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Injuries call to question selection process

12 July 2008

By Dave Ungrady

At the end of the 2007 season, Michelle Perry was on track to become a U.S. Olympian in the 100-meter hurdles at the upcoming Beijing games. A 2004 Olympian, Perry won the 2005 and 2007 world championships and was the top-ranked hurdler in the world from 2005 through 2007. At 29 she is nearing the end of her elite track career.

Perry injured a hamstring running the 100 meters at the Modesto Relays in May and finished sixth in a semifinal. Her 2008 Olympic dream was unexpectedly over.

"There's not really words for what just happened to me," she said after the semifinal, holding back tears.

Should Perry receive special consideration to be picked for the U.S. team selected for Beijing? Under current USA Track and Field rules, she will not.

Two-time Olympian Breaux Greer has dominated javelin in the United States this century. He has won every U.S. title since 2000, was the leader at the 2004 Athens Olympics in qualifying before falling to 12th in the final, and won a bronze medal at the 2007 World Championships.

Stifled by a shoulder injury that dates back to the 2007 world championships and a recent stint on the American Gladiator television show, Greer made his 2008 competitive debut at the Olympic Trials with a resounding thud. His best throw in the trials, 220 feet, 6 inches, placed him 17th in qualifying and out of the final round.

Will Greer receive a discretionary nod for the Olympic team? He might.

How so? The top three finalists per event at the U.S. Olympic Trials in track and field who have met the "A" qualifying standard qualify for the Olympic games. But USATF is considering an exception to that ruling. Greer has appealed his omission from the team and USATF is considering the appeal. In a report in the Arizona Republic earlier this week Breaux said he went through team processing and is headed for the games.

A source close to USATF said its rules allow the track and field chair to select an injured athlete who has reached the "A" standard as long as another athlete is not displaced from the team. A final decision on Greer will be made by Monday when USATF announces it Olympic team.

Perry cannot be considered for the team because the top three qualifiers in the 100-meter hurdles all have run under the "A" standard. A similar fate affected Tyson Gay, the 2007 world champion in the 200 meters and 100 meters. Gay, who won the 100 meters at the trials, strained a hamstring in a 200-meter qualifying heat and lost his chance to compete in the event in Beijing.

The strict trials system sets the United States apart from the rest of the world for good reason, says Chris Turner, a spokesman for the IAAF, track and field's world governing body.

"I don't know of any other country that does it the way that the Americans do," he said by phone. "But there are no other countries with the depth of the Americans."

Each track and field federation can send up to three athletes per event to the Olympics and they define their own procedures for qualifying. Many of the 213 federations select their athletes subjectively. "It depends on an individual nation's strengths to decide how they select the team," said Turner.

For example, Finland, which boasts some of the top javelin throwers, selects its Olympic competitors in the event from the winners of a javelin carnival meet and the national trials and with one discretionary pick. Britain and Canada stage trials competitions similar to the United States but also allow subjective picks.

A subjective pick appeals to Sanya Richards, the 400-meters champion at the U.S. trials and an Olympic gold medal favorite in the event. Richards ran an American record of 48.70 in the 400 meters at the FIFA World Cup in September 2006, and was a favorite to win her first gold medal at the 2007 World Outdoor Championships. She won the silver medal in the 400 meters at the 2005 worlds. But an illness slowed her through much of last year and she failed to make the U.S. team in the event.

Earlier this year at the indoor world championships Richards said she would like to see the top two athletes automatically qualify while Olympic team coaches and/or a committee select the third athlete.

She later expanded on her thoughts during a phone call. "The third person should not be guaranteed," she said. "They should be selected by coaches based on health and fitness. What happened to me [in 2007] shouldn't happen to anyone. It's so unfair that we have a system that allows that to happen. I don't want what happened to me last year happen again, for anyone. I'm sure there are other athletes who feel the same."

Richards, 23, plans to study the issue more thoroughly after the Beijing Olympics and hopes to implement change before the stops competing. "I haven't had the time to start a petition," she said.

Richards is one of the original members of the Professional Athletes Association that was formed two years ago to provide a voice for U.S. track and field athletes. Other members include former Olympic medalist Sandra Farmer-Patrick and Michael Conley. "I hope to get some mumbling going out there about this issue," she said. "I think [USATF] will be willing to change it if enough athletes are willing to change it."

Lashinda Demus, the number one-ranked 400-meter hurdler in the world who finished fourth in the event at the trials, thinks Richard's idea for a discretionary pick has merit.

"I never thought of it like that," she said by phone Friday. "That would be good. You can't expect to be on every time. Even though I have the number one time in the world, I wasn't on that day. I could go with that one."

But for now, Demus, a 2004 Olympian who missed the 2007 season to have a child, supports the current system. "I would have to say that what's going on is fair," she said by phone. "Otherwise there would be too much arguing about what's fair and there would be conflict. In 2004, I made the team, but if there was somebody who thought someone else should have been on it but me, I would not have liked it."

USATF coaches also support the current system. "I believe in the system," head men's coach Bubba Thornton said July 6 at the conclusion of the trials. "At the end of the day there will not be a person in this gathering that is going to say they politicked their way on [to the team]," Thornton added. "They made the team. I think that is the beauty of what happens when this special time comes around."

Women's coach Jeanette Bolden, a gold-medalist in the 4x100 meters relay at the 1984 Olympics, echoed Thornton's thoughts. "It is unfortunate that there may be some situations that come up but the head-to-head competition is what is best for right now."

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