EUGENE, Ore. – On an overcast evening 36 years ago, with leaden skies setting off the lush green of the infield at Hayward Field, the great Al Oerter stepped into the discus ring for one last throw in an attempt to make his fifth Olympic team.
No matter that President Jimmy Carter had called for a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and America would not be sending its best athletes to the Russian capital.
Oerter, along with every other athlete competing in those 1980 Olympic Trials, showed up to compete, to try to make a team that would be all dressed up with nowhere to go, to be able to call themselves Olympians.
Well aware of the gravitas of the moment, fans at Hayward started clapping rhythmically for the old man, who had come out of a decade-long retirement the year before. He had been in third place earlier in the competition but was passed by rising star Ben Plucknett.
Oerter stood fourth as he faced his sixth and final throw. Despite his best effort and the support of fans wanting to see him succeed, Oerter could not catch Plucknett, who would go on to break the world record a year later.
Then, as now, competition is the backbone of the Olympic Trials, stretching back generations. Other countries give free passes to their best and brightest track and field athletes but in the U.S., meritocracy rules. Four years of work is distilled into a single day, or a couple of days. You either make it or you don’t.
It’s why Dan O’Brien, who probably would have won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1992 Atlanta Olympics, was not an Olympian in 1992. He failed to clear a height in the pole vault at the Trials in New Orleans. He had to wait another four years to prove his multi-event mettle.
It’s a simple yet brutal process to make the U.S. Olympic track and field team. Generally speaking, the top three athletes in each event (providing they have met Olympic qualifying standards) make the team. Those who finish an agonizing fourth have four years to stew in that bitter broth.
This year’s Trials, which started Friday at Hayward Field, are no different than they were in 1980 in Eugene or 1992 in New Orleans. If you’re on that day, you’re on the team; if you’re off that day, you’re off the team. Simple, yet brutal.
In any Olympic year, the Trials can be seen as a layer cake with three distinct levels. On the top layer, closest to the frosting, are newcomers to the elite level of the sport, those with tantalizing potential who are largely unproven in this competitive arena. Think 18-year-old high jumper Vashti Cunningham, 22-year-old 400m runner Courtney Okolo, and 19-year-old 800m runner Donovan Brazier. It’s not a stretch to suggest all three have an excellent chance to make the team.
The middle level is occupied by young veterans in the sweet spot of their careers, proven stars with so much more to give. These would be athletes like triple jumper Christian Taylor, shot putter Joe Kovacs, decathlete Ashton Eaton and middle distance runners Matthew Centrowitz, Shannon Rowbury and Jenny Simpson, among many others.
At the bottom of the cake, bedrock level, are veterans of long standing trying to make it through another quadrennial cycle to claim one last berth on the Olympic team. Al Oerter was an extreme example of this in 1980. Current vets in this position include quarter-miler Sanya Richards-Ross, 31; shot putters Adam Nelson, 40, and Reese Hoffa, 38, and sprinters Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, both 34.
“I believe that the track and field community loves the veterans and cheers for the underdog,’’ TrackTown USA President Vin Lananna said. “To me, our fans expect greatness from our stars and the athletes never disappoint. Hayward Field brings out the best moments.
“Sprinkle in a little magic and those stars shine.’’
You never know which event will be blessed with that Hayward magic. In 1980, the magic was in the resolute manner of the athletes who competed to the best of their abilities despite bitter disappointment. In 2008 it was the men’s 800, with the State of Oregon claiming spots 1-2-3. Four years later, it was Eaton in his singular brilliance, breaking the world record on his home track despite foul weather.
“There will be many moments that are difficult to distinguish,’’ Lananna said, looking to the 2016 Trials, “but I am going to pick the women’s 800, both (men’s and women’s short) hurdle races and the hammer on the infield.’’
Hammer throwers and their fans, long consigned to a second-class status outside the main facility, will delight in being brought inside Hayward Field for the first time for the men’s and women’s events on July 6.
The women’s 800m could be special with current Oregon star Raevyn Rogers and former Duck Laura Roesler – representing the top layer of the cake – competing for spots on the team against established veterans Alysia Montano, Ajee Wilson and Brenda Martinez.
As it has been the last few years, the women’s 100m hurdles is crazy-competitive and impossible to predict. Each year bears witness to a new star running roughshod on those with impressive credentials of their own. To wit, Keni Harrison running a stunning American record of 12.24 seconds, .02 off the world record, at this year’s Prefontaine Classic.
This is an event, after all, that includes the most consistent U.S. hurdler of the last eight years, Dawn Harper, who won Olympic gold in 2008 and silver in 2012. Yet she’s no lock to make the team in 2016 running against the likes of 2015 sensation Jasmine Stowers, 2013 breakout star Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali, Queen Harrison, Kristi Castlin and Sharika Nelvis.
It’s enough to make a track and field fan giddy with excitement. It’s not often when you can have your cake and eat it, too – one layer at a time.