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.)


Friday, August 08, 2008

Eddie 'the Eagle' Edwards: 2003 NPR Interview

On a related note, here's a 2003 NPR interview with Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards, on the subject of the IOC's crackdown on wild card participants who could not meet a minimum standard. Naturally, Edwards was against it. For my take on the issue -- basically, that the desire to participate was laudable, but it reinforced an image of last-place finishers as jokes -- see this entry from 2006; see also this entry from 2004.

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Wild Cards?

This article on the official Beijing Olympics site announces the wild card lottery winners for the one swimming event -- the 50-metre freestyle -- designated for the wildcard draw. I haven't had much luck in my attempts to find out more about this wild card lottery. The article says that it exists to help developing countries send athletes to the Games. There is apparently a Tripartite Commission that handles invitations under the wild card system, but I have yet to find a single Web page that explains what the Commission does. All I've found is references to the Commission in pages about various sports or national Olympic committees. The wild card system also seems to be limited to countries with very small delegations; several countries have discovered this when they tried to send their athletes to the Games under a wild card.

As I said, I'd like to know more about how this system works -- from what I can gather, it's about the only avenue left for, shall we say, noncompetitive competitors.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Qualifying Rules: Alpine Skiing

Last of a series looking at just how hard it is to get to the Olympics; see previous posts on biathlon and cross country skiing, ski jumping and nordic combined, speed skating, short track, snowboarding, figure skating, freestyle skiing, curling and hockey, and bobsled, luge and skeleton.

Alpine skiing has an "ideal number" of 270 rather than a hard quota; there is, however, a quota of 22 athletes per country (14 men or 14 women, maximum, and no more than four per event). Athletes in the first 500 places in the FIS league table can qualify (subject to the country quotas, I suppose), and in the downhill, combined and Super G events, they can't have more than 120 points (as of November 2005).

There's also a basic quota of one male and one female athlete -- basic quotas are the provisions that allow countries who might not otherwise qualify to send athletes. This is why you see athletes from unexpected countries in alpine skiing events; cross-country skiing also has a basic quota. However, like cross-country skiing, you do have to be competitive in the literal sense: no more than 120 points in the downhill-ish events, no more than 140 points in the slalom-ish events.

Whatever the hell the points mean; clearly, more is worse.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Qualifying Rules: Bobsled, Luge & Skeleton

Part of a series looking at just how hard it is to get to the Olympics; see previous posts on biathlon and cross country skiing, ski jumping and nordic combined, speed skating, short track, snowboarding, figure skating, freestyle skiing and curling and hockey.

If I'm going to talk about the Jamaicans not qualifying for Torino, then I should at least mention the qualifying rules for the sledding events.

Bobsled: A total quota of 170 athletes (135 men, 35 women) and a maximum of nine men and five women from each country. Countries earn spots on a per-pilot basis based on their performance in World Cup, European Challenge Cup, and North American Challenge Cup events: the World Cup results qualify 22 two-man, 20 four-man and 15 women pilots; the European and North American events provide four and two pilots, respectively, to the two-man and four-man events. The host country gets to enter a team in each event, as does each continent.

Luge: There is a total quota of 110 athletes -- 40 men, 30 women, and 20 doubles -- and a per-country quota of 10 (three men, three women, two doubles). Countries can fill their slots from the pool of qualified athletes; to qualify, athletes must either participate in five World Cup events and receive at least five points by the end of December, or score a certain number of points in a World Cup competition -- 10 for men, 20 for women, and 25 points for doubles.

Skeleton: A total of 45 athletes -- 30 men, 15 women -- can participate, with no more than five (three men, two women) from any one country. On the men's side, athletes from the top 12 countries in the World Cup qualify, plus the first eight athletes in the Challenge Cup; the women's pool is smaller: the top eight countries and the top four athletes, respectively. Add to that one each from the host country and one each from each continent that would otherwise go unrepresented.

These rules are complicated and I can't say that I understand them all. In particular, I'm not sure how national eligibility relates to individual eligibility in these events. But at least this indicates that there are basic qualifying standards to be met, and quotas. And presumably these have been in place long enough that the Jamaicans have actually met them from time to time.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Qualifying Rules: Curling and Hockey

Part of a series looking at just how hard it is to get to the Olympics; see previous posts on biathlon and cross country skiing, ski jumping and nordic combined, speed skating, short track, snowboarding, figure skating and freestyle skiing.

Now let's turn to two completely team-based sports in which my own country seems to expect to win all the time: curling and hockey.

In curling, a total of 10 teams qualify for each of the men's and women's competitions. One of these is Italy, as the host nation. The remaining nine countries are determined by the results from the World Curling Championships since the last Olympics.

In hockey, there are eight teams on the women's side and 12 on the men's side. In both cases, Italy qualifies automatically as the host nation. Most of the countries are determined by the IIHF world tables as of the 2004 championships -- the best eight men's teams and the best four women's teams qualify. The remaining three spots on each side are determined by whoever wins Olympic qualification tournaments -- the page doesn't say, but are these regional or continental qualifiers?

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Qualifying Rules: Freestyle Skiing

Part of a series looking at just how hard it is to get to the Olympics; see previous posts on biathlon and cross country skiing, ski jumping and nordic combined, speed skating, short track, snowboarding and figure skating.

Freestyle skiing is comprised of moguls and aerials. There is a total quota of 120 athletes for all events. No more than 14 athletes can come from any one country, and no country can send more than eight men or eight women. Countries can enter no more than four athletes in individual events, or one team in team events. But (unlike figure skating), athletes qualify, not countries: they do so "by obtaining at least 1.00 point in FIS World Cup competitions (first 30) or being in the first twenty-five on the FIS World Championship league table, during the qualification period of the event in question."

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Qualifying Rules: Figure Skating

Part of a series looking at just how hard it is to get to the Olympics; see previous posts on biathlon and cross country skiing, ski jumping and nordic combined, speed skating, short track and snowboarding.

In figure skating, countries are assigned spots rather than individual athletes qualifying themselves. Each country can have no more than three per event, but if memory serves the actual number they're entitled to send depends on their skaters' results in World Figure Skating championships. In the individual events, there is a quota of 30 skaters; in pairs there are 20 teams, in ice dancing, 24. Who gets sent -- i.e., how many slots are allocated to which countries -- is mostly determined via the World Figure Skating championships; a few spots are through an international senior qualifying competition, and one spot per event is reserved for the host country -- Italy, in this case (obviously).

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Qualifying Rules: Snowboarding

Part of a series looking at just how hard it is to get to the Olympics; see previous posts on biathlon and cross country skiing, ski jumping and nordic combined, speed skating and short track.

In snowboarding, there is a total quota of 140 athletes. No more than 14 athletes can come from any one country, no more than 10 of those can be of the same sex, and no more than four may be entered in any one event. But countries aren't allocated spaces that they can fill at will; athletes must qualify: "Qualification is obtained by being in the first 25 in a FIS World Cup competition or World Championship during the qualifying period of the event in question. The athletes are required to have a minimum of 120 points in the FIS snowboard league table in January 2006 for the event in question."

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Qualifying Rules: Short Track

Part of a series looking at just how hard it is to get to the Olympics; see previous posts on biathlon and cross country skiing, ski jumping and nordic combined, and speed skating.

Short track speed skating's qualifying rules are a little less straightforward. Quotas everywhere. First of all, there's a total quota of 110 athletes -- 55 men, 55 women -- and a national quota of 10 (five and five) per country if they're sending a relay team, or eight (four and four) if they aren't.

Each country gets a fixed number of athletes per individual event based on their athletes' performance in World Cup trials, and there are a maximum of 32 athletes per individual event. If you have three athletes in the top eight, you get three places; if you have two athletes in the top 32, you get two places; the rest are filled by the highest-ranked athletes from other countries until the quota of 32 per event is filled.

Only the top eight national teams participate in relay events -- and Italy, as host, is guaranteed a spot even if they aren't in the top eight. (Italy's a relatively strong short-track country, though.)

I'm amazed that they can make all these quotas agree with one another; surely there have to be conflicts here and there.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Qualifying Rules: Speed Skating

Speed skating is another winter sport with hard quotas: no more than 170 athletes -- 90 men, 80 women -- can attend the Olympics in this sport. Last year the ISU set out minimum qualifying times in each event -- you had to better that time in order to attend. If, however, too many skaters meet that standard, that qualifying time would be lowered to reduce the number of athletes who qualify.

Actually, there are two qualifying times, level A and level B. National Olympic committees can send a maximum of 20 athletes -- 10 men, 10 women. But if a committee wants to register more than one skater in a given distance, all must meet the tougher level A qualifying time. Otherwise, a single athlete may be entered in that distance if he or she meets the level B standard.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Qualifying Rules: Nordic Combined & Ski Jumping

Part of a series looking at just how hard it is to get to the Olympics; see previous entry. This time I'm looking at nordic combined and ski jumping -- both sports have quotas and a requirement that you be an active competitor outside the Olympics.

Nordic Combined: There is a total quota of 55 athletes; each country can send no more than six, enter no more than four in one event, and send only one team to the team events. Athletes in the world nordic combined league table qualify; others can participate if they've gotten a top-three finish in the FIS Junior World Cup table or a place in the top half of the World Cup "B" competition league.

Ski Jumping: There is a total quota of 75 athletes, with the same limits per country as with nordic combined. To qualify, athletes need to have points in the FIS Grand Prix or World Cup or "at least one point in the FIS Continental cross-country Cup during the qualification period." Eddie the Eagle doesn't live here any more.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Qualifying Rules: Biathlon and Cross-Country Skiing

As I mentioned earlier, one of the things I'm interested in exploring this time around is what it takes to actually qualify for the Olympics.

Though last-place novelty acts have frequently left the impression that it can be spectacularly easy to participate in some events (especially if you're from certain countries), this is not the case. Or at least it's no longer the case: I was aware, dimly, that the IOC et al. cracked down on such participation so that there will be no future iterations of Eddie the Eagle or Eric the Eel. And that sort of thing certainly didn't happen in Athens, much, I think, to the disappointment of some.

But this time I want to quantify it a bit. What does an athlete need to do to get to the Olympics, specifically? Over the course of the Torino Games, I'm going to take a look at the qualifying rules for the winter sports. In this post, I'm going to look at the biathlon and cross-country skiing.

The biathlon has a quota of 220 participating athletes; to qualify, competitors must have posted a good result in the European World Cup or the Junior World Championships, or have participated in a previous World Cup, World Championship, or Winter Olympics.

In cross-country skiing, there are no such caps on participation. It's a bit more open, but it's not open to all. Receiving 100 points in a FIS cross-country skiing competition is sufficient to qualify an individual athlete. In addition, each country can send one male and one female athlete under the basic quota system -- provided that athletes under the quota have obtained at least some FIS points (but not more than 200; presumably they'd qualify under the other rule) and have participated in at least five FIS competitions. So you don't have to be a top skier to participate under the basic quota, but you do have to be a legitimate competitive skier.

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