Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Jump! How high?

So, who has booked their place in the Olympic Stadium next summer? It’s a question many of us will have been pondering in recent weeks, eager to find out whether we have struck lucky in the ballot and placed successful ticket applications. It’s not often that you wait in hopeful expectation of seeing your bank balance decimated, but that’s precisely what most of us have been doing of late – “What, still no exorbitant charge has hit my account?! Come on Lord Coe, take my money goddamit!”

In theory we should now know by now. Perhaps not the precise details such as which sports, which days, which venues and which seats – have some patience people, this is a big event after all – but at least whether we have got tickets to something. In reality I think it’s going to take a little bit longer to get clear on even that, but at least within the next month or so we should all know our destinies.

If the ticketing experience has felt slightly drawn-out, spare a thought for the athletes themselves: they will have to wait a fair while longer before knowing whether they have managed to book their place in the stadium next summer.

Quite fittingly, the day the application process for tickets closed back in April was the same day the Olympic selection policy for track and field athletes from Great Britain and Northern Ireland was published by the sport’s governing body, UKA. If the last minute scramble to get applications in as the website crashed seems like a life-time ago now, you can be sure that for many athletes themselves the intervening time will have sped by: with the selection policy crystallising the task ahead of them in order to earn a place in TeamGB, the time to achieve the required marks and criteria will have started to start feel preciously short for more than just a few of the Olympic hopefuls.

Many reading this may view the selection policy as an irrelevance. You don’t need to read or understand it to be confident that, all things going to plan, athletes such as Jessica Ennis and Phillips Idowu will be lining up to go for gold in London. But dig a little deeper beyond the household names and you’ll uncover a whole host of fascinating stories, sub-plots and rivalries.

At the heart of most of these stories are relatively modest people with extraordinary dreams of being an Olympian in London. And with lives and careers put on hold and families and friends bled dry of money and favours in order to pursue their goals, understanding the selection policy suddenly matters to the aspiring athletes. As it was with the ticketing process, the hope and expectation for the selection process is relatively simple: that it is clear, transparent, and, above all, provides everyone with a fair crack of the whip. As we now well know, there are some doubts as to whether the ticketing process has stood up to these criteria. Will the selection process fair any better?

On the face of it, selection for athletics teams should be relatively straight forward given the objective nature of times, distances and heights. However, previous selection controversies would suggest it’s most certainly not foolproof.

Typically the issues emerge along two fault lines. The first is how to decide between two athletes with competing claims for selection where there is only one spot in an event left remaining. Who do you take? The athlete who has performed averagely all season but has pulled out one amazing performance to place them high up the rankings and demonstrate great potential; or the athlete who is slightly lower-ranked but who has a far better head-to-head record? The relative merits of each approach can be debated ad nauseum, with strong arguments and counter-arguments easily presented. In reality, this only becomes an issue in the few cases where the UK will have more than three ‘world-class’ athletes who have exceeded the ‘A’ qualification standard. Where this is the case, the published process reveals that this will be handled as for previous events: the top two athletes in the Olympic trials will automatically be selected and the third athlete will be selected at the discretion of the selectors, with some guidelines for how this will be judged. Invariably this will lead to some disappointment, but I struggle to see a better solution. Some have argued that the ruthless US style of first-three-past-the-post in the trials should be used to get around the issue of subjectivity for that third spot. It shouldn’t. Relatively few events are affected in this way and for a country like the UK – unlike the USA – where genuine medal chances are few and far between, it’s important to retain the ‘insurance policy’ that will allow some athletes to be selected regardless of their performance (or potential non-appearance) at the trials event.

The second area of controversy is whether to fill a spot at all, even if there are qualified athletes. At the last Olympics in Beijing, as well as at other major championships in recent years, a number of athletes were left at home despite having fulfilled the criteria laid out by the IOC or IAAF. This was on the basis that, while they had achieved the minimum qualifying standards, they were not deemed to be truly competitive by UKA at the relevant championship level. Indeed, the trend in recent years has been increasingly to ‘raise the bar’ in terms of standards, forcing athletes to push themselves harder and to meet more stringent qualifying criteria before being considered for selection. Reading the 2012 selection policy it is not clear which way UKA will go in this regard – certainly it would appear to indicate that someone in possession of a solitary ‘B’ standard is unlikely to make the cut.

This time around, I feel that would be a mistake. There are strong arguments for why it should be the case – a winning mentality in the camp is better preserved through a smaller, more elite team undiluted by people just pleased to be there being one which is typically presented and which may have some legitimacy – but, for reasons I’m not sure I can explain, an ‘exclusionist’ policy just doesn’t quite seem right. I envisage the Games being a festival and based on what we are hearing about the ticketing demand, it appears that even the athletics qualification sessions are going to be packed to the rafters. The fans will want British athletes in British vests in as many events as possible and will cheer loudly during every heat and for every jump and throw. It is not rewarding mediocrity to include athletes who will do well to make it through the first round: their achievement in reaching that level is still immense. For the long-term health of the sport – which in my view only benefits from having active Olympians across as many events as possible – as well as the excitement to be created at Games time in a packed Olympic stadium, I really hope that size of TeamGB is maximised.

There is of course a third issue in relation to selection – what to do with people who have served drug bans, such as Dwain Chambers. But let’s leave that for another day…

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