Olympic selection dilemmas

01 June 2012

Rob Hamblin

In the past two weeks the nomination decisions of national governing bodies (NGBs) in Olympic sports have received unprecedented media attention, with decisions in fencing and taekwondo coming under particular scrutiny.

Although Great Britain’s NGBs are well versed in selecting participants, the fact that this year’s Games take place in London has had two significant effects. Firstly they have been entitled to nominate athletes for ‘Host Nation Places’. These are in effect wildcards and allow NGBs to select additional athletes who (as a general rule) would not otherwise have qualified ‘by right’ (i.e. by winning a particular event, or attaining a minimum world ranking / time). NGBs have therefore had to develop their existing selection policies to deal with the allocation of these additional places. Secondly, competing on home soil represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any athlete. The stakes for those in contention are therefore higher, the media coverage more intense, and challenges from those left disappointed more likely.

The first consideration for any NGB trying to translate the basic aim of winning medals into a selection policy is whether to adopt an objective or subjective approach. Unfortunately for NGBs, as demonstrated below, this can often translate into a choice between maximising the chances of success and minimising the chances of a challenge.

Objective/Subjective

The main benefit of an objective selection procedure is that it provides certainty of outcome for all athletes subject to it.

By way of example, a NGB in athletics may hold a track and field meet and state that whoever finishes first and second in each event will be nominated for the Olympics. Each athlete knows exactly what they need to do to qualify and, provided each event is conducted according to its particular rules, there are unlikely to be any (successful) challenges to the decisions that follow.

However, just as an objective procedure provides certainty of outcome to athletes, so it ties the hands of NGBs. Imagine for example that the Jamaican Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA), adopt the above approach and a week before the meet takes place Usain Bolt suffers a minor injury and is unable to compete (but would be fit in plenty of time to compete in London). Under the terms of their selection policy, the JAAA are obligated to send the sprinters who finish first and second and any attempt to select the current world and Olympic 100 and 200 metre champion would be particularly vulnerable to a challenge.

The main benefit of a subjective selection procedure is that it allows NGBs to protect against this risk by giving selectors discretion as to who to nominate. At the extreme end of the spectrum, a subjective selection policy would simply state that the NGB will decide, although a more common position would be to specify a range of things that will be taken into account when making decisions.

However this freedom to choose comes at a price. Even if the express wording of the policy says the NGB will decide in its complete discretion, decisions of NGBs are subject to the requirements of natural justice and must therefore be made fairly, without bias or prejudice and taking into account all (and only) relevant considerations. This in turn opens up the possibility that nomination decisions will be challenged by an athlete who believes the process was unfair (as we have seen recently). Furthermore, even where decisions are subsequently upheld, the negative media publicity and ill-feeling amongst those involved in the sport can still be detrimental to the NGB involved.

Conclusion

At a basic level, NGBs, their athletes and the public have the same aim; namely they want to maximise the success of Great Britain at the Olympics. However it is when the NGB tries to translate this basic aim into a selection procedure that problems can arise. Add to this the fact that many NGBs (particularly in smaller, amateur sports which revolve almost entirely around the Olympics) rely on part time staff and volunteers to draft and conduct their selection procedures and it is perhaps not surprising that decisions have been challenged.

It is clear that London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games has provided NGBs with a unique set of circumstances. However, what is equally apparent is that athletes have realised (perhaps as never before) that the decisions of their NGB are open to challenge and it may well be that appeals against these decisions are not confined to this year’s Games.