Last week, USA Swimming announced that the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials would be heading back to Omaha, Nebraska for the fourth-straight Olympic cycle. We checked in with USA Swimming Interim Executive Director Mike Unger for some more details on the selection process:
Unger pointed to a couple key factors that continue to draw the meet to Omaha, one major point being the ability to have a separate warmup pool very close to the competition pool.
“The venue sets up perfectly,” Unger said. “Not just the main bowl, the main competition venue, but the warmup pool area as well. That’s been a bit of a challenge for us, to find sites that have the ability to have the warmup pool so close to the competition pool.” In Omaha, the warmup pool is built into the attached convention center, close enough to actually see into the arena that houses the main racing course.
Unger also mentioned a few other factors: the city of Omaha’s willingness to host teams and spectators, the “compact” layout of the city with the airport nearby (Omaha’s Eppley Airfield is less three miles from the CenturyLink Center) and the abundance of downtown hotels.
“This is the best site for the Trials at this point,” he said.
Unger also took issue with one fan assertion he’d seen suggesting USA Swimming was drawn to Omaha by money: “I think that person doesn’t have all the facts, because that’s not our ultimate decision-maker.”
Beholden To Athletes
Unger said the biggest factor in selecting a site is providing for the athletes themselves.
“We are beholden to our national team, to our athletes that make the Olympic Trials and the Olympic team and to those coaches to put the best possible venue on,” Unger said.
“Ultimately we want to pick the best possible team we can… We know that’s certainly possible there [in Omaha]; we’ve done that well.”
Unger made sure to note that the Trials athletes weren’t the only priority – the meet also draws in a big crowd of spectators as well as media coverage – but a primary one for USA Swimming.
“I would say that they’re done in concert together,” he said of weighing the host city’s impact on swimmers, coaches, spectators and media. “It [athlete experience] certainly ranks higher than everything else, but we don’t want to discount those other items as well.”
The Selection Process
“We’ve had extensive conversations with other cities,” Unger said. The day of the announcement, an editorial on our site suggested a list of other potential hosts, and Unger noted that USA Swimming had investigated “almost all of those cities” in their selection process.
Unger said he’s been a part of the process since the 1996 Olympic Trials, and one of the major shifts since that era is that the meet can no longer fit into regular swimming venues.
“It’s clear that this event has exceeded the capacity of current venues,” Unger said. He raved about the Indianapolis facility, which hosted the 1996 and 2000 Trials meets, but said the meet itself has grown to a point at which it can no longer fit into an existing venue like IUPUI. That’s shifted the meet to racing pools built into multipurpose facilities like the CenturyLink Center in Omaha.
Perhaps the biggest change in the selection process for the 2020 host site was that USA Swimming moved away from a bidding process between cities.
“We actually got direction from the cities that didn’t win bids back in 2013 for 2016,” Unger said. “They said ‘please don’t go to a bid process again’, and we heeded that advice.”
Unger emphasized that USA Swimming talked to a wide range of cities before landing in Omaha again, and also said the bidding process was less necessary because of USA Swimming’s familiarity with the potential hosts.
“To go to a bidding process is somewhat unnatural when you know where you could potentially be,” Unger said. “We don’t do a bidding process for our national championships. We know what the sites are.”
The lack of a bid process somewhat explains the suddenness of the 2020 announcement, which came with little informational leadup compared to the 2016 process in which 6 bid cities were publicly named finalists in January of 2013 before USA Swimming officially decided on a return to Omaha. We asked Unger if the increased transparency in the 2016 selection process helped USA Swimming gauge fan and athlete opinions more accurately before selecting a host city.
“No, we don’t think that helps us in the process,” Unger said. “I’m talking to athletes, I’m talking to coaches. Some of our top athletes and some of our top coaches knew what we were doing all along the way. So I’ve got input.”
Unger also spoke frankly about the ballooning size of the meet over the past two cycles.
“I would very candidly say we had too many athletes at those meets,” he said of the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. “Our expectations were 1200-1400 [qualified athletes].
“We haven’t done a great job- I should say it differently, the athletes have done an awesome job of making the cut,” he said. “But our goal is to get somewhere between 1200-1400 athletes. To go 1800 in ’12 and 1750 or so in ’16, that puts a stress on the facility.”
A Look Ahead
Unger said he couldn’t speak to how USA Swimming plans to handle the host selection process in future cycles with regard to the option of a bidding process and its affect on transparency. He also noted that the 2024 decision could be impacted by Los Angeles’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics.
Unger also made sure to point out that USA Swimming is not the sole decision-maker in the process.
“The USOC owns this event,” he said of Olympic Trials. “We manage it for the USOC… We’re working in collaboration and coordination with the USOC.”
As for now, Unger said he’s looking forward to the return to Omaha.
“We’re excited to go back to Omaha and we know there’s a lot of fans that are super excited too,” he said. “It’s the right place for the Trials this time around in 2020.”