This past weekend, the Canadian Olympic Committee board of directors met in Toronto and began the process of setting the Olympic selection criteria for 2008. I thought that I would take the opportunity to comment on this issue, which received a lot of press this past summer.
For 2004, the COC applied a uniform "top 12" criterion in all non-team sports (team sports were exempt; Canada qualified only in baseball, softball, and women's water polo). That is, an athlete or crew had to demonstrate the ability to achieve a top twelve finish in their event at the Olympics. In many cases, this is significantly tougher than the qualification standards set by the international federations (IFs) in their respective sports.
The end result was that some athletes who had met their IF qualification standard were not quite good enough to make the Canadian team. Understandably, this caused some anger among the athletes. Top officials at some of Canada's national sport federations (NSFs), who had to apply the top 12 criterion in selecting their Olympic teams, were also unhappy.
Against Top 12
It wasn't difficult to find people who thought that top 12 was a bad idea this August. Some stories survive on the web:
"Top 12 is unfair"In the weeks before the Games started, there were two very well-written and personal articles posted on Runner's Web: one by Bruce Deacon, and another by Nicole Stevenson. These are two of Canada's top marathon runners. Canada was not represented in either Olympic marathon.
These two editorials typify the athlete's response to the COC standard; "If I'm the best in Canada, I should be at the Olympics; it isn't fair to set a tougher standard." This argument seems reasonable on its face, especially to the general public. However, I think that applying a uniform and tough standard is actually more fair than ceding the decision to the IFs.
For the 2004 marathon, the IF for athletics (the IAAF) raised the qualifying times and publicly encouraged national Olympic committees to send participants to Athens. This was designed to enlarge the field for the marathons, which of course have their historical roots in Greece. Williams picked up on Stevenson's story, in particular, and became one of her most prominent supporters. He stated several times on CBC television that the COC's refusal to send Stevenson was disgraceful.
What Williams and other journalists don't consider is whether this would have been fair to other Canadian athletes. Would it be fair to make an exception for the marathon, while other track and field athletes are left home for being unable to meet a tougher standard?
Similarly, would it be fair to allow a top 40 trap shooter to go to Athens, when the IF for rowing has set their field size much smaller? Sometimes different IFs set very different criteria. The top 12 standard allows the COC to ensure that athletes from different sports have to meet similar standards. That's only fair.
There is one important aspect of the top 12 standard which is unfair, and that is that it will not be applied to the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. If the top 12 standard is supported for the summer athletes as part of a broader plan to improve performance, then why shouldn't it be applied for winter athletes, too?
"Participation is what's important"Many newspapers, and some athlete advocacy organizations, made the argument that Canada should send as many athletes as they are allowed to send to the Olympics, because participation — not performance — is what's important.
There are many people in Canada who actually believe this, and I can understand that point of view. On the other hand, there are many others, particularly in the media, who want to have it both ways. They espouse participation and the "Olympic experience," but are first in line to criticize the Canadian sport system when Canada doesn't win lots of medals at the Olympics.
The top 12 standard was instituted by the COC as part of a bigger plan to achieve better performances at the Olympics. It is fair to criticize the COC for having the wrong goal, if that is what you believe. It is also fair to criticize this particular strategy as a means of achieving that goal. It is not fair, however, to criticize the goal and then to condemn the COC when the Olympic teams perform poorly.
"Top 12 stifles development"
Some critics have argued that the top 12 standard actually hinders athletes from making it to the elite level. The argument goes like this; a young but promising athlete, not able to make the top 12 cut, is denied an opportunity to compete at the Olympics. Without the opportunity to appear on the big stage, the young athlete's development is slowed or perhaps cut off altogether.
If true, then this would mean that the COC policy is actually going to contribute to poorer team performance at future Olympics. Although there is some logic to this argument, it is (as far as I know) unsupported by any analysis. Personally, I think that the positive effects of this kind of experience are overstated; but more study of this issue is required. So, I am going to do some, and I will post the results here when it is complete. It is possible that there is a case to be made here.
"Top 12 didn't work"Of course, Canada won only 12 medals at the 2004 Olympics. Many people, after the fact, will look at the medal table and conclude that the top 12 standard did not "work" in 2004. A closer look, however, reveals that the Canadian team was, in some ways, the best team that ever represented Canada. Canadians achieved more top 12 finishes and more top 8 finishes than ever before. It is not clear why this improved performance did not translate into an increased number of medals. I have some thoughts on this matter, and I am working on pulling some data together. It does deserve some more investigation.
In some cases the tough selection process is being used as an explanation for sub-par performances in Athens. For example, the swimming team did not perform well. Critics have noted that the final qualification opportunity was only five weeks before the Games, and that athletes who peaked for qualification had an unavoidable letdown in Athens. This probably is part of the reason for the poor performance in the pool, but I think that the root of this failure is poor management of the selection process. The timing of the selection events is partially in the control of the NSFs, and it is up to them to adjust their season schedule so that athletes can have the best possible preparation.
At any rate, as many people have pointed out in their criticisms of the policy, the application of a top 12 standard by itself cannot really be expected to lead to better performances. Cutting out the weakest athletes from the team will not logically improve the performances of the strongest athletes. What it does do, however, is allow a concentration of resources on those athletes with the best chances at medals. It reduced the cost of sending the Olympic team to Athens, which allows the COC to spend more money on the best of the best. This is one component of an overall shift towards a committment to high performance by the COC.