January 10, 2006

Selection Objectives

Earlier this week the Globe and Mail ran an article by Beverley Smith titled Different Criteria to Decide Figure Skating Berths. The article touches on a subject that has been on my mind lately, namely the way that athletes are selected to Olympic teams. Here are the first few paragraphs of the article, with emphasis added:

It's about to start, that darkest of all Olympic sports, the one featuring lawsuits and legal challenges from athletes who fail to qualify for an Olympic team, and who think they should.

Even so, it seems that some sport bodies are opting for more subjective criteria — naming teams after a group discusses the merits of its members — rather than strictly objective ones.

This week, for the first time, the Canadian figure skating championships in Ottawa will not be the only factor in choosing Canada's Olympic team. If defending Canadian champion Jeffrey Buttle has a bad day this week, it doesn't mean he will stay home to watch the Turin Games on television.

Now there's a clear inference here that there is something wrong with Skate Canada's Olympic selection criteria; that the criteria are too subjective, and that Jeffrey Buttle might be given some kind of a free pass if the nationals don't turn out the right way.

But I have a couple of problems with this argument. First of all, this has nothing to do with how objective or subjective the selection criteria are. Here are the relevant definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary:

subjective (adj.) 1(a) proceeding from or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external world: a subjective decision. 1(b) Particular to a given person; personal: subjective experience.
objective (adj.) 3(a) Uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices: an objective critic. 3(b) Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal.

So, hands up — who thinks that selection criteria for the Olympics should proceed from the minds of the selectors, rather than observable phenomena in the external world? Anyone? That's what I thought. The debate that is touched on in this article is not (for the most part) about subjective versus objective selection criteria, in my opinion; and if it was, it would be a pretty uninteresting debate.

In this particular instance, the real issue is whether performance at the Canadian national championships should be the sole objective selection criterion for picking the three men who will skate for Canada; and if not, then what else should be considered? (I'm assuming, for the sake of argument, that the judging at a figure skating competition is objective. Let's just pretend, so that I can apply the argument to other sports that really do have objective races or competitions.) As noted, in the past Skate Canada has used the Canadian championships as the only factor; there was only one opportunity to make the Olympic team, and no other performances could be taken into account.

On this issue, we could have a worthwhile debate. I would argue that Skate Canada is doing a wise thing by deciding not to base their selection on a single event. Buttle provides a good illustration. He's the defending world championship silver medallist, and currently leads the ISU's world rankings. In other words, in all of the international competitions in which he has skated this year, Buttle has objectively demonstrated that he is a potential Olympic medallist. Furthermore, he has objectively performed better than his Canadian competitors in international competitions, losing only once, to Emanuel Sandhu. Why not write selection criteria that allow you to take that into account?

Now, I don't know what Skate Canada's selection criteria actually say. They don't seem to be available on the web site. But there's nothing inherently wrong with using all of the objective evidence available, instead of just the final ranking at the national championships, as part of the decision-making process.

Some people will argue that if Buttle can't come up with a top-3 performance at the Canadian championships, then he probably can't handle the pressure of the Olympics; or that it isn't fair that somebody who beats him on Friday will have to watch him compete at the Olympics next month. I don't buy the argument that a one-shot, winner-take-all selection gives you a better Olympic team, or that it is inherently more fair, but it's debatable.

The US Figure Skating Association is also holding a national Figure Skating Championships, and just like in Canada, the event will be used to make Olympic selections. The Globe piece has this to say:

The U.S. championships in St. Louis this week will also take a similar path, although its team will be chosen on a partially objective basis: Anybody who wins the senior U.S. title automatically gets to go to the Olympics. A cumbersome international committee of 36 members, each with one vote, will decide who fills the other Olympic berths.

Well I suppose you could say that this is "similar" to the Canadian process, since in each case there is a committee responsible for making the final selections. But really, this sounds like it is about as far in the wrong direction as you could possibly go. The 36-member committee is composed of "athletes, coaches, judges and board members." Now it's possible that those 36 interested parties carefully evaluate the athletes' objective performances against the selection criteria before they vote; but it's far more likely that this plays out just about like the Olympic host city election, or the Olympic programme vote. This is simply too many people — so many that nobody has any real responsibility for the selection.

The most controversial decision that the committee will have to make will be with respect to five-time world champion Michele Kwan. Kwan has decided that she will not be able to compete at nationals due to an injury. Instead, she will petition to be included on the US team in Turin, on the basis of … well, that's where the objective part would come in, you would think. Kwan herself has said, "I feel I am one of the three best skaters in America," and it would be hard to come up with a more subjective statement than that.

The central problem is that Kwan has basically been injured for the whole season, competing only once: columnist Philip Hersh described it as a "decidedly underwhelming performance with no clean triple jumps at a meaningless, made-for-TV event." (Hersh nevertheless argues forcefully that Kwan "deserves" to be on the Olympic team, but can't really hide the fact that this would be a purely subjective decision. He's reduced to a nomination based on reputation alone, arguing that Kwan is "bigger than her sport," and denigrating her potential replacements.) As a further wrinkle, Kwan has apparently signed on as the lead Olympian in Coke's 2006 Olympic advertising campaign. As SI.com asks, "Do you think being the centerpiece of the ad campaign of perhaps the Olympics' most prominent sponsor will help or hurt her chances of being named to the U.S. team?" Kwan's marketing power might be an objective fact, but probably not one the USFSA should use in this case.

Olympic selection doesn't have to be based on a single, winner-take-all event to be objective. If Jeffrey Buttle, for some reason, finishes a close fourth at nationals and still makes it to Turin, I won't have a problem with that. But the USFSA selection process is a good example of what everybody is afraid of when they hear the words "selection committee."

No comments: