With the calendar’s turn to 2019, we have entered the year-plus long buildup to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Along that road are the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, both marathon, and track & field, with the marathon trials in Atlanta up first in February 2020. The Atlanta Track Club and USATF unveiled their Trials’ course layout just last week.

However, a new twist to Olympic and World Championships qualifying was introduced in November 2017 when IAAF announced its new World Rankings System. The idea was to make the sport more accessible to the public and to encourage more head-to-head competitions among the top-ranked athletes of the sport.

“For the first time in the sport’s history, athletes, media and fans will have a clear understanding of the competitions from the world through to global events, allowing them to follow a logical season-long path to the pinnacle of athletics’ top two competitions,” the IAAF said back in 2017.

In the new ranking system, every performance by an athlete in an international or national competition will be translated into a score, based on the IAAF scoring table, with the level of competitions also being graded.  The Olympics and World Championships will garner the most points and national championships the fewest.  The best five performances will be totaled and the average will be the athlete’s ranking score in his/her event. There are some other tweaks, but that’s essentially how it will work.

Though there is a consensus belief that a credible world rankings system is long overdue in Athletics, not everyone found the new system to their liking, which is understandable.  Among others, the North American, Central American and the Caribbean Championships (NACAC), one of the strongest member associations in the IAAF, took issue. “Understanding the system in the athletics community is limited, and on critical points, there are widely disparate views about fairness and viability of the system.”

In response to this and other reactions to the ranking system, the IAAF pulled its use as a qualifying factor for the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar but plan to continue its use for Tokyo 2020/

Now, as we await the first big races of 2019 in the United States at the Houston Marathon and Half Marathon this weekend, I received the following email message. “Hello, Toni:

Do you realize the IAAF and IOC still have not determined the qualifying standard for the Olympic Marathon?  If they go with the (new IAAF) World Ranking system, the USA Olympic Trials Marathon might not have a lot of meaning.  It is possible that a 100 people could qualify for the trials and only a handful be qualified for the Olympics.  It is really strange and not fair for a lot of runners.  I have been in contact with some, and they do not know if they should be running IAAF-labeled races for points (to meet the rankings requirement), or save themselves for a fast course because the standards will be based on time.  Is NBC and Atlanta track club paying a lot of money for no reason?  Maybe you have more answers, but I have not noticed much media coverage on this topic.”


In response, I reached out first to Atlanta Track Club President Rich Kenah, who will host the Olympic Trials Marathon in February 2020. 


Could you tell me what your understanding is regarding how / may the proposed IAAF World Ranking system alter the Trials selection process, if at all?  What has Indianapolis (USATF) told you about the process?   Toni

Rich Kenah, Ex. Dir. Atlanta Track Club

Rich Kenah, Ex. Dir. Atlanta TC


“The Atlanta Track Club recently received an update from USATF on the discussions being had at the IAAF level about the new IAAF World Rankings and the selection criteria for the 2020 Olympic Marathon.  I am hopeful that the new IAAF Rankings System will not impact the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials but I do not know when we will receive any further updates.  We continue to plan for the 2020 Trials here in Atlanta as if they will pick the team just as they have for recent Olympic Games.  

Atlanta Track Club bid on this event because we believe the existing US Trials system, which selects the top 3 across the line who have achieved a reasonable standard, to be the best, most compelling and inspiring way to choose our Olympic team. A confusing combination of world rankings and places at the Trials will gut a system that has proven successful for Team USA for decades.”



Next, I emailed Duffy Mahoney, Chief of Sport Performance at USATF, and received a prompt response. 

“Mr. Reavis;

I don’t know how much, if any, of the information that I provided Rich (Kenah) on a recent phone call – he relayed to you.  So I’ll provide some brief answers to your questions.

Duffy Mahoney, USATF

Qualifying procedure for the 2020 Olympic Games.  As of now, IAAF has proposed that qualifying for the 2020 Games be a combination of 1) qualifying standard and 2) (new) IAAF World Ranking system.  However, in the marathons, race walks – which are road events with larger fields that in the other 38 events on the Olympic program – the IAAF has been asked to have qualifying be totally based on a qualifying standard.  We await decisions from the IAAF and IOC on this.

USATF has also asked the IAAF to post the qualifying standard as soon as possible, in light of the qualifying window for the 2020 Olympic Games marathons and race walks having (already) begun on January 1st.  If these matters were not to be decided upon sooner, then they may be discussed and decided upon at the March 2019 IAAF Council meeting. This is where everything currently stands.  If and when we receive any information, we will get it out as quickly as possible.”

P. “Duffy” Mahoney – Chief of Sport Performance, USATF


What this all means is not certain other than the “clear understanding” the IAAF hoped for has yet to rank high on the implementation rollout even as this new system begins to impact events and athletes who remain skittishly in the dark. We will keep updating as information becomes available. 



  1. Hi Toni. I think the unfortunate assumption underlying your article is the belief that the IOC and/or the IAAF care about the marathon or road events. I think it’s been obvious with increasing frequency at OG’s and WC’s that the IAAF simply doesn’t care about the event. If not for the rise of the Abbott World Marathon Majors and the IAAF sniffing the possibility of revenue, they would treat our events with even more disdain.The courses become more pathetic each time, and the race start times ever-crueler to our world-class athletes who actually have to run the thing…two hours of running up and back alongside the shadeless Moscow River in 2015, a 2:00 pm start time in Paris in 2003 in the hottest European summer in a century, a glorified 2.5 km race-walking style loop used for the 2012 World Half-Marathon Championships in Kavarna, afternoon marathon start for the women at the 2017 London World Championships…we could go on and on. Take this summer for example…midnight start times in Doha for both men and women, and a lame course of 6 x 7KM loops. Ugh.

    The disfunction of this change of Olympic plans hits many countries. Besides the uncertainty now in the United States, think about Japan. For the first time ever, the JAAF will stage an actual trials format race for men and women, the “Marathon Grand Championship” (MGC) set for Tokyo September 15th. Similar to the US Trials, it’s simple…1st and 2nd men and 1st and 2nd women over the finish line are on the team, with the third athletes to be picked from results at a pool of other events. The qualification standards are as stiff as any in the world. Basically, men qualify with a sub-2:08:30 or averaging sub-2:11:00 in two races. For women the comparable times are 2:24:00 and 2:28:00. There are a few other ways into the MGC, but basically athletes have to hit these high standards. Japan now faces the same possibilities as the US…a clear-cut selection system that might not actually decide anything.

    1. Brendan,

      On the contrary. I think it was because they weren’t thinking about the marathon that this got away from them.

      IAAF has always been track-centric. But there’s money to be made from the roads. They get caught behind the curve when all of a sudden the qualifying period came up and they still didn’t have a qualifying time or process in place. Now what are they going to do? And according to Duffy Mahoney at USATF, it may not be until March at the IAAF council meeting that we find out, if then.

      Try to figure where to race not knowing if Ranking or Qualifying time is your goal.


  2. On the men’s side especially the separate Marathon Trials is really out of date and rather pointless. Other than Rupp who is injured does it really matter.

  3. Ugh. Just ugh. Hate to pile on, but it’s like the blind leading the blind here. I come to my favorite sport, in part, to get away from this type of cluster f that exists in world and U.S. politics. My ‘refuge’ has been and continues to be a source of embarrassment.

  4. USATF appears rightly concerned about the IAAF leaving athletes completely in the dark about how to qualify for Tokyo 2020. Yet USATF itself has not announced anything about how they plan to select the US teams for the marathon and race walks at the Doha 2019 World Championships.

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