Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Olympic Nightmare

I remember as a little girl, watching my dad run in the Olympic torch lighting ceremony as it made its way through Eugene down to LA for the 84 summer Olympics. I watched on our huge wood paneled TV as athletes competed for the ultimate prize - to be crowned an Olympic champion. Mary Lou Retton stands out in my mind - Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg as well. It sparked a notion in my mind that that was my ultimate goal - I wanted to be a part of something so extraordinary and meaningful.

Maybe it's from growing up in America and having a certain view on the world - but up until recently I always believed if you worked hard enough, were talented enough, played your cards just right - then you could possibly be a part of the Olympics. In a way mass media is to blame - creating a HUGE hype around the games and idolizing athletes like gods. But in my mind, I always looked up to those athletes as super stars who through some fate were able to demonstrate their amazing ability for the world to see.

However, as I have gotten older and wiser, this Olympic dream and taking part of a very selective team of uber-athletes seems somewhat jaded. Knowing several people who have tried desperately hard to make the selection process, and even giving the talent pool selection process a go myself - I have burst the illusionary bubble that surrounds the games. I'm not taking anything away from the athletes who are blessed enough to actually make it there - they have actually made the impossible a reality. But I'm questioning the selection process to get there and think the planets have to be impossibly aligned for one person, out of nation of millions of people to show they have what it takes to compete.

What sparked this recent outlook? A nice little article on cycling news regarding the recent World Cup champ Katheryn Curi Mattis who scored a win in Australia.

This is long - but really worth the read.

Katheryn Curi Mattis (Webcor Builders) took the biggest win of her career on Sunday in Geelong, Australia, when she became only the second American women to ever win a round of the UCI World Cup since Dede Berry first won ten years ago in the World Cup's inaugural round in Sydney. But even with that win, Mattis' chances of representing her country at the Olympic Games have not improved.

Mattis is one of the top female riders in the United States of America, but was not one of the top five American riders in the UCI rankings at the end of 2007, and therefore was not named to the "long team", which is USA Cycling's pre-requisite for Olympic selection.

"I had a really good year last year and finished it off with a third place at the Tour of Ardèche in France and then raced hard at the world championships," she said of the build up to her biggest victory to date. "That gave me a lot of confidence going into the off season. I did a lot of great training; we had a lot of good weather in California."

Clearly, Mattis is on form and heading for a strong season, but even if she had been part of the long team, the win in Geelong would not have given her an edge over the other five women on the long team list – Kristin Armstrong, Amber Neben, Tina Mayolo-Pic, Mara Abbott and Christine Thorburn. Mattis was reluctant to speak about the selection procedures, saying "I am not currently on the long team, let's just leave it at that".

USA Cycling changed the selection procedures for the Olympic Games this year, introducing the "long team" concept as a way to allow riders to tailor their season leading into the Games rather than fighting all season to make the team and then going into the Games fatigued.

Andy Lee, spokesman for USA Cycling, explained to Cyclingnews: "The long team allows riders to pre-qualify for the Games, based on the UCI rankings as of December 31, 2007. The top five riders in the UCI rankings were named to the women's long team". Lee was impressed by Mattis' results, but explained the situation in regards to selection for Beijing.

"It's a phenomenal win, it's a great result for her, and probably the best result of her career," he said. "She's had plenty of good results – in Ardèche, Redlands – and clearly is a strong rider, but as it relates to Olympic selection, it won't do anything for her due to the long team aspect of the rules."

Even if Mattis had accumulated enough points to make the long team, her World Cup win wouldn't have gained automatic selection, as the criteria state that only European World Cups qualify riders for the Olympic team. "It's based on European World Cups because typically the fields are weaker in the non-European races," explained Lee. "The European World Cups are more indicative of the talent you'd see at the Olympic Games."

Selection through the World Cups is not the only way the women compete for the final three spots which will take them to Beijing. They can also have placed top three at the 2007 world championships in either the road race or time trial, or win a 2.9.1 category race prior to June 2, 2008.

The procedure is a labyrinth of clauses and exceptions, but ultimately the positions on the squad will be at the discretion of the selection panel. The panel includes some high-profile ex-Olympians such as Jim Ochowitz and Alison Dunlap, who have the power to either choose or drop an athlete.

Even former World Champion Kirstin Armstrong, who fulfilled one of the automatic qualification criteria with her second place in the 2007 World Time Trial Championship, could still be dropped from the squad should the panel decide that her form is not up to scratch as the event draws near.

Lee admitted that no selection process is perfect, but said he felt that this year's procedure was working well, and that most of the ahtletes were satisfied with it. In regards to Mattis' position, he said that it's more a factor of the small number of spaces available to women at the Olympic Games. "The strength of our women's road team is phenomenal, and when you've only got three spaces to fill, it's hard," he said. "Three is the maximum number of spots we could have gotten [for the Games], and if we could have more spots to fill it would only increase our chances of winning."

I think I may have shifted my focus a bit - the world cup circuit is suddenly way more appealing. The selection process seems more about the battle of the fittest, not who made it through an elaborate network of guidelines and notions.

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