Ireland's Women's 4x100m Relay team of Marian Andrews-Heffernan, Michelle Carey, Joanne Cuddihy and Claire Bergin. INPHO/Morgan Treacy
London 2012

Ailis McSweeney: London may be tough, but sometimes the journey is just as hard

Ireland had their own selection headache ahead of the start gun on track tomorrow. But we’re not the only ones.

THE TRACK ACTION gets underway tomorrow in London, but the selection controversies have been raging for weeks in advance.

Standard Olympic Council policy dictates that a country may send up to three athletes who have achieved an ‘A’ standard time or that one ‘B’ standard athlete can be selected in any given event.

Sounds straightforward? Well, the Olympic track and field trials have already had their fair share of tribulations in countries with very varied selection methods and pools of athletes.

  • USA: The 100m showdown that never was

In the USA, the selection policy is as simple as it gets — first three over the line with the “A” standard head to London. Yet, at the USA Olympic trials, a dead heat for third place in the women’s 100m meant that Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh couldn’t be separated in the race for the final Olympic spot, although Tarmoh was initially declared the bronze medallist.

With no procedure in place to deal with such an occurrence, a coin toss or a run-off were the two options proposed. The athletes agreed to race again, however hours later Tarmoh conceded her spot to her training partner. Her decision has been the subject of much speculation given that Felix is a much bigger name in USA track but, according to Tarmoh, she felt robbed and would not have been at her best for the race. The most perturbing aspect of the controversy was that USA Track and Field overruled the initial call of the judge who read the photo finish and awarded the place to Tarmoh – he said that if he went back and read that photo 100 times, he would call it the same way every time.

  • Ireland: The Relay Saga

Ireland’s depth in track and field reflects our small population and it is rare to have more than two athletes qualified in any given event and only a small percentage of events will have any Irish representative. This circumstance, together with the edict of the Olympic Council of Ireland and Athletics Ireland that no “B” standard athletes would be sent, should have ensured that the potential for controversy regarding selection was non-existent. As it turned out there were only two events where a real decision was required, one of those was controversial but widely predicted (the women’s marathon) and the other descended into farce.

Last week’s counter appeal to the OCI by Catriona Cuddihy won her back the spot on the 4x400m team which had been given to Joanna Mills following an initial appeal to an Athletics Ireland Appeal Panel. The selection criteria and the lack of any weighting attached to the criteria for the relay places permitted the selectors an enormous degree of freedom in picking the team. In the end the OCI appeals committee did not decide on who, as a matter of athletic performance, should be selected. It was rather whether the selection criteria were applied rationally by those involved in choosing Cuddihy. In other words, the result did not find that the original selectors made the correct decision; it merely found that they had a rational reason for so deciding.

Introducing: Women’s 4x400m relay team

Errors of judgement were made by the initial selectors and administrative errors by the appeals panel — should it be this hard to get things right when a place at the core event in our athletics calendar is at stake?

  • Britain: Okoro’s Nightmare

Team GB make Olympic qualification a complicated affair. At the track and field trials, any athlete with a recent Olympic “A” standard who finished first or second was guaranteed selection.

An “A” standard athlete who finished top 8 in the 2011 World Championships would also have an Olympic berth reserved. To fill any other available places, a number of different factors could be taken into account at the discretion of the selectors. In the women’s 800m four different athletes had ran the “A” standard, three of whom took part in the trials – the fourth being multiple World and European medallist Jenny Meadows who has had major injury concerns this year. Olympic hopeful Marilyn Okoro took the 800m final out at an unsustainable pace and with that tactical error effectively damaged both her own chances of guaranteeing selection and those of the other athletes who tried to catch her before the finishing straight.

Lynsey Sharp, an athlete with a “B” time took advantage to win the trials. She followed the win with further medal success at the European Championships and was a shock selection for the Olympic team at the expense of the full complement of athletes who could have been selected in her stead. Their omission has been seen as severely weakening the team and has been question by former athletes Kelly Holmes, Steve Cram and Denise Lewis. It remains to be seen whether Sharp can justify her selection at the Games.

  • As an athlete, you worry about whether you are in favour with the selectors when it comes to major competition, whether the powers that be see the potential you know you possess when it comes to receiving government funding. Most athletes have the attitude that if you can run fast enough, and your time is displayed in black and white as the quickest of the bunch or within a standard that has been set down, then there is nothing external to that to put any restrain on your dreams.  The controversies surrounding selection for London 2012 have only served to show that there are no guarantees. Grey areas mean that individual discretion comes into play and the exercise of that discretion is a potential minefield of human error.  What selectors and policy-makers seems to lose sight of, both when making initial policy and when applying it, is that athletes lives, careers, dreams, blood, sweat and tears, are in their hands.

Ailis McSweeney is is the current Irish 100m record-holder. She will write for TheScore throughout the next week as well as working as an analyst for RT television.

Introducing… our Olympic expert for the London track action: Ailis McSweeney

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