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

The Herald - Herald Sport - - COMMONWEALTH GAMES. 46 DAYS TO GO - DOUG GIL­LON

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.

Pic­ture: Getty

CLASS OF 86: Team Scot­land com­prised 57 ath­let­ics con­tes­tants in Ed­in­burgh, a record about to be bro­ken.

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