For some, it's just too hard to qualify for the Olympics, A view from Scandinavia, Day 10


Mikael Ekvall_Deca.jpgMikael Ekvall, photo by Deca Text & Bild

Jonas Hedman, editor of, wrote a daily column for us during the Rio Olympics. This is his column on Day ten. Along with Justin Lagat, Jonas Hedman gives RunBlogRun readers a view from an important geographical area in athletics. Check out his blog,, for news on Scandanavian athletics.

Scandinavian report day 10

For Some It's Just Too Hard to Qualify For the Olympics

The men's marathon on the final day in Rio was the biggest Olympic race ever at the distance with 155 participants including three Scandinavians. Or it should have been three since that was the number who ran way under IAAFs qualification mark of 2:17:00. It's an interesting and strange story of how a national olympic committee in a small country limit the possibilites for a qualified athlete to compete in the biggest of meets.

But let's start with the two Scandinavian athletes who actually did ran in the Olympic race - Norway's Sondre Nordstad Moen and Denmark's Abdi Hakin Ulad. Both are 25 and both made their marathon debut during the fall of 2015 when finishing in 2:12:54 (Moen in Firenze) and 2:16:00 (Ulad in Frankfurt) respectively.

The Olympic marathon race did fit them both very well since it was a big field in terms of a championships which meant they had backs to chase all the way. The speed with 1:05:55 at halfway point was also almost perfect for two who had personal bests of 2:12/2:16. Moen had 1:06:11 and Ulad 1:06:03 and the latter one finished in 35th place in 2:17:06 while Moen lost just 1:41 minutes on the second half and reached the finish line as 19th in 2:14:03. That was just 1:17 minutes from a top-11 spot and 1:09 from his personal best.

Seven minutes faster than the Oly qualifier but not selected

The third man in this story is the Swede Mikael Ekvall, 27, who has a similar background as his two Scandinavian colleagues. Except 2:34:05 at age 18 in 2007, Ekvall ran his first marathon during the fall of 2015 clocking 2:12:07 in Frankfurt. That made him the fourth fastest Swede of all time and was almost five minutes below IAAFs Olympic qualifier of 2:17:00, but Ekvall wasn't 100 procent satisfied anyway.

The reason? He missed the Swedish Olympic Committees (SOC) nominating level by seven seconds. But how could a national Olympic committee tighten up a qualification mark set by the sports international association?

The SOC has 36 member federations in 41 Olympic events (28 for summer and 13 for winter) and on SOCs annual meeting a decision-in-principle has been taken which means the qualification standard is based on a top-8-placing in the Olympics. I.e an athlete need to have a good chance to place top-8 or better regardless of sport in order to be selected. In other words, 100m running is equal to synchronized swimming, rugby, canoe etcetera despite the fact that the competition between sports differs a lot.

Except men's marathon there were 29 events where the SOC tightened up IAAFs qualification marks (12 for men and 17 for women). Other examples are men's 100m (from 10.16 to 10.05) and steeplechase (from 8:30.00 to 8:18.00) and women's 200m (from 23.20 to 22.70) and 10 000m (from 32:15.090 to 31:50.00).

The criteria "Young and promising"

There's another chance to qualify if you are "young and promising" and have a clear goal of also shooting for the next Olympics, in this case Tokyo 2020. Pole vaulter Michaela Meijer, 23, got a spot on that criteria and Mikael Ekvall could have got it too despite the fact that he is 27, but he didn't.
After his 2:12:07 SOC said that they wanted him to run another marathon during the spring but Ekvall and his coach told them that wasn't the best way to prepare for 42.2 km in Rio in August. Instead he wanted to focus on shorter distances in order to get faster before the twelve week build up to the Olympic marathon.

SOC then said "Ok, run a fast half marathon and we will see". Ekvall ran 1:05:01 on a hilly course in Göteborg at the end of May which wasn't enough and then got a last chance at the European championship's half marathon in Amsterdam in the middle of July. He finished 14th in 1:04:28, 1:50 minutes from the podium, and the Swedish Athletics Association nominated him, but SOC did not select him for the team.

79% had a slower qualification time

The men's Olympic marathon in Rio had 155 participants which is far more than it used to be at a World championships. As an example it was 67 runners in Beijing 2015. Why is it so many more in the Olympic marathon compare to the World championships? Probably because when it's time for the biggest of meets every fourth year most contries send all the athletes they can. For Swede's it's more or less the opposite.

114 of the 159 marathon runners who was selected for Rio had a qualification time that was slower than Ekvall's 2:12:07 which tells you that there's something wrong with the SOCs system.

Isabellah Andersson wasn't selected either

Mikael Ekvall was the only Swedish male marathoner who was close to the Olympic qualification mark and it was a similar case for women where Swedish record holder Isabellah Andersson (2:23:41 in 2011) was the one. IAAFs Olympic qualifier for women is as low as 2:45 which might be too low but SOCs mark of 2:28:00 is definitely too hard.

Isabellah, who switched from Kenya to Sweden in 2009, was seventh at the World championships in Daegu 2011 and 17th at the London Olympics 2012 at 2:27:26. At the end of February this year she was chasing those 2:28 in Tokyo but due to stomach problems she finished in 2:30:02. Then she tried again six weeks later in Rotterdam but was again unable to finish. Two weeks later she gave it a last chance in Zürich but quit after 10k when it started snowing.

No Andersson in Rio and instead Scandinavia was represented by two women from Denmark and one from Finland which qualified with times of 2:30:07, 2:34:28 and 2:34:12.

The Swedish athletics team for Rio included 15 athletes and was the biggest for 20 years, but it didn't include any marathon runners. It's hard to qualify for the Olympics. It should be. But for some it's too hard.

Ultra maraton debut
Instead of running in Rio, Isabellah Andersson made her debut in ultra running on 21 August. That was "UltraVasan" 90km which follows the trail of the 94 year old ski race Vasaloppet, but she quit when she was in the lead at 60km due to lack of ultra distance training.

For Mikael Ekvall the non-start in Rio was also a big disappointment and he is currently preparing for Berlin Marathon on 25 September. His goal is to improve the 33 year old Swedish record of 2:10:38 set by Kjell-Erik Ståhl when being fourth at the World championships in Helsinki 1983.

Jonas Hedman,

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