A nervous weekend for the Olympic hopefuls
In three days of intense competition at the Alexander Stadium this weekend, the British athletics squad for London 2012 will begin to take firm shape. But if that end-point at the Olympics is clear, the route there is lined with pot-holes and problems.
In some ways the format is stark: finish in the top two in your event, with the 'A' qualifying standard to your name, and you're off to Stratford. But that only hints at the complications and calculations that lie just beneath the surface.
For most athletes in Birmingham it will be a nervous few days. The big gold medal hopes must prove their form. Those with outside hopes of the Olympic podium must secure their places and show they are starting to peak. Others, shackled by injury in the first half of the season, know now is the time to find a time and finish from somewhere.
Neither are the big battles quite where we have seen them in previous years.
Chambers must now prove himself on the track after winning a selection battle off it. Photo: Getty
Already this summer we have seen several athletes raising their game in Olympic year. That's to be expected. What's more of a surprise is where the improvements have come.
On the men's side, it is the field eventers who are leading the way from the track athletes.
Greg Rutherford is currently the highest ranked long-jumper in the IAAF's global top-lists; Robbie Grabarz is third in the high jump; Lawrence Okoye fourth in the discus and Steve Lewis eighth in the pole vault. Olympic triple jump silver medallist and former world champion Phillips Idowu, if the pattern of his last few seasons is to be believed, will move rapidly up the top-lists from his current ninth.
All those men already have the required qualifying marks. Even in the highly unlikely event of them finishing outside the top two, should all compete, they would be given the selectors' third discretionary place.
Elsewhere it is not so clear cut.
The talk a month ago was all of Dwain Chambers finally being cleared to run at the Olympics. But unless he produces a big performance in the 100m this weekend, his only involvement might be with the relay squad.
Only two men - Adam Gemili and James Dasaolu - currently have the 100m 'A' standard of 10.18 seconds. Gemili, with the World Juniors his main focus, is yet to decide whether he would compete in London if selected. Dasaolu's form is uncertain; others, like Harry Aikines-Aryeetey and Marlon Devonish, are a long way off.
It leaves a gap for Chambers, but one that is closing fast. The cut-off date for qualifying times is 1 July. This weekend will tell us what chance he really has.
It is far tighter in the 400m, where four men have the 'A' standard of 45.30 secs, and the 800m, where Andrew Osagie and Michael Rimmer will come under pressure from Gareth Warburton and Mukhtar Mohammed.
Qualification will be tougher still in the 110m hurdles, where the form of young guns Lawrence Clarke and Andy Pozzi could mean both of Britain's two finalists at the World Championships in Daegu last summer (Andy Turner and Will Sharman) miss out on automatic qualification.
Cruel? Possibly. Unfair? Arguably, no. Not for nothing are these called the Trials.
The weekend should be less stressful for two of the so-called big four - Jess Ennis and Mo Farah - who will be using their events more to fine-tune than qualify, their form this summer already proven.
For another, world 400m hurdles champion Dai Greene, selection may be a certainty but form is not. Greene's uncertain start to the season means 13 other men have run faster times than him this year.
At least he has shaken off his winter injuries to be there. His fellow world medallists Hannah England and Jenny Meadows, plus 2008 100m finalist Jeanette Kwakye, are all late withdrawals, left hoping the selectors will grant them that precious discretionary berth.
England's early season form means she has the 1500m qualifying mark of 4 mins 6 secs. Behind her, former world silver medallist Lisa Dobriskey must battle it out with the impressive Laura Weightman.
Meadows, world 800m bronze medallist three years ago, does not have that luxury. Her Achilles problems have ruined her summer so far and given Marilyn Okoro and Emma Jackson a great chance to guarantee their selection with top two finishes.
If the criteria seem harsh, that is exactly how UK Athletics head coach Charles van Commenee likes it, even if it means that athletes who could technically have been picked are left at home.
Van Commenee believes that having underachieving athletes in the team could bring down the mood of the rest and affect the ability of possible medal contenders to be probables.
The message is clear: there will be no passengers, no-one taken along for the experience. This Olympic team is about winning, not taking part.
As point 16 of the selection policy says, the panel will strictly favour "the athlete(s) who they believe will finish higher at the Games".
If this means that an athlete finishing third, with the qualifying mark, is overlooked for that final place in favour of one finishing fifth, then so be it.
"The panel will not nominate any athlete who it has good reason to believe will be uncompetitive at the Games due to injury, illness or lack of recent form," states the policy.
In practical terms, this could both shut doors on some and open them for others.
Because of that insistence on an 'A' standard, it is possible that someone could win an event in Birmingham and not gain automatic selection, while the person they defeat does make the team.
It also means that an athlete deemed world class - like England, or Meadows - has a lifeline. If injury or conditions on the day mean they cannot prove their form this weekend, the selectors will take that into account.
For the red-hot favourites this weekend - Tiffany Porter in the 100m hurdles, Yamile Aldama in the triple jump, Goldie Sayers in the javelin - the minutiae of the selection criteria should not matter.
Others will be obsessing over the small-print.
At World Championships, Van Commenee is allowed to take a combination of athletes achieving 'A' and 'B' standards in the same event.
Not at the Olympics. If one 'A' athlete is picked, any others must also have an 'A' standard. Any 'B' athlete cannot be selected alongside an 'A'. And there is room for only one 'B' in each event.
Head hurt? This is only the start of it. Expect to see calculators and PDFs alongside the spikes and sports drinks this weekend.