Celebrating last-place finishes at the Olympics. Because they're there, and you're not.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Getting to the Games: A Reality Check

A common misconception -- a result, no doubt, of the countless stories about Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel -- is that it's not that hard to qualify for the Olympics, if you pick your sports and countries shrewdly. Consider, for example, Melody's naïve question on Ask Metafilter:
I'm 24. Let's say I wanted to have a shot at the Olympics, in any sport, at some point in the future. Are my chances over? Is there a sport I could start now, dedicate the next few years to, and become good enough to be a contender? What sport should that be? (I'm not picky.)

I was thinking about this. I don't have a sports preference. I like to rollerblade and hula-hoop. I can train a decent amount. I'd put in a heck of a lot of time. But are my Olympic dreams dashed, because I'm too late?
The short answer is, yes, it is too late, but let's not be too hard on Melody. Most of us, who tend to ignore the Olympic sports except when the Olympics are on, don't realize what goes into training for them. Adam van Koeverden, the Canadian who won silver in the men's 500-metre K1, was asked in a CBC interview whether he'd be back for 2012; his response -- that he'd be back for international competitions in 2009, 2010 and 2011, too -- was a good one. Olympic athletes don't go back into the freezer when they're done.

During the 2006 Winter Games, I embarked on a study of the qualifying rules -- how hard, I wanted to know, was it to qualify in each sport? As it turned out, very hard. Quotas on the total number of competitors per event. Minimum standards, including a certain number of points earned in international competition. And, even in the more open events, a basic requirement that you be a bona fide competitor with a record of participation. (I didn't have time to check the summer events this time around, but I imagine the situation would be similar; apart from the wild card lottery, which is very limited in scope, it's very very hard to get to the Olympics.)

Part of the problem is that it's hard to recognize something as hard when the athletes make it look effortless. A reality check is clearly in order. Here's a good one: Five Projects in Five Days decided to compare the results of "average Joes" with Olympic athletes in five events: 100-metre freestyle swimming, long jump, 100-metre dash, 110-metre hurdles, and gymnastic rings. The results are absolutely enlightening: they were twice as slow, jumped half the distance, and only one of them could even get up on the rings.

The other part of the problem is that the Olympics are like an iceberg: nine-tenths of it is invisible. What people don't see is the gruelling, lifelong training -- the hard slog just to qualify. So You Wanna Be an Olympian? by Kathryn Bertine is instructive. She's a former figure skater and triathlete. She spent two years trying to qualify in cycling (which ESPN followed), even taking out dual citizenship when she couldn't qualify for the U.S. team. In the end, she couldn't. You'll want to read this one.
I am not upset. I am not sad. I am not angry. I do not have the impulse to kick or throw anything. I did not make the Olympics ... and honestly, I think that's awesome.

No one, myself included, should be able to make an Olympic team with less than two years of experience. If that starts happening, we need a new Olympics. Maybe 20 years ago a few "fringe" sports had so few competitors it was "easier" to qualify for the Olympics. But not today. There is not one sport on the Olympic roster that is easy -- trust me, I've tried them all -- nor underpopulated. Even if there were, it still wouldn't matter. Sports, especially women's sports, have progressed on such a worldwide basis that making any national team no longer ensures an athlete a berth in the Olympics. A common misconception: Because I received dual citizenship from St. Kitts and Nevis, I would automatically go to the Olympics. But with 161 nations and more than 700 female riders registered with the Union Cycliste International, there is no way to get to the Games without experience, hard work, dedication, qualifying points and what Coach Gord perfectly summarized as "paying your dues."

At El Salvador's airport, I ask Marianne Vos, the 21-year-old world champion, when she started racing. "When I was 5," she says, "I have been doing this for 16 years." That is one year for every month of my experience. Those are some well-paid dues. Look for her on the podium in Beijing.
(Vos finished sixth in the road race, 14th in the time trial, and won the gold medal in the points race.)

That's what you're up against.

Via Kottke. (I've been saving this one.)



  • At 11:57 AM, August 23, 2008 , Blogger Jay said...

    I think one of the turning points for Olympic qualifying was the Jamaican bobsled team era. There were a LOT of nontraditional countries that threw together bobsled and luge teams in the late 80s and early 90s in order to get to the Olympics - it seems like that's where the calls to tighten up the standards began.

  • At 11:46 AM, August 26, 2008 , Anonymous Electric Landlady said...

    Great post! Bertine's whole series is fascinating (and also very funny). Thanks for posting it.


Post a Comment