Yesterday (Monday 23 April) was the day that the final composition of the British marathon team was confirmed for the London Olympics. Three of the six spots had already been announced and were held by Scott Overall, Paula Radcliffe and Mara Yamauchi. The remainder were announced following Sunday’s London Marathon. Claire Hallisey took the final women’s spot after a thrilling battle with Louise Damen and Freya Murray through the streets of London, but the picture for the men was less clear. Dave Webb had achieved the A standard by finishing in the top twenty at the 2011 World Championships, but had not been selected when the initial annoucement was made last year. It seemed as though UK Athletics (UKA) were waiting to see if any of the British men at London would run inside their A standard time of 2:12′ before deciding what to do with the last two men’s slots. As it happened, no one ran inside the required time and Dave Webb was announced as part of the team.
Lee Merrien was the only British man to get close on Sunday when he finished in 2:13’41″ This is outside the tough A standard announced by UKA at the start of the qualification period, but inside the softer Olympic A standard prescribed by the sport’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Merrien may have hoped UKA would show some leniency in order to have a full team of runners, but this was not the case. His exclusion means that the UK will only have two out of a possible three men running the marathon, whereas the women have the full set, with Radcliffe, Yamauchi, and Hallisey.
In my opinion, only selecting two men is a shame, and though it is futile for me to do so, I wish to state the case for Lee Merrien’s inclusion.
Granted, the criteria were clear and announced long ago: Quicker than 2:12′, or top twenty in the 2011 Daegu World Championships. Merrien only managed 22nd at Daegu and has a marathon PB outside of the criteria, and that is why he was not selected. However, the IAAF A standard is three minutes slower than the UKA target at 2:15′. Lee Merrien has run this twice within the qualifying period, so by the standard used by the rest of the world he is quick enough to run in the Olympics. If he was from another country he would probably have been selected.
So why is the UKA standard so much tougher? The answer is within the selection criteria document where it states that the “Panel will not nominate any athlete who it has good reason to think will be uncompetitive at the Games”. To this end, UKA are correct. A 2:15′ runner will not be competitive. But neither will a 2:12′ runner. Scott Overall’s time of 2:10’55″ is absolutely fantastic within the context of recent British men’s marathoning, but in global terms it is slow, and Overall has no previous marathon form to suggest that he might be capable of running faster in a championship race at the height of summer. Dave Webb was selected on the strength of his fifteenth place at last year’s World Championships, but that is twelve places off the podium, and his PB is outside even the IAAF A standard time. I would like to be proven wrong, but it would be very surprising if Overall or Webb made the podium.
So given UKA’s policy of only taking “competitive” athletics should any of our men have been selected? Of course they should, and it was right that they were. Overall and Webb earned their places on the team and it will be a pleasure to see them race in London. However, it is my opinion that Merrien also did enough to earn a place on the team and should have been selected. Setting artificially high selection criteria was never going to see a sudden improvement in the times run by the leading British men, rather it was more likely to have the opposite effect and discourage those who might just have been good enough from pushing that little bit harder. 2:12′ is a wonderful goal to aim for, but in terms of developing the next generation of British male marathon runners it is too much too soon. At this stage it is far more realistic to have such a time as the target for those seeking selection to the team for Rio in 2016. Any athlete knows you can’t expect a miracle overnight. Progress is hard and often slow. Goal setting should be incremental.
British men’s marathon running has been in the doldrums for the past decade. Partly this is because there has been no figureheads leading the way. It is important that full teams are selected where possible to provide a full team of role models for aspiring athletes. What up and coming long distance runner is going to be encouraged by the exclusion of a man who worked so hard and did what should have been necessary, only to be left behind? Marathon running is a thankless task at the best of times, with long hours of training and very little chance of global success. If this is how that dedication is rewarded by UKA, then why bother?
This dedication was evident on Merrien’s face on Sunday. Early on he lost contact with the pacemakers who were meant to be guiding the leading Britons to 2:12′, and ran much of the race on his own. Viewers will have seen him repeatedly look at his watch over the final few miles and recognised that this was a man who was pushing his body to the absolute limit in order to keep to his target pace. With a few miles to go it became apparent that Merrien was not going to make 2:12′, yet he kept going and kept pushing. The grimace grew into a contorted mask of sheer effort and he carried on, no doubt in agony, even though it was never going to be enough. To me, a lowly 3:07′ marathoner, it was inspiring to watch a man push himself like that with little chance of reward. That is what sport is about, that is what the Olympics means to people like Lee Merrien, and that is what it could mean to the next generation of British marathoners. It is his example that we should be setting to the young people that are apparently at the heart of this Olympic Games.
We can’t just wait for Mo Farah to step up in distance, we need to encourage every marathoner from the grass roots up in order to once again become a player on the global stage. Fun runners should be encouraged to become club runners. Club runners should be encouraged to become “Good for Age” runners. ”Good for Age” runners should be encouraged to become UK championship runners. And UK championship runners should be encouraged to make Olympic teams. Dashing the hopes of those who are good enough is certainly not going to make this happen.
Anyone who saw Lee Merrien’s face on Sunday could see that this was a man who would have given his all should he have been given the opportunity to run in the London Olympic marathon. After all, he has experienced the pride that comes from representing Guernsey at the Commonwealth Games, and of representing Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the European and World Championships. So I would ask UKA to reconsider their decision and give Lee Merrien his rightful place on the team. After all, he has proven himself, without doubt, to be the second best marathoner in the UK today.
What do you think? Should Lee Merrien have been selected? Have your say.