DERVAL O'ROURKE: So near yet so far: The fine lines on the road to Rio

The Olympic Games is just weeks from kicking off. There has been so many negative stories leading into this Olympics but one thing has remained the same as every other Olympics: a place on any Olympic team in track and field is something to be cherished.

All around the world, there are the athletes that made their national teams and the athletes that did not.

For every athlete that is happily sharing their team selection on social media, there are 10 others dealing with the realisation that their Olympic dream is over. My twitter and instagram feeds are flooded with pictures of athletes picking up their gear as they ready themselves for Rio.

Yet it’s the posts from the athletes that didn’t make it that tend to resonate more with me. Chasing the Olympic dream is a cruel journey for many.

The reality is that qualifying for an Olympic Games is incredibly hard. In Ireland, there is a set standard that you must achieve within a certain qualifying period (May 1, 2015 until July 11, 2016 for these Games).

This standard is determined by the international federation — the number of athletes that are allowed per event is just one of the factors that influences the standard.

The Irish team is made up of 17 athletes. These are the athletes that hit the standards within the qualifying period and are considered in the top three in their event nationally. A name not on the list is 400 metre hurdler Christine McMahon. Just a few days ago McMahon smashed her personal best and ran faster than the Olympic qualifying standard — sadly the performance came five days after the deadline.

And five days is a very small amount of time in a four year Olympic cycle.

The United States have a different approach. Their policy is that the first three athletes across the line with the international standard at the Olympic trials will make the team. There is no discretionary place for athletes that might have a bad day. You are either top three or you don’t go.

Though it is unforgiving I really like the way the US selects their team. It is fair and athletes know exactly what they need to do and when they need to do it. The decision is not made by a panel of selectors behind closed doors. It is a very straightforward system. If you want to compete for the strongest team in the world, you need to be ready to step up and nail a performance at the Olympic trials.

The US system largely replicates the Olympics themselves. If an athlete has a bad day at the Olympics, they need to wait four years to try again.

One of the toughest events at the US trials is the women’s 100 metre hurdles. At least eight of the competitors can challenge to win an Olympic medal yet only three can qualify to run for the United States. Keni Harrison is the world number one and the second fastest hurdler of all time. Harrison will not be on the start line in Rio.

Harrison didn’t nail her race at the Olympic trials and finished sixth, leaving her to rue the missed opportunity. The US team will be made up of Brianna Rollins, Kristi Castlin, and Nia Ali. All took their opportunities at the trials and ran amazing races. Suffice to day they all have an excellent chance of winning a medal in Rio.

Olympic team selection nearly always creates debate. The British approach is one that most athletes find difficult to agree with. If you have the standard and finish in the top two at the trials, you will gain automatic selection but if you are third you must depend on the selectors to decide your Olympic fate.

If the British selectors feel that you are of Olympic medal standard they will wave their magic wand and grant you a ticket to the Games. But they also have the power to deny you a place. The British selectors are content to leave an empty space in an event that a British athlete has qualified for rather than send someone (they believe) will not win a medal.

Deciding that non medallists are not worthy of selection is, in my opinion, a terrible approach. I competed at three Olympic Games, I did not win a medal but I’m proud of myself for making three Olympic teams and standing on the start line as an Irish Olympic athlete.

Allison Leonard is a British 800m athlete. She finished third at the Olympic trials and has run the qualifying standard a few times. The British selectors decided against sending her, instead opting to leave the final space vacant on the plane.

The Olympic Games is an event that is all about excellent athletic endeavour but the reality is there are very few medals won. Every athlete that hits a qualifying mark has excelled and is among a tiny percentage to reach that level. The manner in which the British team based some of its selections is disrespectful to the athletes.

When the first athletes toe the line in Rio next month, they will be in a position that many have dreamed about. They can go into the stadium with heads held high and fight for even greater glories.


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