This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The Olympics are a mere six weeks away and athletes all over the world are in their final training stages, heading toward the tricky taper period so they can time their peak just right. It's a fragile window, the precious Olympic moment. Think of a tennis player who loses at Wimbledon this week, as did the number-three men's seed Novak Djokovic yesterday and the number-three women's seed Maria Sharapova today. Naturally, with legitimate chances to win the Wimbledon title, neither are happy to be ousted early on, but not only does Wimbledon come around again next June but the U.S. Open is right around the corner. When the moment you dream of and work toward comes only once every four years, the emotional stakes escalate.
Right now rowers from Russia, weight lifters from Turkey, and gymnasts from Germany are counting down these last six weeks to Beijing, orchestrating and fine-tuning the final build to their crucial peaks. But athletes here in the U.S.? They're up against a double-whammy.
This weekend the elite American track and field athletes head to Eugene, Oregon, while the top American swimmers go to Omaha, Nebraska. Those respective Olympic Trials will determine who goes to Beijing, who stays home. There's no sense peaking for the Olympics because you'll never make it to Beijing if you don't peak at the Trials. It's now, these next few days, when the last four years of preparation need to culminate in perfection. In most countries, in most sports, your recent performance record is taken into account in making the Olympic team. If you've had the best time in the world over the past year, for instance, that would weigh in heavily. You could have a poor Olympic Trials, due to injury or illness or family tragedy, but if you had won both your National and the World Championships this year, you'd be on the team. Not in the U.S. Not in track and field and swimming. In track, it's the top three, swimming the top two. A few alternates and relay individuals are named as well but, basically, it's top three or top two at the Trials or you're out. It doesn't make sense.
Going into the track Trials for the Sydney Games in 2000, Jeff Hartwig had not only recently set a new American pole vault record of 19' 9 1/4" but he had the highest vault in the world that year. At the Trials in Sacramento, gusty dry winds started bothering Hartwig's contact lenses. He used some eye drops that distorted his depth perception and he couldn't clearly see the plant box for his pole. He missed all three attempts at a ridiculously low height for him, 18' 2", and didn't make the team. It's an absurd system that denied Hartwig his spot, when he was clearly the best American to compete in Sydney a few weeks later…when his eyes were just fine.
Going into the Rome Olympics, 1960, American Jeff Farrell was the best freestyle sprinter in the world. On the eve of the Olympic Trials, Farrell had an emergency appendectomy. Taped tightly from nipples to groin, every move causing him excruciating pain, he couldn't dive from the blocks. Starting at an obvious disadvantage, in the water, he didn't qualify in the events he owned that year. He was back to his full self a few weeks later, in time for the Games, and did swim the relays, but he couldn't compete for individual gold because of his medical emergency during the Trials.
The US Olympic Track & Field and Swimming Trials come too close to the Games. In these sports, it's nearly impossible to reach an ultimate peak twice within six weeks. And the US Trials count for too much. Surely there should be some consideration when the best in the world have a temporary problem at the Trials that won't be an issue at the Games.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Ivana Hong competes in the floor exercise during day two of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for gymnastics at the Wachovia Center on June 20, 2008 in Philadelphia, Pennsyvania. Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images