A big team is no big deal without quality
Let us not beat about the bush; the reason our athletics squad is the biggest-ever is because our standards are
SCOTLAND will name their final Glasgow 2014 athletics team on Thursday. If everyone currenty qualified and eligible is chosen with rigid adherence to guidelines, it will number 58.
This presumes no additional qualifying marks being achieved before selectors sit down for final deliberations tomorrow. However, 58 competitors would permit organisers to headline the biggest squad ever to represent Scotland at a Commonwealth Games.
There are, as they say, damned lies and statistics. In real terms it will not be Scotland’s largest team. In 1970, Edinburgh had 56 track and field athletes (35 men, 21 women). A total of 57 (33, 24) was hailed as a record in boycotted 1986 – also superficial analysis, for since 1970, four events had been added to the women’s programme: 400m hurdles, 3000m, 10,000m and marathon.
Even more have been added since 1986: eight for elite athletes with a disabilty, plus hammer, pole vault, and steeplechase for women. Significantly, the balance of power has changed. Women will outnumber men in Glasgow.
We congratulate them, but the overall increase – let’s not mince words – is because the bar is lower. After 18 years of Lottery funding, and 15 with an Institute of Sport, Scotland has accepted inferior performances in a majority of events for 2014, compared to those required to qualify for Kuala Lumpur back in 1998. Before the institute opened.
In Malaysia there was just one athletics medallist. There was also just one in swimming, whose response was to set higher standards which have (not coincidentally, one imagines) driven up performance.
Some critics suggest that if athletics in Scotland were a business, shareholders would be in revolt. In 32 of the 44 men’s and women’s disciplines, it is easier to qualify for Glasgow than for Delhi four years ago, though it is worth recording that as of this week, 38 athletes had surpassed the Delhi criteria. Yet in only one men’s event (800 metres) has it been harder to qualify (lowered from 1min 47.80sec to 1:47.50 – Guy Learmonth has surpassed this four times).
Scottishathletics’ version of qualitive easing has unquestionably triggered the improvement across the board, and record numbers. If that becomes a first step towards national revival, we will applaud it, but that may be a triumph of hope over experience. It is a fact of athletics life that standards generally decline following major Games, Commonwealth or Olympic.
Scotland remains severely challenged internationally. This is transparent from the pre-selection Commonwealth rankings compiled by Britain’s doyen of athletics statisticians, Stan Greenberg.
Eilidh Child’s third place in the 400m hurdles in Rome on Thursday spared Scotland an embarrassing statistic – not a single Scottish athlete ranked in a medal position going into the 2014 Games. Child moved up to third with 54.82 behind the world leader, Kaliese Spencer.
The Jamaican finished fourth in the London Olympics and had been fourth in both World Championships prior to last year’s edition in Moscow where she was disqualified for trailing her leg around a hurdle.
If she avoids putting a foot wrong at Hampden, Spencer will present the major threat to Child. The Fife woman was Commonwealth No.1 last season (discounting the injured Perri Shakes-Drayton) but until Thursday ranked only seventh.
Greenberg’s analysis is a more reliable guide to medal potential as it restricts nations to three athletes per event (the maximum they can enter). For example, Kenya boasts 16 of the Commonwealth’s 20 leading 5000m men this year, and 18 of the fastest female marathon runners. So all but three per nation are extracted from his lists.
Despite this, Scots feature in the top 10 in just three of the 20 individual men’s events: Allan Smith (10th equal, high jump), Jax Thoirs and Greg Maclean (fourth, equal seventh, pole vault), Mark Dry, Chris Bennett and Andy Frost (fourth, fifth, and sixth, hammer).
All save Bennett are already selected. Learmonth, also already named at 800m, is currently 16th.
Stat-man Stan’s rankings show a healthier spread among Scotland’s women: seven ranked in the top 10 in eight events, with a further five just outside. In addition to third-placed Child, there’s Rachel Hunter (fifth, hammer); Lenny Waite (sixth, steeplechase); Glasgow vet student Laura Muir (sixth and seventh, 1500m and 800m); Emma Nuttall (equal 10th, high jump); Hen Paxton (eighth, pole vault), and Kirsty Law (eighth, discus).
This suggests we will have to rely on the “home effect” to improve on the 14 Scots who made top eight in finals in India four years ago. Yet that was progress: only four in 2006 and 10 in 2002.
Men’s and women’s 4 x 400m squads will be named, the former for the first time since 1990 when three 800m men and a 400m hurdler (Tom McKean, David Strang, Brian Whittle, and Mark Davidson) took silver.
Greenberg’s rankings do not include Para sports whose medals feature in the final table. Visuallyimpaired sprinter Libby Clegg and 1500m wheelchair racers Meggan Dawson-Farrell and Samantha Kinghorn all have strong prospects.
Statistics can also only record what has happened. Mo Farah, for example, does not feature in any of the three events he may run in Glasgow. He has yet to contest a track race this year but was second in the world at 1500m last season, and only Kenyans ran faster than the world 5000 and 10,000m champion. Ditto Usain Bolt.
The Jamaican world 100 and 200m record-holder has yet to contest either distance this season, and his Glasgow participation remains problematic.
Tempting though it may be to deplore declining standards, it is irrefutable that commendable effort has gone into preparing this team.
Selectors are damned either way. A small team at a home Games would provoke scourging criticism, though for me the process has swung too far the other way.
The policy of relaxing standards after 11 medals in the 1986 and ’90 editions has been followed by just nine medals in the five Games since, with just one gold.
There are four eligible contenders in both men’s 1500m and women’s hammer, so there will be two very disappointed athletes come Thursday – perhaps more. At least eight competitors are chasing a crucial performance this weekend.
Normally, this would be at the national championships, and some may feel scottishathletics has missed a promotional opportunity by postponing these to August.
The governing body felt in a cleft stick. With the team announcement so early, championships would have to have been in late May which was rightly deemed unsuitable for the wider membership. August has recently proved popular with athletes, coaches, and clubs.
Some elite athletes would surely have opted to chase qualifying marks in better conditions abroad, risking accusations of devaluing the championships and exposing officialdom to “big-stick” insinuations if they insisted on attendance. Standards were made public more than two years past April and the 2013 outdoor and 2014 indoor championships fell within the qualifying period. No system is perfect, but I cannot recall a more sympathetic or athlete-friendly one. To their credit, scottishathletics has supported competitors in finding competition abroad. It seems only results at Hampden can condemn them now.
CLASS OF 86: Team Scotland comprised 57 athletics contestants in Edinburgh, a record about to be broken.