How good is being an athletics selector?
Normally, you would have to say: “Very good indeed.” The inclusive policy adopted by Athletics Australia for the past decade and more, makes selection pretty much a tick-and-flick process. Win the national? Tick. Achieve the qualifying standard? Tick. Get offered a place via the hard-to-follow rankings system? Guess what? Yes, tick again.
And there’s one of the best seats in the stand at the national championships and all the pizza you can eat at the selection meeting.
That summation is a simplification, of course, though not an outrageous one. Perhaps a better job description is like that which applies to firefighters. Most of the time you’re sitting around the station, polishing the bell on the fire-truck and making sure everything is in working order. Every so often, though, the alarm goes off and, as Robin might say to Batman: “Holy Toledo, Batman. Towering Inferno!”
Jumping around with the analogies, if someone new to a selection panel asked me what to expect, my response would be along the lines of a weather forecast – “mostly fine, with isolated headaches.”
That would have been spot on this year. The selectors were presented with a monster of a migraine when it came to the three women to nominate for the 1500 metres at the world championships in Eugene and subsequent Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. The four comprised two Tokyo 2020 Olympic finalists – Linden Hall and Jessica Hull, Georgia Griffith, the third Olympic rep, and Abbey Caldwell, who could have been selected for the Olympics but was not, won the national championship.
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The national championships were the selection trials. In recent times, the national champion has been an automatic selection provided they can be selected via the automatic entry standard or the rankings system. Most – including, apparently, many within Athletics Australia – assumed that remained the case and that once Caldwell had gone to the US and achieved the 4:04.20 automatic qualifying standard, she would be in the team for Eugene.
What those making that assumption failed to notice, however, was an apparently minor change in the wording on automatic selection. Up until this year, the national champion had the full qualifying period (until 26 June this time) to get the standard. For Eugene, however, the relevant clause in the policy was amended to apply to “any athlete who wins the selection trial and has achieved the World Athletics standard prior to that trial (italics and emphasis mine) and within the qualification period.”
First thing I would say about that is that it also rules out of automatic selection an athlete who achieves the standard at the trial (the national championships) which surely was not intended.
Second thing to say about the women’s 1500 selection is that it was a rare case. It is not often than Australia has to make a selection in an individual event. Rarely do we have more than three individuals that we can pick. The rankings system is changing this a little, but it is still overwhelmingly the case.
Thirdly, with the trial winner not guaranteed a place, it was a difficult thing to rank the four, especially given Griffith had run 4:00.16, giving each of the other three a time gap over the national champion. In picking three, did you leave out the national champion, who defeated Griffith and Hall, one of our two Olympic finalists, or the third-fastest Australian woman all-time. There’s no easy way out of that one. Another possibility is that Hulls may have wished to run the 5000 at worlds and not double, but she was quite entitled to do both events.
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But the solution is messy, too. Caldwell wanted to run the world championships but gets to run the Commonwealths only, which contravenes what most people thought was the intent of the policy. As AA noted in its response to “intense social media speculation”, even someone within its staff mis-stated the policy. “We also apologise for miscommunication that occurred between an athlete and an AA staff member regarding automatic selection.”
It was a headache all round. What to do to avoid such a situation recurring in the future. First, the national championship (or trial, where it is not the championships) should retain its primacy. The winner should lock up a place in the team provided they can be picked at the end of the process. The trial is the only event specifically mentioned in the policy. Logically, it cannot mean everything if the winner has a qualifier, nothing if they do not.
Then there’s the matter of doubling. Athletes should be given to understand that if they wish to double then they should, where practicable, compete in both events at the national championship. If they choose not to, the selectors are entitled to take that into account in making any discretionary choices.
Limited changes and better communication may help but, occasionally, selectors and athletes are still going to be left with the mathematical reality that four (or five, or six) into three won’t go. A good problem for the sport to have, maybe, but a headache for the athletes involved – and the selectors.
This will not be the last occasion on which Australian selectors find they have more athletes qualified for an event than there are places available. I can think readily of two earlier cases. For a while in men’s pole vault in the early 2000s we had Dmitry Markov, Viktor Chistiakov, Steve Hooker and Paul Burgess to choose from and in women’s 200 in the run-up to Sydney 2000 Cathy Freeman, Melinda Gainsford-Taylor, Nova Peris and Lauren Hewitt all qualified and wanting to run in the Olympics. That one went to appeal before Freeman, Gainsford-Taylor (who both made the final) and Hewitt go the spots.
It’s all so simple in the USA where it’s 1-2-3 at the Trials and the rest can please themselves. But there’s always the relay. After sitting through an hour-long Barcelona 1992 Team USA press conference at which the only topic was whether Carl Lewis might be added to the 4×100 squad, I found myself talking to veteran Track & Field News correspondent Jon Hendershott. He was just as bemused at the futility of the previous 60 minutes as I was.
“I don’t know why we spend so much time arguing about the relay,” Hendershott remarked.
“But Jon,” I replied, “it’s the only selection issue you can argue about.”
Ultimately, Carl Lewis did run the relay, anchoring the US to a gold medal in world record time of 37.40 seconds.