Olympic Selection Series: No Nepotism, Favouritism Nor 1001 Cunning Plans, Please

Gary Hall - a swimmer who knew precisely what he had to do on his way to Olympic glory: finish top 2 at USA trials - as simple as it is hard - by Patrick B. Kraemer

The following offers highlights some of the key issues at the heart of Olympic selection policies that vary the world over, including a lack of clarity in nations that fall shy of setting a reasonable and fair standard across all events and fall shy of objectivity

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The following offers highlights some of the key issues at the heart of Olympic selection policies that vary the world over, including a lack of clarity in nations that fall shy of setting a reasonable and fair standard across all events and fall shy of objectivity



“In principle”, I fully agree with what you have set out however the hard reality is that you would need to flesh these “principles” out somewhat in order to have the greatest possible clarity. However certainly no more “War And Peace” sequels LOL !

Principles One and Two: The question is not only what “benchmark” are you setting (eg. top 8-10 in World for previous year) but whether you apply it universally across the board or whether you take an event by event approach taking into account your “program’s” current level of international competitiveness in each event ?

With one, you bring into play the possibilities of considerably smaller team for which one can certainly mount a very worthy argument. The counter-argument is that you are leaving at home swimmers who are very much tracking the right way but may’ve just missed what may’ve been a very stringent QTs. Both can be argued.

Principle Three: Am in complete accord. My suggested benchmark for “Star” is someone who was an individual medallist in this specific event at the previous year’s Worlds.

Principle Four: Agree with regards to “bumping” however there SHOULD be due provision for event swapping in the period post Trials but before final ratification. However the process must be fully above board and no hint of coercion.

Principle Five: Fully agree that there should be no reason for such clauses to take on the dimensions of the Old Testement either in size or in tone. However, you do have some naïve swimmers/athletes; people managing their affairs who really couldn’t run a bath; unscrupulous businesses looking for cheap publicity AND, regrettably, that very small percentage of competitors who disgrace themselves.

Lawyers WILL seek to find any contractual loophole or oversight present ….. and drive a convoy of trucks through it. Hence attempts to tick every box/cover off every eventuality.

Principle Six: No cunning plans ??? Drats; there goes my campaign to nominate Baldrick as next El Presidente of SAL !


Should Olympic Games were about sport and sportspersons only then there would be no problems with the selection process. It would be up to them (athletes) to decide that either by the decisive face-off races or by any other professionally proven ranking system accepted by swimmers. No exceptions or excuses will be taken under consideration and no tribunals will be needed. If Ledecky e.g., misses the final race because she didn’t sleep well after hot date or she was unavoidably detained or she got a stomach flu generously given her by the maid who made her bed in the hotel then the only thing we can say to sweet somehow the bitterness of the situation would be “S’est la vie” or “Life is not fair” or whatever. By skipping the 200 fs final Sarah Sjostrom gave away the Champion title. By losing unexplainably to the veteran who’s never been to quarterfinals before Serena Williams missed the historical Grand Slam. But in both cases there are no complaints of unfairness. “There would be no questions asked, because that is the business they’ve chosen 🙂 “
But when the Pride of the Motherland comes to the picture than the situation with the selection process changes dramatically. Who better then officials or people with the highly developed sense and deep philosophical understanding of fairness know how the country has to be represented at Olympic Games? Let them to decide. They control the money and the moral of the society, and that is when a big words like “PRINCEPLES” come up to pretend that some compromise can be found. But they are only making the situation worse.
If the author of this article believes that big words come automatically with big ideas and that he said something new that will resolve forever the FAIRNESS problem, then this article is not an example of such case. The ABC at grammar school or books for elderly people with declining cognitive abilities are the places for BIG WORDS. I strongly believe that visitors of this site are somewhere in between.
P.S. It would be nice if the Editor introduces his guests. Who is Clive Rushton?

Craig Lord

Yozhik, he is a real person with a real name (unlike most commentators): he is a British coach who has led New Zealand (a challenge in itself for anyone right through to the best) and worked in several places overseas; he is someone who understands swimming, the politics of swimming and has long dealt with and had to work with the vagaries and shenanigans of politics in sport. I hope that’s introduction enough for you.
If something is wrong, concerning, troubling, in need of improving, unfair etc, etc, it is right to write about it, regardless of whether it will produce an instant improvement or not. As such I don’t follow your argument on that point at all. Perhaps it is cultural.
As for big words, I wasn’t aware he was using any: he wrote in plain English, his native language and the language of this site. I don’t think you should judge others on their abilities in their own language, no offence intended. I am not a supporter of dumbing down. We should all aspire to know more not less, improve not fall backwards into comfort all the time because it suits someone who knows less 🙂 … again, no offence intended and that last comment not intended to be personal or pertain to you, Yozhik, lest you should think it so.


Thank you Craig for responding on my comments in such a nice manner. The association with features of particular animal sometimes says more about someone’s personality than first and last name. A common wombat and a yozhik (hedgehog) took the topic more seriously than Mr. Rushton.
There is nothing cultural in my response. In the multifactor systems the decision making process in most cases is based on expert decision. The expert approach can be organized in many ways and can be supported by different direct but not conclusive measurements that can be or can be not taken under consideration. I personally believe that this is the way how the selection process for the OG has to be run. The real expert can better assess the chances of particular swimmer taking into account current performances, presence or absence of tapering process, swimmer’s historical records and experience, personality etc. Of course there can be drawbacks of such process especially when very little is known about swimmer. Ledecky e.g. could easily miss London OG. But that is the definition of an expert – the ability of making right decision having limited information or giving small details the correct interpretation.
If you don’t like an expert system then go with something simpler but strictly determined where human opinion doesn’t count. I think that such approach is a less optimal selection process and is more random, but if it is accepted by swimmers there would be less “fairness” issues.
When someone begins mixing these two approaches we get problems.
I don’t like word “principle”. For me it sounds like something very important that regulates human behavior. Like taboo. I take it as a big word that I will not use should I write an article to make it look more sophisticated and important than it is. THIS my interpretation can be cultural.

Craig Lord

It depends how you apply it and why a principle becomes a ‘law’ or tradition, if you like, whether that is for a Games selection or a stand that protects us all and serves the betterment of a given situation, Yozhik (far more cultural than the things we’ve both applied that word to so far in this thread). Like so much in the world, application can be as dark as it can light, abuse of such things always possible and in some cases most likely to rear its head. Clive is making a good point: down the years far too many young folk in swimming have been left off teams for no particular good reason beyond a thumbs up, thumbs down that requires little or no expertise, in the same way as two swimmers who finish in precisely the same place at a world titles find themselves either side of a funding line, one gets thumbs up, one thumbs down. The expertise that goes in to such things is dubious to say the least – and when that is the case it needs to be highlighted. In many cases when it comes to the O Gs, Yozhik, one swimmer ends up on a team not because they are the best in their country but because their parents have the right connections back home. In such cases – and thinking along similar lines – “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour or for a chain of reasoning” may not always be a bad thing to lean on: in other words, a principle.
Apply it to your Ledecky scenario and the USA, a nation that sticks to a form of principle every four years and gains from that Olympic cycle after Olympic cycle: sudden death trials. There is no expert opinion required to get Ledecky to her blocks: she finishes top 2, she’s all but on the blocks and certainly on her way to wearing Stars and Stripes and in with a shot at a medal at least, and a strong shot at gold in the mix, that being the nature of a great many US selections for many generations. Where her thumbs up, thumbs down is clear to all 20 years in advance if the system holds as it has, that applied to many in world swimming is far, far less clear cut and may depend not on expertise but on the mercy of folk in purple robes leaning on everything from poorly worded clauses and conditions to the Emperor’s New Clothes who might benefit from the application of a little principle.


I, too, have no issue with Clive’s means of expression. His various “principles” are essentially a framework for constructing a selection policy; rather than a selection policy in itself.

As I stated above, the reality is that they would need to be “fleshed out” more however there is no real reason that the policy should end up the size of a phone book; take as long to read as War and Peace nor should it require a lawyer to interpret.

Craig is correct with regards to nepotism in Olympic selection which may still exist but is much less prevalent than 30-40 years ago. The Caribbean nation of Haiti was infamous for its sending “non athletes” to the Olympics during the years of the infamous Duvalier regime.

The practice of the various international federations setting universal qualification standards has not always been universal and has generally only been in place for the past 2-3 decades; mainly as a response to cases like the Haitians.

Craig Lord

“no real reason that the policy should end up the size of a phone book; take as long to read as War and Peace nor should it require a lawyer to interpret” – quite so, CWombat

clive rushton

“Who is Clive Rushton?”

My thoughts exactly 🙂


@commonwombat: You probably don’t know why “War and Peace” is called a masterpiece. This stupid joke about its size is well accepted by those who get sweated after reading two pages of any book and checking immediately on how many pictures the book has. Like in the case with classical music the reading and understanding this chef d’oeuvre requires some trained intellect. In order to avoid embarrassment stick with the phone book in your examples.


@Clive Rushton. Having thoughts is always very good and I am looking forward to see them in your next publications. By being an experience coach you probably have something valuable to share. But please don’t ask Craig to endorse your article at preface, because it indeed looks like Andersen’s “Emperor’s New Clothes” suggesting that the following will have some thoughts and shame on readers if they wouldn’t find such.


@Craig: I have no objection to what you said and nobody will. But the unfairness and abusing of the power is not the point of this discussion. No selection system can be protected from that. It is bad and has to be fought against and no one argues with this general statement.
I took Mr. Rushton’s article as the approach (“principles”) to build the selection process that will give optimum performance at time of OG. From this technical point of view I’ve found proposed system of no practical or scientific value. I pretty much sure that no nations will follow his “principles”.
If I misunderstood the purpose of this article and it was about preaching and bringing philosophical insights on what the fairness means then I leave it to your judgement of how good it is.


@Craig: The “expert” selection system suites best the well-developed swimming communities. The major reason why USA stays with sudden death trials is because it is cheaper and because it encapsulates simple “principle” that I learned from military people – “the injustice is better than disorder”. If the budget allows to assign three experts for one and half year to monitor the pool of 25-30 swimmers in each discipline and if they value their reputation and are paid properly to withstand the corruption temptation and if they have access to all information regarding swimmers’ medical records and their training processes then I am sure they will select the best team possible. Such a system won’t select Heemskerk to swim 200m and 100m at same meet should they have someone with stable flat 1:56.
Is it worth money to be that accurate with the best team? Not really unless the sport achievements are used for political purposes. So the sudden death trials being less accurate selection system is still acceptable from the USA OC’s point of view.

Craig Lord

Yozhik, War and Peace is like ‘raining cats and dogs’; it is not an insult, it is merely something synonymous with ‘a fat book’ (sometimes it is used to indicate a challenge, too)

Craig Lord

Yozhik, Clive neither asked for anything nor did I endorse in the manner you suggest. I lifted his comment and placed it on my website, that a form of endorsement if you like. The only person suggesting the reader should feel one way or another is you, alas.

Craig Lord

” abusing of the power is not the point of this discussion. No selection system can be protected from that.” Yes, it can. The USA: stand up, finish 1-2 (even within a time, or not), all goo with anti-doping … and you go. That’s a form of avoiding abuses of power, Yozhik

Craig Lord

Such a system delivers winners, Yozhik; and that is what the Olympics is about – participation for many – winning for the winners. There is no injustice in being asked to turn up to a trial that will decide your fate; a trial on the calendar for a long, long time. Swimmers and coaches and others know what they must do. It seems pretty fair to me. And even where we may feel ‘wow, that seems unfair’, like Pablo Morales 1988 and all that, the response, experience and journey of the athlete in question is part of the lore and lay of swimming and a measure of the man/woman and his/her will to let business go unfinished or set the mind – and body – to another outcome. Nor is there disorder in abuse in its various forms: it can be very much premeditated and planned, that being the nature of the masquerade.


Yozhik, FYI I happen to have read War And Peace a couple of times, understood it and enjoyed it. As Craig stated to you, it is often used as an example of a text that is long and “heavy going” when it comes to reading.

Please do not jump to assumptions of people’s education, interests attainments when you have no knowledge of them. I’ve probably read as many if not more of the literary “classics” than you have ……. and by the way my music tastes lean far more to classical than 90% of what’s produced these days.

I get it that you do not like me; that’s fine. However, I have never “sniped” or attacked you. Indeed the only person here that I have taken issue with was Roy. Feel free to disagree with what I may post or my views; I enjoy an honest exchange of views but please leave the personal attacks out.


Apologies the digression above, I just felt that the series of recent snipes warranted a response. Please feel free to remove it and these prefacing remarks if you see fit.

As to the question of which selection process to choose; subjective judgement or “sudden death” Trials; I feel that this will depend on the depth of talent in your country.

If, as is clearly the case in many countries, you may only have one/a couple of swimmers of international class then it is a no brainer that, conditional to them being fit and healthy and swimming a FINA A time during the allotted time period; you will select them. End of story.

There is nothing scientific, rigorous or subjective about “sudden death” and therein lies half its charm to sporting officials. The other half is that in taking out the “subjective” quotient; it takes the lawyers (and claims of discrimination) largely out of the picture !

The issue with “sudden death”, to my mind is “does it result in the right swimmers being selected ?” Barring those nation(s) fortunate enough to be able to hold their Trials as close to the major event as possible and get waivers over the close of nominations date; this requires swimmers to taper and peak twice a year; not all can manage this.

Whilst we on this page often highlight the “serial tourists in the AUS team; this is not purely an AUS phenomena as probably all major swimming nations have their quota of swimmers who swim fast at the National meet but are perennial non performers internationally.

What explains this ? There are always cases where coaches and swimmers may have their preparations compromised by illness or injuries. Coaches and swimmers can misjudge their tapers. But when the same faces crop up with the same performance pattern year after year; there is reason to question why and how can this be reduced.

Sometimes people just cannot handle the “main arena”. Is it a question of mindset with some – “I’ve made the team, got a trip to Olympics/Worlds etc” and look upon this as the achievement in itself ? Do we need to give discretion to the likes of National Head Coaches/High Performance Managers to be Judge/Jury and Executioners on some people’s careers – horrible as this sounds ?

I have no “one size fits all” solution to put forward; I do not believe that such things exist. I do think that nations need to tailor policies in line with their own realities. However, just sticking with something that is the most procedurally “expedient” is not always the right course when the results suggest “the return on investment” is not paying anywhere near what it should.

Craig Lord

I agree with the general sentiments and the posing of the questions you raise, CWombat. SD has worked well for the USA but is not appropriate for the majority of swim nations. The ‘serial tourist’ scenario is a difficult one, for while a pattern may evolve in a particular career, one which almost certainly tells us that the swimmer will not be at their best come the big one, how to select others ahead of that swimmer if they can’t get past the ‘serial tourist’ in domestic waters? There are ways to cope with such things, by linking season to season to season, by running multiple trial moments – and some nations do try to find ways of assessing season-long performance.
It does indeed come down to tailoring policies to suit realities, which is fine as long as it is as fair and transparent as it possibly could be, including the responsibilities of head coaches/performances directors for the decisions they take and judgments they make.
Accepting responsibility is an important factor in success. The swimmer must take it, the coach should take it … but the sport of swimming is governed by people who stay for decades and never take responsibility for anything. Their world turns on a cocktail and a crab sandwich.

Jay Ryan

Here’s an idea.
1) Stage a selection meet.
2) The top two go if they have achieved the FINA cut.

No politics, no purple robes, no judgement, no nonsense. Not exactly “War and Peace”. The FINA cuts are tough enough to include those with a fighting chance of making semifinals or finals.

Thank you

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