I nearly forgot about this gem. I asked Stuart Weir to write on the differences of our systems, and he did a nice discussion on our two systems.
British Trials vs US Trials
by J. Stuart Weir
The GB Olympic Trials were held last weekend (June 25-28) and the US trials start later this week (July 1-10). The purpose of both is the same – to identify the athletes who will represent their country in Rio – but the approach is quite different. The US trials are first three qualify – no ifs, no buts! The GB trials guarantee Olympic selection for only the first two in each event provided they have attained the GB Olympic qualifying standard twice. The third place is at the discretion of the selectors.
The US system is black and white with no grey areas. (OK there was the tie between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh for the final place in the 100 metres for the 2012 Olympic Games). Athletes are absolutely clear about what they have to do to get selected.
The weakness of the American system is that an athlete who has been outstanding all season but who either misses the trials or has a bad day at the trials will not go to the Olympics. For example, in the women’s 400 metres at the 2015 US trials, neither Francena McCorory, who had the world leading time nor Sanya Richards-Ross,the reigning Olympic Champion finished in the top three in the trials and neither was selected for the individual 400 metres in the 2015 World Championship.
The British system is messy. If the US trials are sudden death, the British are a slow and lingering death. In Britain Martyn Rooney, 2014 European Champion, ran a bad 2015 trial and was not selected for the World Championships. He appealed and then gained a place in the team – a messy procedure.
The 2016 GB trials were 24-26 June but the GB Rio Athletics team will not be selected until 13 July. The 2016 GB trials involved 36 individual events. Under the US system we would have 36 X 3 = 108 athletes on their way to Rio. In the British trials, on my count, 38 athletes secured their Olympic selection. One place is left open in all events and in several others those who finished first and second had not achieved the qualifying time twice. Many athletes find themselves in limbo.
For example, in the women’s 1500 metres Laura Muir and Laura Weightman secured the two automatic places, leaving Hannah England, Charlene Thomas, Jessica Judd, Sarah McDonald and Melissa Courtney chasing a one good performance to catch the selectors’ eye.
The European Championships take place in Amsterdam 6-10 July. Now I am no fan of a (devalued) European Championship taking place one month before the Olympics and understandably skipped by many top athletes, but it does act as a convenient second Olympic trial. For example in the men’s 200 metres Nethaneel Mithchell-Blake and Zharnel Hughes are effectively running off for a place in Rio. In the women’s 800 Adelle Tracey, Alison Leonard and Jenny Meadows are chasing one place in Rio. It all adds to the interest even if it does prolong the stress for the athletes.
The big question for me is the philosophy of selection – are we rewarding or predicting! The US system rewards performance on a particular day but does not guarantee that the best athletes are selected. The British system seeks to predict which athlete is more likely to reach the final or win a medal. But that is subjective and can be controversial.
In 2012, Britain selected Lynsey Sharp for the Olympic 800 metres on the basis of a “B” standard at the expense of Marilyn Okoro who had been consistently faster all year. Sharp has certainly justified the confidence shown in her but was her selection fair on Okoro – and does that matter? It all depends on your perspective and philosophy.
Let me finish with two comments by athletes – one American and a Brit – on their own experience of trials and then a suggestion of my own.
Tianna Bartoletta “It’s a love-hate thing! I love it because if you get through the trials you are on a good trajectory to make the final of whatever championship it is. The mental toughness which it takes carries over for the rest of your life. I fully intend to do what I need to on that day but I guess that if some freak accident were to happen I would complain that we should change it! It makes us better. It is fair because expectations are clear – if you’re not in 1, 2 or 3, you aren’t in. If you look at it from the Federation’s perspective it means they will have the three absolute best athletes. It is almost like hunger games!”
Nathan Douglas won the 2016 GB trials and has the Olympic standard. Under the USA system he is on his way to Rio. Under the British, he is in limbo because he has attained the qualifying standard once but not twice. He began by repeating my question: “Do I think I should go? Looking at it from the selectors’ point of view they are going to want me to have the standard twice. If I was on the selection panel, I would be thinking: ‘We know Nathan’s history. We know he can win medals. We know he can jump further but we also know that he has had a massive battle with injuries. So if he can bring that though now that he is healthy and find his rhythm and jump say 16.80, why would we not give him a go?’ The only unfortunate thing is that I am not on the selection panel.
“They did not pick me for the 2016 World Indoors – they did not even tell me about my IAAF invite, which made me very annoyed. Last year they did not pick me for the 2016 World Champs when they could have picked me and it is a little frustrating for me. It would be nice for them to say ‘You are beginning to find form, let’s help you’. But rather than help me, they want me to battle through. That is fine. I can battle all the way through”.
One entry route into a golf major or tennis grand slam event is the individual’s world ranking. For example the top 50 golfers in the world rankings are invited to each major.
By giving the reigning World Champion and the Diamond League winner a bye or wild card into the World Championship, the IAAF has gone some way towards this system. If the Olympics followed this lead and added the 2016 World Leader and the reigning Olympic champion to the invited list, that would help further towards ensuring that fewer of the top athletes are excluded from the Olympic Games, which must be a good thing.
There is one potential negative consequence. At present AT THE World Championship one country can have 5 athletes in an event (3 selections plus reigning World Champion and Diamond League winner) and under my suggestion, there could be 7 from one country.
I see the problem but I could live with it to ensure that the Olympic final really does have the strongest possible field.