Olympic trials or tragedies?
I have long been annoyed at the way participation in the Olympics and many other international championships are handled, especially from the point of view of priorities: Sports should be for the athletes first, the fans second, and various organizations/the broad masses/sponsors third (or even fourth)—and it almost invariably ends up being the other way around.
Consider the following absurdities resulting from the inconsistent country-specific regulations and/or the general limit that a country is allowed to send only three athletes:
- Allyson Felix is the reigning Olympic champion in the women’s 200-meter dash, a strong victory candidate, and despite still recovering from injury problems came in fourth at the U.S. Olympic trials—missing third place by a hundredth of a second. She is not allowed to go. There will be some (non-US) women going who have run no better than 23.20 (according to http://www.iaaf.org/competition/standards), to be compared to Felix’ season’s best of 22.54, last year performance of 21.98, and personal best of 21.69 (all according to her IAAF profile).
- Meanwhile, Jamaican Usain Bolt failed to compete at all due to injury in the Jamaican trials. He is also the reigning champion, also one of the favorites—and he gets a free pass from Jamaica. Better than the Felix case? Possibly—but tell that to whoever actually came third…
- Swedish hurdler Sanna Kallur* has repeatedly run faster than the international qualification standard, she is the hands down best female hurdler in Sweden, and in the absence of an Olympic trial of the U.S. or Jamaican type, she should be an easy choice for Sweden. However, Sweden applies a stricter qualification standard and, unless the rules are bent, she will not go either—in which case Sweden will not send a female hurdler, there being no single woman, let alone three, to fill up the team…
*Unlike the aforementioned, she is unlikely to be a victory candidate due to years of injuries and old age. In her prime, however, she was formidable. Merits include the (still standing) indoor world-record in the 60m hurdles and European championship victories both indoors and outdoors.
This, of course, is just a small portion of all the absurdities that could have been listed. The U.S. Track-and-Field trials alone produce a handful of cases per Olympic cycle. Looking over the totality of all Olympic sports and all the countries involved there will be hundreds of cases just for the current Olympics.
To prevent such injustices and absurdities, a completely different approach is needed: It must be only the performance of the individual that counts—not what nationality someone has. The exact modalities are of course negotiable, but a reasonable interpolation from the current system would be that anyone* who has achieved the qualifying limit is allowed to go. Other possibilities include some form of gather-points-to-qualify, as used in e.g. tennis for its yearly tour finals, or a variation of the world-ranking concept.
*With some natural reservations, like the exclusion of anyone currently serving a doping suspension. However, under no circumstance the currently popular attempts to exclude people from competition for having the wrong opinions.
The only argument I have to date heard in favour of the three-athletes limit, is that there is a risk that some event or other grows boring, because we know in advance that the majority of the top-ten will come from a single country. So what!?! If Soviet pole-vaulters, U.S. sprinters, or Kenyan runners (at various times in history) would have been so utterly dominant, let them. The athletes themselves want a fair chance to win, while the true fans of the sport often care more about the individual athletes than nationality. For that matter, a dominance so complete that upsets never happen is very rare and tends to be short-lived—and they have grown rarer over time: Even if the argument had held at some point of time (of which I am skeptical), it need not hold today.
The U.S.-Style trials have more justification (assuming that a three-athletes limit is already imposed from the outside), e.g. in that someone who cannot win in the U.S. is unlikely to win globally, that it prefers the athletes with good nerves and the ability to “bring it”, or that that “bad day” could as easily have happened during the actual Olympics. Every system has its advantages and disadvantages, every system will leave an athlete here and there being (in one sense or another) unfairly left-out, and none can magically remove the three-athletes limit*. Disadvantages of the trials include the abruptness, the increased element of chance, the need to peak several times in one season, and less tolerance for injury periods (cf. e.g. Felix above).
*Notably, the three-athletes limit makes it hard to find a good compromise. For instance, it might be plausible to divide the number of participant into three pools for best trial results, best marks of the season, and wild cards based on subjective estimates about past or future accomplishments. However, that makes each pool one person large… Going to six instead of three, we could have a trial pool of three, the two best marks, and one wild-card (or a number of other distributions).
Another angle is whether the concept of national teams are truly compatible with the Olympic spirit* to begin with: Would it not be better for international friendship and harmony if the athletes competed as individuals instead of representatives of their countries, without the resulting “us vs. them”?
*What exactly is meant by Olympic spirit has varied from time to time. The current official stance appears to involve “to build a peaceful and better world […] a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play […] promote tolerance and understanding […] to make our world a more peaceful place.” (Re-quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic_spirit.)
In as far as national organizations, completion’s, whatnot, have a role to play, then only to the degree that they may choose to support or not support the respective athletes. Sweden might let Kallur, and the U.S Felix, fend for herself in terms of travel costs, training camps, and similar—but they should have no say in whether she is allowed to enter the competition.
A welcome side-effect of focusing on the individual instead of the nationality is that the artificial import of athletes along the lines of Turkey or Bahrain, where athletes switch nationalities like they do soccer clubs, would be less tempting and less of a problem.
More generally, the way the individual athlete is treated today is often disgusting, as a mere pawn for the powers that be and far from being the main player of the drama. Consider, for instance, how the sponsors of the individual athletes are booted from the Olympics in favour of the Olympic sponsors—money that should have gone to the the athlete and PR that should have gone to his sponsor instead go to the IOC and their sponsors… The athlete is helpless: Boycotting the Olympics will hurt him far more than the IOC (barring an unlikely mass protest). Other examples include restrictions on acceptable opinions and behavior outside of the field of sports, anti-doping measures that cause impositions few of us would agree to live with, the obligation to participate in certain competitions (as is the cases with high-level tennis players, who have good reason to complain about too little time for recuperation), and arbitrary rule changes (e.g. track-and-field, formula one).