Designing the Olympic Selection Process

<strong>The men's race begins at the 2006 Beijing ITU World Cup event.</strong><br><br><em>AP Photo/Color China Photo</em>

This column is a continuation of our series on the path triathletes take toward competing in the Olympic Games. While helping American athletes reach the start line is an admirable goal, it is certainly not the only objective the national governing bodies (NGB) have in mind.

Frankly, the ultimate goal of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and U.S.A Triathlon (USAT) is to win medals at the Olympic Games. Gold medals, of course, are the most desirable. Everyone loves a winner, including sponsors.

Each sport designs its own selection process. A selection process can be objective (place at a specific race or overall world ranking, for example), subjective (selection by NGB coaches or a panel of experts) or a combination of objective and subjective criteria. However, the selection process must be approved by the USOC.

Key Considerations for a Selection Process

I have been on two selection process committees for USAT. The first time was for the 2004 Games and the second was for the original process for the 2008 Games. Current selection committee members are listed at the bottom of the document titled, "USATs Amended Selection Criteria."

A partial list of key issues considered by the selection committee when designing the original process included:

  • Design a process that is fair.
  • Consider athletes that have proven performances at an international level.
  • Take into account athletes that are performing very well in the months near the Games and these athletes may be new, young stars.
  • Bear in mind the possibility of mechanical failure or early-season injury leaving a potential medal winner at home, rather than on the team.
  • Selection races should closely mimic the Olympic Games course and race conditions in as many aspects as possible.

Selection Process Options

I haven't seen a perfect selection process yet—not for the sport of triathlon, in any country, or for any sport. Each process has pros and cons.

World Rank

Some would argue to simply take the top three athletes, as ranked by the International Triathlon Union's World Rankings as of a set date. This certainly rewards consistency, by may miss the mark for a fast, new athlete on the ranking charts. It also does not consider course specifics for the Games.

A Single Trials Event

Others may argue to have a single trials race, like U.S.A. Swimming. If an athlete can perform under the heavy pressure of a trials situation, then they can certainly perform at the Games. This sounds good on the surface, but swimming does not have the athlete interaction during competition that triathlon does. There is drafting during the swim and bike legs. Team tactics on the bike can influence the results of the event. These "teams" formed during the event may or may not include members from the same country.

Let me expand on that last idea a little more. Those of you familiar with cycling know that in races like the Classics and the Tour de France, individuals from different teams may form an alliance on the road to break away from the peloton. They work together to create a big lead in front of the peloton and, if it all goes well, there is no in-fighting and all are equal contributors to leading the group. Shortly before the finish line, the cyclist with the most left in their legs wins the sprint.

For triathlon, of course, the race isn't over and a run is yet to come. If a U.S.A. trials race is also an important race for all countries—such as a World Cup Race, a World Championships or a test event (like the late-2007 Beijing World Cup Race)—then other countries have a stake in the event as well, more closely mimicking the actual Games.

If the race is a U.S.A. test event and has little or no relevance to other countries, there are some risks. One risk is that only American athletes show up to the event, decreasing the pro field and hurting the prestige (and competitiveness) of the race. A second risk is that foreign athletes can be hired to work for a U.S.A. Olympic team hopeful. Yes, I'm saying athletes could arrange their own domestiques for the trials race.

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