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Do Countries Stick or Twist with Tokyo 2020 Team Selections?

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New National Stadium is seen in the background in Tokyo. The stadium will host the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2020 Olympics. (AP Photo / Jae C. Hong)

By Michael Pavitt |

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 to 2021 has thrown up all kinds of dilemmas for nations to consider, but the most important is determining what athletes get on the plane in the first place.

At first glance it seemed straightforward, with the news that all athletes who had already qualified for the Olympic Games remaining so. I think everyone can get on board with this.

One of the challenges have come in sports where an athlete or a team earn a quota place, with the National Olympic Committee and national federations ultimately having the final say.

IOC sport director Kit McConnell highlighted this last month, pointing out that in sports like rowing, canoeing and sailing that it is the boat that it qualified, rather than an individual athlete.

Understandably this has put some countries in a tricky spot, particularly if you have completed your selection process and announced who will be lining up for the Games in Tokyo this July.

With dates having shifted, will team selections? Do countries opt to stick or twist?

The Australian Olympic Committee were quick out of the blocks in this regard, with the organisation announcing their canoe sprint team for rescheduled Olympic Games just days after the 2021 dates were confirmed.

“Athletes, like communities right across the world right now, are facing uncertainty about what the coming months hold,” said Ian Chesterman, Australia’s Tokyo 2020 Chef de Mission. “But I’m delighted that these athletes have some certainty knowing the Games will be held in 2021 and that they are now part of the Australian Olympic team.”

British Canoeing and the British Olympic Association followed suit this week, as they reconfirmed an announcement made back in October of their first canoe sprint competitor and their full four-strong canoe slalom squad.

The decision quickly ended discussion that the selection process could be reopened for the team. Reigning Olympic champion Joe Clarke had hoped it could be reopened after finishing second to Bradley Forbes-Cryans in a head-to-head duel for the men’s K1 berth.

Clarke had told the Daily Mail it would be “ridiculous” to use the existing process due to the gap between the start of the selection races and the rescheduled Olympics.

“It is all well and good selecting really early for the Olympics, but two years and four months, I think that is ridiculous,” he said. “The Olympics is such a big thing and it creates huge revenue for our sport should we win medals so, whatever happens, you want to send the best athlete at that moment in time.”

From a purely performance perspective, Clarke probably has a point when questioning how British Canoeing could be sure a selection made over a year in advance of the Games will still be the correct one as the rescheduled Games approaches.

The Olympic gold medallist however did acknowledge there were two sides to the argument, as while he wanted to secure an unlikely reprieve and earn a place, it would have to come at the expense of someone else.

Given the circumstances, it would be particularly cruel should an athlete be named in an Olympic team only to have that taken away by circumstances completely out of their control. 

It is why I feel the BOA are correct to have quickly confirmed that the team would remain unchanged, with Forbes-Cryans remaining the K1 competitor.

A similar debate surrounded the US Olympic marathon trials, which took place in February, with some suggesting for the event to be held again in 2021.

Two-time Olympian Desiree Linden, who missed out on selection for the women’s team after finishing 11 seconds behind the third-place finisher, was vocal in her opposition to the idea.

“Anybody suggesting the Marathon Trials be re-run, just stop,” she tweeted. “There are six athletes who actually have so much to celebrate during this tough time, please don’t crap on their parade.”

It does feel like there should be an unwritten rule in these strange circumstances, where any team announcement already made should remain unchanged. Nobody really wants to be reading stories in the next few months about an athlete being denied their Olympic dream having previously been assured of their spot.

Another twist has come in sports where age limits are in place.

The International Gymnastics Federation Executive Committee amended a regulation for Tokyo 2020 this week, ruling that gymnasts born in 2005 will be eligible to compete.

Under FIG rules, gymnasts must be at least 16 years of age, or turning 16 within the calendar year, to participate at major senior level events including the Olympics.

Those athletes born in 2005 would have been ineligible for Tokyo 2020 had the Games taken place as planned this year, but will now be able to compete at the rearranged event, providing they qualify and are selected.

The response has been mixed with some claiming that previously ineligible gymnasts could earn places at the expense of athletes who would have otherwise qualified. 

Others have suggested the FIG have made the right call, with the decision preventing the possibility that one of the new generation of gymnasts could storm on to the scene only to find themselves blocked from competing at the biggest event of the year.

I wonder as well whether the FIG even had a choice to make, as effectively they would have gone against their own rules had they ruled gymnasts born in 2005 were unable to take part. I suspect that would have been a challenge had the governing body done so.

FIFA are also expected to approve a move which will see the upper age limit for the men’s football tournament raised from 23 to 24 for the event.

South Korea were among the nations to call for the increase, with 11 members of the team that qualified for the Games due to be made ineligible if the change is not made. 

The importance is maybe greater for the South Korean team than any other, with a potentially life-changing option to achieve exemption from mandatory two-year military service should they win a medal at the Games.

South Korea’s men’s under-23 coach Kim Hak-bum perhaps struck the right tone when weighing up the pros and the cons of the decision.

“We’re lucky that these players will have their opportunity,” he told South Korean news agency Yonhap.

“The recommendation doesn’t change the fact that the players have to earn their places on the team.

“Everyone will have the same opportunity.”

There will undoubtedly be some tough decisions as the new countdown to the Games ticks on.

Clearly there will be athletes who will ultimately be left ruing how a change in dates for the Games negatively impacted their career, while the one-year window could have opened the door enough for some to take full advantage of the unlikely opportunity that has presented itself.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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