The games be­fore the Games

How the se­lec­tion cri­te­ria can af­fect the mod­ern ath­lete.

Esquire (Singapore) - - Man At His Best -

By

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.

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