The games before the Games
How the selection criteria can affect the modern athlete.
the time you read this, the Rio 2016 Olympics will be done and dusted. But what most casual sports fans don’t realise is that there is a frantic, more challenging contest that happens beforehand, affecting the lives of many more athletes than just the Olympians. This is the fight to qualify for the right to be at the Games.
Like most major sporting competitions, the Olympics is a private party, to which only the best is invited. In many cases, the qualification process can be more arduous than the Games themselves, especially in countries where a plethora of world-beating talent is already present. This brings us to the crux of the matter, and indeed the source of much angst for aspiring Olympians: the selection criteria.
Each country’s sporting bodies typically set their own qualification criteria, which is then reviewed and approved by the respective national Olympic associations. Perhaps the trickiest aspect of this process is coming up with a system that is open, fair and acceptable to all stakeholders involved.
Having run two national sports associations in the past, I can attest to the difficulty of such an endeavour. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it was the one task that generated the most amount of stress, and was the most time-consuming and thankless.
My colleagues and I would joke that we knew when we had come up with the optimal system, because it would be the one that everyone hated. Unfortunately, we sometimes succeeded. Which meant that everyone hated us.
So many factors go into the criteria: when are competitions held? How do national records factor into the equation? What about medals at regional competitions versus more international and open events? How about training attendance? Attitude? And the list goes on.
Imagine topping all that off with the ever-elusive ingredient of sporting excellence: athletic form. If you think the other criteria are intangible and hard to define, imagine trying to pin down what this “form” is, and measure it in different athletes. Difficult to quantify, virtually impossible to track, yet it is a critical element of an athlete’s ability to deliver on the big day.
Given the Herculean complexity of designing such a selection criteria, it’s no surprise that some countries like the US have opted for a more straightforward system: one-off Olympic trials, where the winners punch their ticket to the Games.
Usually held around a month or so before the actual competition, it allows athletes time to rest up, recover and peak a second time. Of course, this isn’t always possible, and the system has been criticised for being even more stressful than the actual Olympics themselves, and for not allowing for an “off day”.
But perhaps this brutal approach best reflects the harsh realities of life and sport—that bad luck happens, and you’re expected to deliver when it matters the most. Whatever the case, it sure makes the already-tough life of sporting administrators a little less stressful.