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Olympic selection: who goes, who decides?

Updated Friday, 11th July 2008

Choosing the right athletes to send to the Olympics is a difficult and controversial process. Who goes, who decides?

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How would you decide what is the best squad or who are the best individuals in a sport to send to the Olympic Games? It rolls off the tongue and sounds easy, ‘just pick the winner of the national league or championship’ but it’s fraught with complications that make it a very difficult process for the athletes, coaches and the organisations involved. A former USA selector from the sport of triathlon expressed the dilemma in Designing the Olympic Selection Process:

“I haven’t seen a perfect selection process yet … in any country, or for any sport”.

Let’s start by reminding ourselves that these days it’s all about winning medals. All British Olympic sports are dependent on success to sustain the amount of National Lottery and tax payers’ money used to fund their training squads. This means that performers not only need to be the best in the country but need to be on the journey to becoming one of the best in the world.

The first hurdle – continent qualification

The ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ attitude of past decades is now redundant in Britain. The International Olympic Committee have contributed to this shift. They’re attempting to control the gigantic scale and expense of the event by capping the total number of athletes at the Summer Olympics to 10,500.

Increasingly British performers have to reach qualifying standards and/or be in the quota of athletes allowed to enter from Europe. For instance in 2008, the standards in table tennis required players to be either in the top 20 on the World Ranking list or make the top 11 places at a European Qualification event. This is a tough standard.

Also the number of places varies for different sports; in hockey 12 male and 12 female teams get to go to the Games after a fierce set of qualifying tournaments.

The second hurdle: who’s best?

Each sport designs its own selection process, choosing what they consider to be the best approach for their sport. A selection process can be objective (a place at a specific race or overall world ranking, for example), subjective (selection by coaches or a panel of experts), or more commonly a combination of objective and subjective criteria.

If you were to develop a ‘wish list’ of what all parties would seek in designing a selection process, it might look something like this:

  • A process that’s fair
  • Considers performers that have proven performances at international level
  • Takes into account performers that may be new, young rising stars
  • Recognises the possibility of equipment failure in some sports that might effect a result in one event (e.g. sailing, triathlon)
  • Recreates the pressure and conditions of the Olympic Games event in as many aspects as possible

These components also need to be balanced against the timing of when selection takes place. In Britain, at one end of the scale the sport of sailing selects most of their team 11 months in advance, whilst at the other end athletics selects three weeks before the Olympics. These very different approaches are partly accounted for by the nature of the sport, but also the traditions in that sport.

Sailing argues that it needs to maximise the amount of time its performers spend preparing and adapting to the environment conditions which dominate their sport. Athletics, where the variables are more individual to the performer, believes that peaking for a trials event shortly before the Olympics ensures that athletes are in top physiological condition. However, the UK Athletics’ selection document recognises special cases:

Selection prior to the trials will be used rarely, and almost exclusively in longer distance or multi-events, where … earlier nomination would enable an enhanced preparation for that athlete. (from page 2).

This approach to enhance preparation has often been used with marathon, decathlon (men) and heptathlon (women). For instance, Jessica Ennis (subsequently injured) and Kelly Sotherton were both pre-selected for Beijing.

The different options

There are often intense discussions within a sport and strong opinions online about what is the best option. Here are the pros and cons.

World rank

Some would argue to simply take the top three athletes, as ranked by the sports World Rankings as of a set date. This certainly rewards long term international consistency, but may miss the mark for a fast, new athlete on the ranking lists. It also does not consider environmental conditions for the Games nor does it replicate the intense pressure of peak performance at a single event.

A single trials event

Others may argue to have a single trials race, like UK Athletics or British Swimming at a carefully chosen date. The argument goes that if an athlete can perform under the heavy pressure of a trials situation, then they can certainly perform at the Games. This sounds good on the surface, but there are downsides. What if a top athlete is ill? Or, what if a mechanical breakdown occurs in equipment based sports (e.g. cycling or sailing) and they’re knocked out of contention through no fault of their own?

For the conspiracy theorists there’s also the threat of collusion. What if a colleague accidentally trips up or impedes a competitor in some way that influences the result? In cycling and triathlon there is also the issue of drafting – gaining advantage by working as a group. You see this frequently in the Tour de France. Collusion issues like this are difficult to prove.

The three ‘what if’ questions outlined (illness, mechanical failure, collusion) are often catered for in selection policy clauses such as,

‘in the event of exceptional circumstances that affect the result of the competition the selection committee reserves the right to..’.

The term exceptional circumstance is deliberately ambiguous; whenever this get out of jail card is used by selectors it often ends in controversy and sometimes the law courts!

A further aspect of domestic trials events is that often there’s not enough depth of talent to replicate the competitiveness of an international field. Here, the question a sports governing body asks is: what type of performer is favoured in a small British field and how would they do at the Games? One way around this is to insist on a certain performance (time) that reflects international standards. However, many sports cannot have such objective criteria, for example judo.

Selection panel

In this process a group of individuals selects the Olympic team based on a set of published criteria. The criteria might include world ranking, performance times, performance in major events, the subjective opinion of their ability to improve further, potential for the future and other considerations.

This option often allows athletes to overcome a single disappointing race with the use of multiple events to prove themselves; but it can leave the selection committees in a bind when there is no clear-cut winner. For example, which is best, a 4th place in a World Championship event or a 1st place in the European Championships?

Conclusion

Ultimately selection is a compromise with no perfect solution. However, with increased pressures on sports to deliver medals, a ‘blended’ approach, using all three of the above options, is often used in which medal potential drives the process that a sport adopts.

Further reading

Designing the Olympic Selection Process

 

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