The U.S. has competed in the Olympic Games since we sent Tom Burke to Athens, Greece, to run in the 100m and 400m in 1896. A mere 54.2 seconds in the 400m was all Burke needed to claim Gold in Athens, a time that would be average at most high school track meets these days.
Over the years, the Olympics have become the world’s ultimate celebration of the culture of sport—the ultimate display of human athletic ability—and with 20 days left until the start of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, I’m more excited to watch these Games than any New England sports championship I’ve witnessed in the past ten years (pick any one of them).
Why? Because being a collegiate track & field athlete, I know first-hand how unbelievably hard it is for athletes to make a team that Nike calls, “The Hardest Team to Make”: the U.S. Olympic Team.
In the United States, the odds of making the Olympic Team are staggering, let alone winning a medal at the Games themselves. Some events are harder to make than others, but let’s take the marathon for example: the first “Olympic” sport.
In order to automatically qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team in most running events, one must do two things after qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials: Meet the Olympic A Standard for their event; and finish in the top of their event (swimming/diving is top two, track and field is usually top three, some are more). An Olympic B Standard will assure an athlete a spot if and only if there are not enough participants—which is very uncommon.
For the Women’s Marathon, one must hit the U.S. Olympic Trials A Standard of 2:39:00 to be automatically qualified to compete in the Trials. Of the hundreds and thousands of marathoners in the U.S., less than 300 runners, male and female meet this qualifying standard.
After making the Trials, one race decides who will be going to London. Not only do you have to place in the top six, but you also have to meet the Olympic A Standard of 2:37:00. Don’t meet that standard, but still finish first? Sorry, you’re not going to London.
The process of training for the Olympics can be immensely stressful and tiring, especially for those athletes competing in an event like the 100m. For four, long, hard years, these athletes put their families, jobs, and lives on halt for the chance to compete at the highest level possible. One bad one fall, one bad start, one bad race, and all is lost in a matter of ten seconds.
Some athletes have the luxury of competing in the next Olympic Games if they don’t make the cut, but athletes in gymnastics, for instance, train for years and years and usually only have one shot at making the U.S. Olympic Team. With sponsorships and contracts that don’t compare to anything like the NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL, Olympic athletes have to rely on families, coaches, and hard work to make an Olympic berth a dream come true.
For all athletes who have made the U.S. Olympic Team this year, their work has just begun. Olympic sports have one summer to shine every four years, and wearing a USA jersey in London this year is surely something special. With the best team representing the best country, it’s fitting that we assemble the hardest team to make in the world. Congratulations and good luck to all who made it. Bring home the Gold.