Mike Rowbottom: Team GB’s latest Olympic marathon selection is a case of the more the Merrien
Saturday, 28 April 2012
The news that Lee Merrien who concluded last Sunday's Virgin London Marathon with his face contorted in pain and frustration having narrowly failed to achieve the UKA A qualifying standard of 2hr 12min 00sec can now look forward to a return to the streets of the capital for the greatest show on earth has been welcomed exuberantly by many of the 3,000 or so supporters who endorsed a Facebook campaign for his inclusion.
Having finished as the leading Briton on the day in a personal best of 2 hours 13min 41sec, well inside the Olympic qualifying mark of 2:15:00 set by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) – the 2:12 was just UK Athletics being stringent – the former Commonwealth Games runner from Guernsey, who turned 34 on Tuesday (April 24), could have been forgiven for a sense of frustration. A sense which must surely have deepened when it was announced the following day that the pre-selected Scott Overall – who ran 2:10:55 on his marathon debut in Berlin last October – would be joined by just one more male runner, and that runner was David Webb, whose best is 2:15:48.
Webb's inclusion, odd at first glance, was entirely legitimate as UK Athletics had announced that any Briton finishing in the top 20 at last year's IAAF World Championships in Daegu would have been deemed to have earned an equivalent to their A standard, whatever the time. Merrien's frustration would no doubt have deepened still further with the memory of his own tantalising performance in South Korea – he finished 22nd.
The original rulings of the UK Athletics Selection Panel not to select Merrien, and to turn down his initial appeal against the decision, was also entirely legitimate in the technical sense, in that he had failed either to run 2:12:00 or finish in the top 20 at the worlds.
But when a request came in to consider exceptional circumstances, the panel – comprising all the UK Athletics events coaches, of whom Ian Stewart, Head of Endurance, and George Gandy, his National Event Coach for Endurance, would be most influential in this case – reconvened and, essentially, changed its collective mind.
So what were those circumstances? I understand the decision was effectively a cumulative one rather than something which turned upon a single point. Among the arguments Merrien was able to adduce in his favour were the following:
He had won the main trial race, and effectively a national title, in a time which, had he been a runner anywhere else in the world, would have qualified him for London 2012 as it was inside the IAAF A qualifying standard.
He was only two places, and 22 seconds, outside the qualifying criteria at the Daegu World Championships.
Unusually, there was a headwind blowing into the faces of this year's elite London Marathon runners for 80 per cent of their race. When they turned for home near Canary Wharf expecting to get the benefit having withstood the elements for much of their journey out, the wind changed direction. This clearly impacted upon times.
What is understood to have made "not a blind bit of notice" to the selectors was the Facebook campaign.
Whatever, the aim of the campaign has now been achieved. Just as a reminder, that aim was to "Persuade Team GB to select Lee Merrien so we can watch a GB runner in the Olympics. The Olympics is not just about winning we want to see GB athletes at London 2012. This event is open and we can all support and see Lee run. SELECT LEE MERRIEN!!!!!"
So, job done, and everybody's happy. Aren't they? Well perhaps not everybody. Simon Hart, the respected correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, blogged his own opinion on the issue before the final volte face by the selectors, citing one of the favourite phrases of the UK Athletics head coach Charles Van Commenee - "You don't get people to jump higher by lowering the bar" – as he argued that Merrien, though unfortunate, could not expect to be selected.
Overall, too, may have some mixed feelings about the latest turn of events. Having set out last Sunday (April 22) as an intended pacemaker for British runners such as Merrien he explained on the Athletics Weekly comment site that he had pulled out after 15 kilometres as a precaution when he felt his hamstring getting tight, adding: "Seeing as there were no British guys with the pacemakers, and that is what I was there for, it seemed silly to carry on."
Charged with an apparent lack of sympathy over Merrien's initial non-selection, Overall pointed out that he was one of three pacemakers intended to pace the race at 2:12, the UK Athletics A selection target. "ALL the British guys knew this, and a few, including Lee, said they were going to come with the pacemakers," Overall commented.
"As it turned out none of them did, for reasons I don't know. If they thought the pace was going to be too quick and would rather have come through in 66 minutes then they could have said in the meeting before the race, after all we were there to pace them and would have done what they wanted.
"As for the selection policy, that came out over a year ago and the athletes knew what we had to do. Yes, it is faster than the IAAF standard, but making the Olympics isn't easy. The women's time was faster and six of them hit the standard, it just shows that the harder standards can push athletes to perform.
"Myself and Lee are friends, and I would love to see him on the start line at the Olympics, but at the end of the day he hasn't got an A standard. It might just be that athletes are used to this type of cut-throat selection, but every athlete I have spoken to agrees with me. The argument needed to be made when the selection criteria was released not when athletes fail to make the standard."
One can see Overall's point. But the more basic point was that there was a place unfilled in the men's marathon team, and there was no other legitimate applicant for it other than Merrien.
And while the Facebook campaign may have cut no ice with those making the decision, it did highlight an even more basic point in this matter.
By its nature, the Olympic marathon is going to be one of the most accessible of events taking place at London 2012. For thousands of home spectators, it is likely to be the only chance they have to see the Olympics actually happening first hand.
So why not take the opportunity to give them another home runner to cheer on. Nobody was ever pretending that Lee Merrien has a chance of winning the Olympic marathon title. But nobody is pretending that Lee Merrien will win the Olympic marathon title either. So why not take the opportunity to give a home crowd another home runner to cheer on? Good decision.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.