Decathlete Trey Hardee smiles like a man caught in a tricky spot. He is considering a question about the US Olympic track and field trials. The question seems simple enough: What do you think about the trials process? The process seems simple, too. The top three finishers in each event qualify for the Olympics.
But there is no simple answer in a decathlon competition that will include the 28-year-old reigning world champion Hardee, 32-year-old reigning Olympic champion Bryan Clay, and the best runner in the history of the event in 24-year-old Ashton Eaton.
So Hardee tries for a diplomatic answer.
“Four years ago, I would have said, ‘The trials are great,’ because I needed a shot to be top three,’’ said Hardee. “I needed to be given that opportunity. As it stands now, I think it would be a tragedy to not have myself, Bryan, and Ashton representing the US in London. And all three of us are training for London and not necessarily for the trials.
“That’s where we get caught a lot in the US. It’s so hard to make the US team that people peak for the US trials and sometimes never reach that same feeling for major championships. There are great arguments on both sides of the coin for having discretionary picks or completely objective top three finishers.’’
The trials start Friday in Eugene, Ore., with a full slate of events and with two certainties: At some point, there will be a surprise qualifier or two or three. And there will be a favorite, perhaps a former world or Olympic champion, who won’t make the London roster.
“It’s rough, but it’s fair,’’ said 200 runner Wallace Spearmon Jr. “Other countries have it where their system is if you get top two, then they can go and pick the last athlete. That really wouldn’t be fair as deep as we are.
“If you cross the line top three, you have a pretty good chance of getting a medal in whatever championship it is.’’
“Rough’’ may be putting it mildly. For Hardee, the experience of decathlete Dan O’Brien remains fresh in his mind. O’Brien, the reigning world champion at the time of the 1992 trials, no-heighted in the pole vault and failed to make the US team.
Because of the “Dan and Dave’’ Reebok commercials hyping the appearance of O’Brien and Dave Johnson in the 1992 Barcelona Games, O’Brien’s failure became the most infamous of cautionary tales.
But the trials are littered with other surprising misses, as well as unexpected breakthroughs.
Entering the 1948 trials, Harrison Dillard was perhaps the best hurdler in the world, winner of 82 consecutive 110-meter races. Yet he failed to make the team in the hurdles, while qualifying in the 100. At the 1948 London Games, he won gold in the 100.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a Games more memorable for its track disappointments than triumphs, the US track team still finished at the top of the medal table with 23 medals, followed by Russia with 18 and Kenya with 14.
“Our selection system for our national team is constantly under discussion and under review,’’ said US track and field spokeswoman Jill Geer. “But ultimately, it has been clear that our best team is one in which our athletes select themselves.
“In most events in the US, our talent is so deep that to leave our selection in the hands of an administrator makes no sense. And is unfair to the athletes.
“No system is perfect, and this is our best imperfect system.’’
In theory, the crucible of the trials prepares athletes for what they will face at the Games. And it may be a better predictor of Olympic performance than a Diamond League meet or a competition designed to break records.
Consider Lauryn Williams who finished third in the 100 at the 2004 trials by .01 second. More than comfortable in championship competitions, she went on to win silver at the Athens Olympics.
Without a trials process, picking teams from a deep talent pool almost inevitably leads to headaches. Just ask the Kenyans, who ran into controversy with their marathon team selections this year. World record-holder Patrick Makau and 2011 Boston champion Geoffrey Mutai (who ran the fastest marathon in history), were left off the team.
Many US athletes are thankful they don’t deal with such subjective selections.
“In the US, it is such a clear-cut way,’’ said sprinter Allyson Felix. “There is no politics or anything like that. You start to fear when there is one subjective choice. But it is hard because you just never know what can happen on that day. Through experience, you kind of become more comfortable with knowing that you have to step up on that day.’’
At these trials, Felix plans to compete in the 100 and 200, two of the more perilous events, with multiple rounds and fractions of a second separating finishers.
See Veronica Campbell-Brown at the 2008 Jamaican track trials and Tyson Gay at the 2008 US track trials for the most recent and best illustrations of the peril top sprinters face.
Campbell-Brown was a two-time Olympic gold medalist (200 and 4 x 100 relay) and reigning 100 world champion when she failed to qualify in the 100 for the Beijing Olympics.
Gay, defending world champion in the 100 and 200 at the time, looked to be in top form winning the 100. Then he suffered a strained hamstring in the 200 quarterfinals. He has struggled with injury ever since.
“At first, I said, ‘Hey, it’s the US. It’s how it is. It’s how it’s always been,’ ’’ said Gay. “You’ve got to be tough. If you don’t make it, oh well.
“But I’ve thought about it, and what if you wake up and have a slight sprain or, getting out of bed, you twist your ankle - and you’re the best in the US? They can’t send you because you didn’t get to run at the trials.
“But other countries are sending their best. I’ve heard other people from other countries say they don’t really like that about the US because the US normally has a sprinter who everyone in the world wants to see compete. If he doesn’t qualify, they don’t see him run or clash with other sprinters.’’
After hip surgery last summer, Gay believes he is in shape to qualify in the 100, though it has already been a sprint to get into solid form for the trials.
Hardee suggested that athletes who are ranked No. 1 in the world or are reigning world medalists should receive automatic berths. Other athletes suggest having the top two finishers automatic qualifiers, with a third to be a committee pick.
“The more you think about it, the more frustrating it becomes,’’ said Hardee. “I play the hand that I’m dealt. We still have the No. 1 track team in the world, so it’s got to be working well for somebody.’’