Last week at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Atlanta, world-record holder Mike Powell delivered one of the most remarkable pressure long jumps in history. He sailed 27'6�" on his final attempt, vaulting from sixth place to first and onto his third Olympic team. When his distance was posted on an infield scoreboard, Powell shrieked with joy and relief. The urgency of the situation—that an athlete finish in the top three at the trials or not make the team—defined the moment.
Yet afterward, Powell shunned the process that had made his jump so memorable. "I don't like the trials, I just deal with them," he said. "There really should be some kind of wild-card system, for world-record holders and Olympic champions who don't make their teams."
What sad, selfish thinking that is. Here we have an event that is pure and fair and riveting, without judging or politics and with more drama than 10 Super Bowls combined, yet some of the best athletes are angling to circumvent it for their own security. Powell isn't alone in his thinking. Joe Douglas, who manages Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell, both of whom failed to qualify for the team in the 100 meters, proposed that marquee athletes be seeded into the semifinals of four-round events such as the 100. Decathlete Dan O'Brien, who missed the 1992 Olympics after a notorious no-height in the pole vault at the trials, said before this year's meet, "I think we need to send our best team to the Olympics," which is shorthand for "send me," seeing as how O'Brien is the best U.S. decathlete in history.
Shame on all of them. The concept of handing out free passes into the Olympics is galling. Lewis's desire to make his fifth Olympic team is no more important than Rich Kenah's desire to make his first. "This is the land of opportunity," said Kenah, who was narrowly beaten by Jose Parrilla for third place in the 800-meter run. "Everybody has an equal chance, right?"
O'Brien says we need to send "our best team." Fine. The best team isn't a Dream Team of past—or current—heroes. The best team is the one chosen by a fair and, yes, brutal competition. You have to be right and ready on one particular day. The Olympics are like that too. Gwen Torrence is the defending Olympic champion in the 200 meters, but she wasn't quite right in last Sunday's 200 trials. Torrence finished fourth, .001 of a second out of third. Sad, but the rules apply to everyone.
In truth, when O'Brien says, "We need to send our best team," what he means is, "Don't make me pole-vault at the trials again, because I need a gold medal to make more money." Athletes' market values—for endorsements and for appearance fees at European meets—soar with Olympic success. They want a Get Out of the Trials Free card because it's good business.
There are precedents for giving favored treatment to stars. Injured U.S. gymnasts Dominique Moceanu and Shannon Miller are skipping their sport's trials but could make the Olympic team through petitions. Figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was granted a spot on the '94 Olympic team after she missed the trials because of injuries suffered in an assault. Other countries ( Great Britain and Germany, to name two) allow certain past champions to pass up their track and field trials. None of this is cause for U.S. track and field to change its system of selecting Olympians, which has a refreshing purity. The removal of politics from sport is always a worthy pursuit.
In any case, the track and field trials are much more than a qualifier for the Olympics. They are compelling, exhausting theater. One jump after Powell leaped into first place, Erick Walder fell three inches short of making the team and collapsed on the infield sobbing. Nearly two hours later he was still inconsolable as he leaned against a wall beneath the stadium and cried. Kenah's eyes were still wet 90 minutes after his 800 loss. "I worked my whole life for this night," he said.
But because they are for everyone, the trials can also produce miracles. They open a door of opportunity for athletes such as 26-year-old Dan Middleman, who wrote an unpublished novel he calls "semiautobiographical" about an Olympic hopeful who contemplates suicide. Middleman finished third in the 10,000 meters. "How about that," he said afterward. "I'm on the Olympic team."
He might not have made it in a world of exemptions and wild cards. Defending Olympic champion Quincy Watts might have undeservedly taken an automatic spot in the 400 meters, denying an Olympic bid to the trials' third-place finisher, 22-year-old Alvin Harrison, who one year ago was living in a car with his twin brother, Calvin. Powell might not have reacted as he did after his magnificent leap. "No question, a wild card would have taken away from my celebration," he said. "But without the pressure, I would have jumped farther."