Making the U.S. Olympic track and field team is considered the pinnacle of achievement in the sport. Each country has its own way of choosing its athletes—and the way in which Team USA is selected is among the most exciting to watch.
U.S.A. Track & Field (USATF), the governing body of the sport, sets the athlete selection policies for the U.S. team, following the requirements and standards of World Athletics, the international governing organization of track and field.
The 2021 U.S.A. Track & Field Olympic Trials take place from June 18–27, at the recently renovated Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. That’s where the country’s best runners, jumpers, and throwers will compete head-to-head to make those Olympic dreams come true and move on to the Tokyo Games, scheduled for July 23–August 8.
Wondering how it all happens? Read on for all you need to know to follow the action and understand how the athletes earn the opportunity to represent the United States at the Olympics.
Who gets to compete at the Olympic Trials?
The athletes who have achieved a qualifying time between January 1, 2019 and June 13, 2021 at a sanctioned USATF race earn a chance to compete at the Olympic Trials. If space remains (an insufficient number of competitors have qualified for an event), officials may allow runners who did not get their qualifier to compete, based on the rank of fastest times until the field is filled.
As qualified athletes start entering the Trials, their names will appear on a “status of entries” list. Then the competitors are required to declare whether they will race the events they entered or scratch them. The declaration period is June 8–14.
If you want a peek at who has qualified, TrackTimes is keeping an updated list for each event.
|Women's Standard||Event||Men's Standard|
|1:48.00||20K Race Walk||1:36.00|
|-||110 meter hurdles||13.48|
|12.84||100 meter hurdles||-|
|56.50||400 meter hurdles||49.50|
|9:50.00||3,000 meter steeplechase||8:32.00|
What if more athletes qualify for an event than the track might accommodate safely or fairly?
This rarely happens but the women’s 10,000 meters seemingly falls into this category in 2021. With a couple of weeks left to qualify, 50 women have the standard, which USATF has decided is too many for a single race—the risk of trips and falls increases, while faster runners lapping slower ones could create additional obstacles and confusion. USATF said in an email to Women’s Running that it will hold a two-heat final to decide the women’s 10,000-meter team, meaning the field will be split into two separate races (heats). The fastest three athletes, regardless which heat they compete in, will make the team as long as the three athletes also have the Olympic qualification by way of the time standard (31:25). Athletes will be assigned their heats at the Trials based on their qualifying times from fastest to slowest. The slower heat will race first, giving the runners in the other heat the advantage of knowing what time they need to to beat to make the team. The race is scheduled for June 26.
What about the marathon?
The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials are held separately from the Track & Field Trials. The U.S. marathon team members raced for their spots on February 29, 2020, in Atlanta, right before the pandemic took hold. The top three men (Galen Rupp, Jake Riley, and Abdi Abdirahman) and women (Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, and Sally Kipyego) will compete at the Olympic marathon in Sapporo, Japan. The women’s race is scheduled for August 7 and the men’s race is August 8.
Who makes the Olympic team?
What makes the U.S. process so thrilling is that our top athletes go head-to-head to earn their places on the team. In the simplest outcomes, the top three finishers in each event go to the Tokyo Games. But, it’s not always that clear cut.
Athletes who finish in the top three of the final round of their event at the Trials also must have achieved the Olympic qualifying time or a high enough world ranking to move on to the Olympics. For most of the events, athletes need to get that Olympic qualifying time between May 1, 2019–April 5, 2020 or between December 1, 2020–June 29, 2021. For the 10,000 meters, the windows are January 1, 2019–April 5, 2020 or December 1, 2020–June 29, 2021. The qualifying periods were temporarily suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19.
|Women's Olympic Standard||Event||Men's Olympic Standard|
|12.84||100 meter hurdles/110 meter hurdles||13.32|
|55.40||400 meter hurdles||48.90|
|9:30.00||3,000 meter steeplechase||8:22.00|
|6,420 pts||Heptathlon/Decathlon||8,350 pts|
|1:31:00||20K Race walk||1:21:00|
The world rankings are a new, complicated system created by World Athletics. Rankings take into account an athlete’s recent performances, the fastest times, plus give more weight to performances at select major competitions. The easiest way to the Games is to get that Olympic standard time and not have to worry about a world ranking. But if that’s impossible, the ranking is important. If you’re curious about where your favorite runner is ranked or if an event will have the space to include athletes at the Olympics based on rank, you can use this Road to Tokyo tool.
What happens if somebody in the top three at the Trials hasn’t achieved the Olympic standard and doesn’t have a high enough world ranking?
Unfortunately the athlete will not make the Olympic team. USATF will go down the list of Trials finishers and choose the first three who either have the Olympic standard or, if applicable for the event, the ranking. For example, at the 2012 Olympic Trials, the top three finishers in the women’s 10,000 meters were Amy Cragg, Natosha Rogers, and Shalane Flanagan. But Rogers didn’t have the Olympic standard and Flanagan opted to race the marathon at the 2012 London Olympics, giving up her spot for the 10,000 meters. The Olympic 10,000 meter team then was Cragg, Lisa Uhl (fourth place at the Trials), and Janet Cherobon-Bawcom, who had placed seventh at the Trials but was the next-fastest athlete to have the Olympic qualifying time.
Are spectators allowed at Hayward Field to watch the Olympic Trials?
TrackTown USA, the local organizing committee for the Trials, announced on May 29 that local covid-19 restrictions will allow for vaccinated and unvaccinated sections of spectators in the stadium. Athletes’ families can purchase four tickets per session on the days their family members are competing. Previous ticket holders who did not request a refund after the 2020 Trials were postponed will retain their seats, though they may be moved to accommodate the new seating plan. All other tickets will be sold based on remaining inventory.
Will the Olympic Trials be broadcast anywhere on TV?
Yes, NBC will broadcast the Trials and among the on-air analysts is Kara Goucher, two time Olympian and world championships silver medalist in the 10,000 meters. NBC has not announced details of its coverage yet.
Women’s Running will also provide live coverage from Hayward Field, so check back often for race results, athlete interviews, and scenes from America’s most exciting track and field meet.
Where can I find the complete Olympic Trials competition schedule?
The complete schedule is posted on the USATF Olympic Trials website.
Where can I find the Olympic track and field competition schedule?
The complete track and field schedule is available here.
The article will be updated as more information becomes available.