The US Olympic Trials is the best national track meet in the world, and there is no athletics meeting quite like the Trials. The Olympic Games and World Championships may have a higher overall standard of performance, but no national track meeting can compare in terms of quality. It is not merely a question of statistical performance; the qualification process for the Olympics is more intense for Americans. Other nations generally use their trials plus the seasonal record of top athletes, but there are very few instances of the sudden death form of selection that the USA uses. Make the top-3 in your event, and you are on the team. Have a slightly off day, and you are out. The history of the sport is strewn with the debris of world record holders who missed out on Olympic glory because they made a mistake or were ill during the “Trials”. For many participants making the USA team is more of a problem than winning an Olympic medal, and the result is that the trials have an element of drama that is beyond the scope of even the Olympic Games.
The structure of the US Trials has changed and developed since the first meetings in 1908. Prior to that year there was no elimination process. The presence of athletes at the Olympics between 1896 and 1906 was due primarily to certain colleges and clubs, as well as individual athletes. Princeton and the Boston Athletic Association, plus an individual entry – James Connolly of Harvard, the first gold medallist of the modern Olympics, were the initial representatives of the USA in the Athens Games. In 1900, there was no official team, but 8 colleges plus the New York Athletic Club sent athletes, while 1904 saw St. Louis hosting what was almost entirely an American Clubs meeting, with a smattering of individual entries in support.
For 1908 and 1912, the system changed, with area trial meets, which served as a guide for selection. In 1908 these were the Western (Stanford – May 9), Central (Chicago – May 29), Collegiate (IC4A in Philadelphia – May 29-30), and finally the Eastern Trials (Philadelphia – June 6). The team was selected 2 days later in 2 tranches, being the official team whose travel costs were met by the US Olympic Committee, and a supplementary list of athletes who had to cover their own expenses. In 1912 there were 3 trial meetings, beginning with the Western (Stanford – May 17), and followed by the Central (Evanston – June 8) and Eastern (Cambridge – also June 8). The team was selected by the USOC and the AAU, with the winners of the Eastern Trials receiving automatic selection – reflecting the bias of AAU president James Sullivan.
The 3 decathlon trials for that year ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. The Western trial took place with one decathlete competing against specialists, and retiring after the first day’s events; the Eastern event was cancelled after only 2 entries were received, and the Central event was scored on a point-for-place system, rather than using the new tables devised for the Stockholm Games, which would have resulted in a World Record for the winner, J.Austin Menaul.
The nature of the trials changed in 1920 out of necessity. In the 1912 Olympics, 11 Americans had competed in the 100 metres. In 1920 the number of athletes allowed from a single country in any event in the Olympics was reduced to 4, which was further lessened to the present 3 in 1932. The Olympic Trials of 1920 doubled as the AAU Championships, which was also the case in 1928, 1932, and from 1992 onwards. Qualification for the Trials was via “semi-final” trials held on June 26 in Chicago, New Orleans, Pasadena and Philadelphia, while a few more athletes qualified through an Armed Services meeting in St. Louis on June 3-5. The 3000 metre steeplechase, not regularly held outside Europe, took place on July 10 at Travers Island, N.Y., and the decathlon in New York on July 9-10. The trials for other events were held on July 16-17 in Cambridge, Mass. Although the top-4 was the guide, the final team was selected by the USOC/AAU committee.
1924 saw a similar format, with final try-outs held on June 13-14 in Cambridge, after semi-final meetings on May 31 in Ann Arbor, Cambridge, Iowa City and Los Angeles. While the first 4 in each event was the general rule for selection, there were 16 choices of athletes outside the top-4 made by the committee. The decathlon was held 2 days prior to the main trials in New York and was completed in a single day.
The trials were held in Cambridge for the third consecutive (and final) time in 1928, except for the 400, 400h and decathlon which took place in Philadelphia on July 3-5, two days prior to the main 2 day meeting. With the advent of women’s Olympic track and field, a separate meeting was held in Newark, N.J. on July 4. The women’s meeting was to be kept separate from the men’s until the bicentennial year. 14 qualifying meetings were held between May 18 and June 30, showing the expansion of track and field throughout the USA.
In 1932 the AAU/FOT was held in Stanford on July 15-16, and the women’s AAU took place in Evanston on the same weekend, with just 2 weeks break before the first day’s track and field in the Los Angeles Olympics. Although this may have seemed to be almost indecently close to the Games, previous periods of 3-4 weeks after the try-outs did include the laborious journey by ship across the atlantic. It was not until 1952 that the US team was able to fly to Europe for the Olympics. There were 18 preliminary meetings in 1932, with 6 semi-final tryouts including the IC4A and NCAA championships, all of which helped hone down the number of entries for the FOT. Only the 110h had more than 1 preliminary round, as compared to all track events up to 400 in 1928. The decathlon team was selected from the AAU meet (Evanston – June 24-25), and the 50k walkers from the AAU (New York – June 5) plus the winner of a separate trials race in Los Angeles on July 3.
In 1936, for the first time since 1924, the trials were separated from the AAU Championships, with the AAU on July 3-4 in Princeton, N.J. and the FOT on July 11-12 at Randalls Island, N.Y. The qualification for the trials had been via the NCAA Championships (Chicago – June 19-20), and Semi-final Tryouts on June 26-27 for the the East (Cambridge), Central (Milwaukee – which incorporated the AAU/FOT decathlon), and West (Los Angeles). The women’s AAU/FOT meet was in Providence, Rhode Island the same days as the men’s AAU, and the 50k walk selection race was the AAU event in Cincinnati on June 27. Attendance for the 2-day trials meeting was 34,000.
The post-war trials of 1948 were less elaborate, in that the final trials, held in Evanston on July 9-10, were preceded by just 2 semi-final meetings – the NCAA (Minnesota – June 18-19) and the AAU (Milwaukee – July 2-3, with the women’s qualifying meeting this time being a separate FOT at Brown Univeristy stadium in Providence (July 12). The top-6 finishers at the NCAA/AAU made it into the try-outs, and this was to be the basis of qualification, together with the winners at the Armed Services championship, for the trials until 1964. The AAU 10000m event served as the trials event, and the AAU decathlon and 50k walk were held at Bloomfield, N.J. (June 26-27) and Cincinnati (May 16) respectively.
The first of 5 consecutive California based final tryouts was held at the Los Angeles Coliseum on June 27-28, 1952, and the crowd totalled 35,795 (with a capacity for 2 days of 203,000). The women’s meeting was again held on one day, at Harrisburg, Pa. on July 4. The preliminary meetings had been the All-Services Championship at Long Beach (June 7-8), NCAA at Berkeley (June 13-14), and the AAU – also at Long Beach (June 20-21). The climate of California further dominated events in 1956, with the FOT again in the Los Angeles Coliseum (June 29-30), after the NCAA meet at Berkeley, the Armed Services meeting in Los Angeles (both June 14-15), and the AAU in Bakersfield (June 22-23). The crowd this time was almost double that of 1952 at 71,000. The women’s meeting was for the first time a final Trials meeting separate from the AAU championship, and was held in Washington, D.C. on August 25.
Stanford was the venue for the 1960 Trials on July 1-2, after a repetition of the NCAA/AAU venues from 1956 of Berkeley (June 17-18) and Bakersfield (June 24-25). The FOT meeting attacted a record 2 day crowd of 108,000 with 62,000 attending on July 2. The Armed Services championships were held at Quantico on June 10-11. The AAU 10000m at Bakersfield was the FOT event, and the AAU events for the 20k walk (Baltimore – July 17), 50k walk (Pittsburgh – July 3), and decathlon (Eugene – July 8-9) functioned as Olympic qualifying events.
In 1964, the pattern was changed, as it was considered that the gap between the USA season and the october based Tokyo Games was too long for the normal selection basis. An additional stage was interposed – semi-final Olympic Trials at Randall’s Island, N.Y. with final Trials in Los Angeles on September 12-13. The qualifying meetings for the New York meeting were again the Interservices championships (Quantico, June 5-6, NCAA (Eugene, June 18-20), and AAU (New Brunswick, N.J., June 26-27). As usual, the walkers were selected from the AAU championships for 20k (Pittsburgh – July 5), and 50k (Seattle – September 5). The women’s trials were held in New York (August 6-8). The winners in the men’s semi-final trials in July were guaranteed an Olympic place, as long as they showed reasonable form in the final trials. This proved to be temporarily contentious in only one event – the 200 metres where world record-holder Henry Carr finished 4th. The selectors took Carr ahead of 3rd placed Bob Hayes, and he responded with a gold medal 20.36 win in Tokyo.
The 1968 selections followed the 1964 format, with semi-final trials held in June (Los Angeles – June 29-30) and final trials in September (Echo Summit, Ca. – September 6-16). The venue for the FOT was an attempt to emulate the atmospheric conditions to be met in Mexico City at the Olympics, but the location of the track was the most bizarre in Olympic trials history. On the infield, close to the side of the track, was a large collection of pine trees, with a cluster towards the end of the back straight, which meant that athletes disappeared from view on each lap. The historic trees could not be moved by agreement between the local residents and the US Forestry Department. The women were not catered for in quite the same way, as their trials were at low altitude Walnut, Ca. with the pentathletes qualifying from the AAU meet in Columbia, Mo. (both meets on August 24-25), Walking events were held at high altitude Alamosa, Col. (September 7 – 20k, and September 10 – 50k). The attendance for the 8 days trial meeting was approximately 100,000 split between temporary seating and the hillside overlooking the track, but the venue was not designed for selling tickets. Initially it had been set up as a training facility for the high altitude Olympics.
In 1972 the system of qualifying changed from preliminary meetings to specific standards for each event, which resulted in the FOT being held over 10 days between June 29 and July 9 (in Eugene, Or.) with 109,800 total attendance, and enabled the meeting to be structured in the same way as the Olympics. However, the women were still segregated, with their meeting being held over two days (July 7-8) in Frederick, Md.
It was in 1976 that a unified trials meeting was finally seen, with both men and women congregating in Eugene between June 19 and June 27 in front of a crowd totalling 105,500 for the 8 days (an average of 13,187 per day – in a stadium with a standing room capacity of 16,300), while the marathon trial took place on May 22 (also in Eugene). During the 1970’s Eugene was considered the running capital of the USA, and so it was no surprise when the attractive university town hosted the trials for a third consecutive time in 1980 – this time from June 21-29. The 50k walk took place in Niagara Falls on May 10. For the first and only time, the trials were for the most part meaningless, as President Carter had determined that the USA would boycott the 1980 Olympics, in one of the most mindless political acts of interference in the history of sports. It was a tribute to the Eugene fans that 121,727 attended the trials of 1980.
The one thing that could be guaranteed in 1984 was that there would be retaliatory action from the Eastern bloc, and so it was that the USSR and all Soviet satellites, other than Romania, boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. This was the first occasion that the USA Trials and the Olympic Games were held in the same stadium. The trials were held from June 16 to June 24, and curiously the Junior AAU championships were held concurrently from June 22-24, as it was thought that the programme for the senior event would be a little “thin” on those days in emulating the Olympic Games timetable. The crowd exceeded those of Eugene by a fair margin, with a total of 143,826 for the eight days, but was small when comparing the capacity of the Coliseum with that of Eugene’s Hayward Field.
The seat of athletics in the USA, Indianapolis, was the host of the 1988 trials, from July 15 to July 23. All events other than the marathon events (Men: Jersey City – April 24, Women: Pittsburgh – May 1) were held in Indianapolis, with a small (90,070 for 8 days) but enthusiastic crowd privy to the usual remarkable display of athletic virtuosity. Record temperatures, reaching 115°F (46°C), assisted performances, at least in the explosive events. The same was true in 1992, when New Orleans hosted the trials. The trials were supposed to duplicate the conditions of the Barcelona climate which could be expected at the Olympics, but with humidity reaching 88% on two of the eight days, the climate was somewhat removed from Mediterranean, and the trials were frequently a question of survival, although thankfully conditions became better for both athletes and spectators after sunset. The attendance of 137,262 for the eight days was close to record levels.
1996 saw the Trials held in Atlanta, Olympic host for that year. A record number of fans – 151,522 turned out to see 8 days of track and field held in increasingly hot conditions, with the last day reaching 94°F in the shade, with significantly higher levels on the infield. The heat gave grounds for fears that it would be too hot a month later for the Olympics, but as it transpired, conditions were cooler at the Games than at the Trials. Marathon Trials were held in Carolina (Women – Columbia, SC – February 10/Men – Charlotte, NC – February 17), and the 50k walk in LaGrange, Ga. on April 20. Unlike Los Angeles, where the facility was already in place before the Trials, the stadium was still being worked upon during the Trials, and the organization was hindered by tiers of local bureaucracy which did little to engender affection from the fans and media.
Sacramento played host to the 2000 Trials, with the 50k walk starting proceedings on February 13, to be followed by Marathon Trials (February 26 in Columbia S.C. for the women, and May 7th in Pittsburgh for men), and the main track trials exactly a month later than Atlanta, namely July 14 to July 23. Sacramento had been host in 1968 to the AAU championships which saw an orgy of 100m sprinting, but the venue then was Hughes stadium, while Sacramento State University’s Hornet Stadium was now the location for America’s most important track and field meeting. The success of the meeting, with a record total of 187,104 turning out to watch, meant that Sacramento was elected to be the host of the 2004 Trials, the first repeat host since Eugene in the 1970’s.
The 2000 venue led the US federation to cancel heats for the men’s and women’s 10000m, a wise decision in view of the possible high temperatures in inland California. Additionally rounds of the sprints and hurdles were cancelled to avoid meaningless first round races – generally run in the past to ape the Olympic timetable.
2004 saw Sacramento as the host again from July 9 to July 18. The Trials year had begun with the Men’s Marathon (Birmingham, Al.) on 7 February, followed 8 days later by the 50k walk in Chula Vista, Ca., while the Women’s Marathon took place in St Louis on 3 April. The ever present specter of drugs, and superb sprinting were the main features of the 2004 Trials. Daily attendance was down on 2000, with the total at 172,000.
Eugene was again the host in 2008, its 4th hosting of the Trials, tying Los Angeles for that particular honor, and was blessed with warm weather, the average high being 79°.As usual the sprints were magnificent, and conditions were so good for the quarter-finals that 13 out of the 24 runners set lifetime bests. Attendances exceeded 20,000 each day with a total of 167,126 for the eight days. The Hammer was again held outside the stadium, to the detriment of the athletes – both men and women would have responded to being the centre of attention without other events occurring. There were other minor problems with the organization of the meeting, such as poor use of the field events scoreboards, but the meeting was otherwise an outstanding success. While the first 32 past the post holds as true now as it ever has, the qualifying standards for the Olympic Games have had an effect on the Trials process. Where any of the top-3 have failed to reach the Olympic Games qualifying standard, they can be replaced by athletes finishing behind them in the Trials, who have nevertheless achieved the relevant qualifying standards. Sad though it is for a top-3 athlete without the standard, this wrinkle can add even further to the tension of making the team.
Eugene became the most frequently used venue in 2012, when it hosted the Trials for a record 5th time. Additional seating in the stadium, meant that the record crowd grew to 173,153 for the 8 days, excluding the 3,000 who attended the Hammer held at the Nike facility in Beaverton (Southwest of Portland). While the weather wasn’t as good as in 2008, the rain only fell solidly during June 22. Despite the rain, Ashton Eaton became the first athlete to set A WR at the Trials in the 21st century, just edging the Decathlon WR with a score of 9039. The Marathon trials were held in Houston on January 14, while the 50K walk was at Santee, CA. eight days later. To add to Eugene’s lustre, the home of the University of Oregon was nominated in 2013 for a record 6th Trials in 2016. There was no sign of decline in enthusiasm by the attendees, who numbered 176,972 for the 8 days of athletics [which excluded figures for July 6, when the 2 Hammer competitions were held]. 2020 was to have seen Walnut,East of Los Angeles, as the host. However, Walnut pulled out of the Trials in 2018 due to stadium planning problems, and Eugene stepped in to again host the Trials for a record 4th consecutive time, between June 19 and June 28, 2020, bringing its total to 7 occasions in a span of 48 years. The Marathon Trials were set for Atlanta on February 29, 2020.
The preparation of a work on a major track topic is dependent on the assistance of many experts, and the following are to be thanked for their kind assistance: – Dave Johnson, Bill Mallon, the late Scott Davis, Jim Dunaway, Michael Harris [grandson of DeHart Hubbard], Garry Hill, Jeff Hollobaugh, Susan Hazzard, Glen McMiken, John Brant, Hal Bateman, Jack Shepard, Frank Zarnowski and the late Don Potts. John Rowland of Springfield, OR. supplied (in 2015) some interesting additional data for both 1912 and 1932. Garry is to be thanked particularly for a detailed analysis of errors made when on a London visit, Glen for his consistent help on index queries and lists, and DJ for a complete analysis of the book for factual and typographical errors.
Any work of history requires research, and US papers supplied much information as well as a great deal of happy browsing. Most important of all available journals was Track & Field News, and its statistical offshoot Track Newsletter. Sports Illustrated was a rich vein of color on the history of the trials since 1956. The Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles was a fascinating source of anecdotes and quotes from US Olympians. The principal books on the subject were the official Olympic Trials Media Guides 1980-92, Eric Cowe’s Early Women’s Athletics (Volume Two), and both the FAST Annuals and American Athletics Annuals from 1979 onwards. Frank Zarnowski’s “American Decathletes” proved to be a mine of information. The principal papers referred to were the New York Times, Boston Post, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, together with the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Examiner, Washington Post and Eugene Register-Guard.
This is for all of those who’ve helped me over the years, particularly Roberto Quercetani, E. Garry Hill, Dave Johnson, Bob Hersh, Mel Watman, Peter Matthews, John Brant, Jack Shepard, Jiří Havlín, Scott Davis, Mike Kennedy, Pete Cava, Sieg Lindstrom, Glen McMicken and Sarah.
— Richard Hymans — 29 October 2019