well be the biggest moment of your athletic career.

NBC Gets An “A” For Effort 👍

Photo by Johnny Zhang / @jzsnapz

When Snoop Dogg showed up for multiple segments of the Sunday broadcast, we were reminded of a pop-culture truth: every 30 Rock parody always eventually becomes real.

Well folks, it seems as though we’ve been SeinfeldVision’d.

During portions of Sunday’s Olympic Trials broadcast, track fans were treated to the musician and producer behind Doggystyle, the best tracks on The Chronic, and that one verse of “California Gurls” chopping it up with athletes’ parents, running an impressive 34.44 200m at age 52, and describing the chaotic scene around the steeplechase’s water pit. 

Is he providing the sort of incisive commentary that track & field deserves if it’s to be taken as more than an amusing, quadrennial sideshow? Nope. But is he providing the Trials with the sort of click-bait-y spectacle that garners press attention from outlets like Rolling Stone and CNN? Absolutely.

The suits at NBC have made a simple calculation. Diehards are gonna watch the Olympic Trials and Olympics no matter what. The broadcast could cut to a 20-second ad break in the middle of the women’s 400m hurdle final and, while we’d tweet angrily about it, they know we aren’t going to close out the Peacock app. But they think there’s a much broader swath of the American population who might be more inclined to tune in if promised a few minutes of onscreen hijinks from a face they know.

It’s not a new strategy, but it does work. Fans loved Leslie Jones’s infectious Olympic enthusiasm so much in 2016 that NBC brought her in as a correspondent. And the network has gotten plenty of mileage already out of pairing Cardi B with Sha’Carri Richardson. Whether coincidental or not, Snoop’s appearance coincided with the biggest television audience for track & field on NBC in 12 years – 5.2 million viewers – per Ato Boldon.

Eagle-eyed viewers would also notice that it seems like NBC has been trying, at least a little bit, to build more storytelling into the broadcast. Monday night’s television package included a segment on Team USA athletes going through team processing, a long interview with Athing Mu, and a post-race chat show trackside with Noah Lyles, Rai Benjamin, and Grant Holloway live on the air. Human interest stories have long been part of the Olympic marketing package, but it does seem like the television overlords are trying to beef up their efforts before the actual Games rolls around.

Will it sometimes be corny (to borrow a Lyles buzzword)? Absolutely. Will it get on the radars and newsfeeds of new fans? Highly likely. The biggest sin in the sports media world has never been cheesiness; it’s laziness. And this time around, the people with the keys to the kingdom of TV Land are actually stepping up their game.

Rapid Fire Highlights 🔥

– Get ready to politely clap while the imaginary camera in your brain pans to the faces of the 2024 Bowerman Award finalists. They are: Maia Ramsden, Harvard’s hotshot Kiwi miler; Jada Ross, Oregon’s undefeated shot putter; and Parker Valby, Florida’s wildly decorated distance stud; Caleb Dean, Texas Tech’s star hurdler; Christopher Morales Williams, Georgia’s ace 400m man; and Leo Neugebauer, Texas’s German decathlon champ.

Jakob Ingebrigtsen announced via his Instagram the arrival of his highly anticipated Ingebaby, a little girl named Filippa. 

Runner’s World reports that long-tenured University of Colorado distance coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs will not have their contracts renewed when they expire at the end of June. This news comes within a year of an investigation into the coaches’ controversial use of body comp testing on their athletes.

– The second fastest Canadian ever over 5,000m, Justyn Knight, will miss the Paris Olympics due to continued issues with his surgically repaired achilles tendon. Knight, now a member of the Bowerman Track Club, hasn’t raced since the 5,000m final in Tokyo.

– SKIMS, the Kim Kardashian-founded underwear and other things company, has partnered with Team USA for a limited edition line of products. The campaign features track & field athletes Fred Kerley and Gabby Thomas as models. This is – we believe – the first time a Kardashian has had their name bolded in this newsletter. What a world!

– They grow up so fast! With freshly inked contracts, brand new pros have begun to debut their new kits. Notable signings include, but are not limited to: Joe Waskom, Nico Young, and McKenzie Long to adidas, Taylor Roe to Puma, and Luke Houser and Teagan Schein-Becker to the Brooks Beasts.

Thanks for reading! You can follow along all the Olympic Trials action on the CITIUS MAG YouTube channel, Twitter, and Instagram and don’t forget to subscribe to the CITIUS MAG newsletter for daily updates from Eugene.

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