Timing trials

by Listener Archive / 31 May, 2008
Marathon running is not just a race against time.

Small wonder Liza Hunter-Galvan has been appealing her omission from the New -Zealand Olympic marathon team - she has been running not just for herself but for her daughter Amber.

The Galvan family was involved in a car crash in the US early last year. Their car crashed at 110km/h into an 18-wheeler truck attempting a U-turn on a highway. All six members of the family were injured but 12-year-old Amber suffered a fractured skull and was in a coma for three weeks.

Her memory loss included forgetting seeing her mother run in the marathon at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004.

"In that moment when we thought we were going to lose Amber, I lost my desire for everything," Hunter-Galvan told the Herald on Sunday last year. "I didn't even care about running any more."

With Amber restored to health, Hunter-Galvan's quest to make the Beijing team was also spurred by her daughter. "I knew she had no memory of me competing at Athens [Hunter-Galvan finished 51st] and I want to make new memories for her. I knew I had to qualify for her. The last 5km of the Amsterdam marathon, I was running with Amber at the forefront of my mind."

Hunter-Galvan beat the New Zealand Olympic qualifying time by finishing fifth in the Amsterdam marathon last year, running 2hr 30m 40s, three minutes faster than she had run before.

And that's where the trouble began. Beating the qualifying time is not the only criterion for the marathon.

Marathon courses are subject to factors such as the numbers and gradient of hills, prevailing winds, heat, cold, the weather on the day, race tactics and more. World rankings are also misleading. What really matters is the athlete's psychological battle with the course, with the conditions, with other athletes, with the limits of the human body. Reputations mean sod all. Rankings mean less.

The conventional wisdom is that Amsterdam is a flatter, faster course than Beijing will be; Hunter-Galvan's race was run in cool, clear conditions, not the choking heat and pollution of China's capital.

In addition, Hunter-Galvan had to show she had consistent past performances, a good record in major championships and an ability to make the world's top 16. Her record in major championships has not been good and there is no way she has threatened to break into the top 16 in the world.

So therein lies the dilemma for the selectors and one big, puzzling question. If times are not relevant in marathons, why have them as a selection criterion?

And which is best - select only those we think can make the top 16, or give our athletes a chance to develop?

If you talk to New Zealand athletes who have competed and won at the highest levels, it is clear that there is a feeling too many have worn the black singlets when they may not have deserved to, that their race was run in just getting to the Games, rather than winning a medal.

It's fair to suggest too that the new era of Sparc funding means there is far more focus on success than development. Athletics New Zealand is trying to build a culture in which the goal is winning - or at the least strong world-ranked performances - rather than just being selected.

There are points on both sides. For my money, Hunter-Galvan may not have done enough to get to Beijing, as heartless as that sounds given the effort and talent required to be an international--class marathon runner.

At the time of writing, she was pursuing a legal appeal through the Sports Disputes Tribunal. In the backbiting, political, rather bitchy world of athletics, there were murmurings that she was due to spill some beans at the hearing.

That would be a shame. Maybe she'd be better off quoting the example of Barry Magee, the marathon bronze medallist at the 1960 Rome Olympics whose only other major meeting was the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, where he finished eighth in the six miles.

Maybe someone could ask Magee what going to Cardiff did for his career.

Email: sportscolumnist@listener.co.nz

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