Mike Rowbottom: UK Athletics can afford to give Jade Nicholls and others a sporting chance
Monday, 09 July 2012
Speaking in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium earlier this month as the European Championships drew to a close, the UK Athletics head coach, Charles Van Commenee, was characteristically forthright about the prospect of "heaps of appeals" once he and his panel had named the core Olympic team for the home Games two days later.
Van Commenee was right. When the names were released last Tuesday (July 3) a total of 11 athletes appealed against their omission. "You can appeal on whether the facts have been overlooked or if the panel has not adhered to the policy as published," he said. "There's not much you can appeal against."
The head coach added: "I expect a lot of appeals. It's almost the culture nowadays. It's not only athletes, I would say it's a phenomenon in society. People find it more difficult to accept a decision and therefore they go to court or stick their middle finger up or start protesting.
"It's a phenomenon in life, so I expect a lot of athletes to make a last desperate attempt to make a home Games."
In terms of rhetoric, Van Commenee would probably be made very welcome in the Conservative ranks of the Coalition Government right now. You think you're hard, Eric Pickles? Do you? Meet Charles...
Here then was the first piece of pre-match retaliation. And when the 10 athletes whose appeals were unsuccessful received their sparse rejection letters – 800 metres runner Gareth Warburton (pictured below) was the only successful appellant - they were also sent a recap of the selection policy which contained the following information:
"Several appellants have made the assertion that the approach adopted by the selection panel in dealing with their case was inconsistent with the approach adopted by the selection panel in other cases.
"We have reviewed the list of candidates selected by the selection panel on 2nd July 2012 and have not seen any evidence to support the point that there was any inconsistency in the approach taken by the selection panel.
"But in any event the issue is whether the selection policy has been wrongly interpreted and applied in considering the candidacy of the appellant, not whether selection decisions in respect of other disciplines and events were or were not made in accordance with the selection policy."
So there it was. Once the door had slammed shut on the home Games, there was virtually no scope to negotiate a chink of light; and thus 10 British athletes who had trained and worked and hoped for four years heard nothing back other than the sound of a key being turned in a lock.
As we have seen, the UK Athletics position is that whether there has been any inconsistency or not in their selection policy is immaterial as far as appeals were concerned. It is a sweeping statement to make ahead of such proceedings – only one step away from asserting, in the manner of Joseph Heller's Catch 22, that whatever the findings of any appeal there are no grounds for appeal.
Their instatement of Warburton was logical – while he had not managed the two Olympic A standards he had sought as a runner who had not finished first or second in the trials, his best effort in Helsinki of 1min 45.80sec was inside the B standard of 1:46.30 which meant that, along with his personal best of 1:44.98 in Oslo on June 7, he effectively had two B standards – which was also a stated qualification requirement.
But it is hard to understand the appeals panel's assertion that it had "not seen any evidence" of inconsistency in the UKA selections.
If Warburton got the nod on two B qualifiers this year, why then did not discus thrower Jade Nicholls also gain selection given that she had also twice surpassed the Olympic B qualifying mark of 59.50 metres in throwing 60.51 and 59.60 on successive days in California in April, and also finished second in the Olympic trials?
The UK Athletics appeal panel acknowledged that the 25-year-old Shaftesbury Barnet athlete was "selectable" in terms of qualification marks, but said that this did not guarantee nomination, adding: "Issues of sporting judgement, as to performance, fitness and form, which were for the selection panel, not this panel, to decide."
Again, we are in Catch 22 territory here. This is what you need to do to qualify. But if you do it, you do not necessarily qualify.
"The Panel will not nominate any athlete who it has good reason to think will be uncompetitive at the Games..." – here essentially, is the carte blanche section of the UK Athletics selection policy.
Van Commenee and UK Athletics came under heavy fire for the decision they took in the women's 800m, where Lynsey Sharp (pictured below), the trials winner and European silver medallist, despite the fact that she did not have an A standard time, was selected as the sole admissible runner utilising a B standard time.
In so doing, the option for taking three other runners who had got the A standard – something achieved by Emma Jackson, Marilyn Okoro, Jemma Simpson and Jenny Meadows was controversially discarded.
Among those registering their disapproval of this gamble were former Olympic heptathlon champion Denise Lewis, who commented: "I'm disappointed with the selection committee because they are not sending the strongest team. It's a farce."
Also upset was the 2004 double Olympic champion Kelly Holmes (pictured below with London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe), who has mentored Jackson as part of her On Camp With Kelly scheme.
"Tell me why in a home Olympics you wouldn't select three athletes per event when they have the qualifying time?
"This is the dream of an athlete. What's the point of having A standards when you don't pick any in an event? I don't get it. I stick by my word in our Olympic year. Fill the team."
Here, certainly, is an inconsistency in selection if ever there was one. But essentially Van Commenee has backed his gut instinct about Sharp, whose charge down the final straight in Helsinki to come from seventh to second in 80m was something he said, tellingly, he would "never forget".
That was a bold decision and, I personally believe, a defensible one. How could Sharp be gainsaid after those two competitive performances?
But I don't think it is inconsistent to argue that other athletes, such as Nicholls, should be added to the Olympic squad. She will not be depriving anyone else of a place, and she and other athletes whose appeals failed, such as 3,000m steeplechaser Hattie Archer (nee Dean) and 200m runner Richard Kilty can rightly point to the one unequivocally inconsistent selection that has already been made – the addition of Lee Merrien in the marathon even though he failed to gain the Olympic A qualifier of 2 hours 12min at the Virgin London event, where he clocked 2 hours 13min 41sec.
On that occasion, UK Athletics "exercised its discretion" and relented on its initial decision not to select the 32-year-old Guernsey runner.
One of the broadest, strongest arguments in his favour was that these are a home Games, and that it would not be depriving anyone else of a place if he was included, giving the home crowd someone to cheer for in the event.
It goes directly against much of the "raising the bar" thinking which has driven UK Athletics selection policy. Other than failing to look suitably "hard", what real drawback would there be to add a few more home Olympians to the team?
UK Athletics' policy of pushing for excellence is admirable – but adding Jade Nicholls, Richard Kilty or Hattie Archer to the team is not going to make anyone else run less fast or jump less far. In Merrien, the precedent is set. Why be dogmatic?
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames