Saturday, June 30, 2012

What's the point of the Olympic Trials?

The Olympic Trials, as any fan of gymnastics is very well aware, are now underway in San Jose. (Us fans have only been waiting for this moment, for say, four years.) After competition on Sunday night, we'll know who is on the women's team. But the scores and placements from the Trials themselves don't determine the team. The three person selection committee comprised of Martha Karolyi, Steve Rybacki, Teri Humphrey does. While the Trials figure into their deliberations, they are not necessarily the determining factor unless in the case of gymnasts like Nastia Liukin and Bridget Sloane who haven't competed in awhile. Because the committee is free to do so, they get to take into account practices and past competitions. Why should the fate of an athlete's Olympic dream boil down to just one competition? And if we are to reduce a gymnast's career to just one meet, it should be the Olympics, not the qualification competition.

Yet the Trials still command significant amounts of press attention and every Olympic cycle resurrects the controversies of past Olympic team selections, including the Kim Kelly affair from 1992. Twenty years ago, Kelly thought she earned the 6th and final spot onto the Olympic team only to be replaced late by an athlete that had been too injured to compete at Trials in a closed door session.

At the time, I naturally felt for Kelly. It seemed so very unfair to nine year old sense of morality. Fastest wins the race. Highest score on the test is the top student in the class. Case closed.

But that really only works for individual pursuits, not for team matters. One would never determine the members of a basketball or soccer team in such a way. And since the 3-up-3-count added a bit of strategy to the team competition--no longer simply making it about adding up gymnasts' all around totals but filling roles on each event--the old way of selecting the team is certainly outmoded.

While selecting teams on the basis of past performance and practices is hardly controversial in the aforementioned team sports, it is often highly fraught within gymnastics. They don't have a dunking contest to determine the best point guard or forward for the basketball team. However, the less objective seeming the sport is (and gymnastics is certainly a judged, subjective sport), the more we try to demand some semblance of fairness and transparency in team selection. And a head-to-head competition seems like the most transparent and just way to choose a team. It's democratic in a way, like the way we choose our elected officials. (Winner takes all on election day as opposed to appointment/confirmation process to earn certain government positions.)

But in gymnastics, it mostly doesn't work. The teams do need to be selected just as an NCAA gymnastics coach decides the lineup for the week's meet. It's not democratic. Of course, college meets happen nearly every week during the competitive season and once a year when it comes to the finals. I'm sure people would be more high-strung emotionally about this fact if NCAA championships came around only once every four years instead of every year.

I know this post sounds oddly like I'm throwing my support behind Martha Karolyi, of whom I have often been openly critical. In a way, I am. Yet my problem has never been that the teams are chosen mostly by her. It's the pretense of guidelines that has always bothered me. If USA Gymnastics would come forward and openly say that there are no true guidelines and that the team will be wholly the choice of the selection committee then I would be somewhat satisfied. It would be honestly admitting what is really happening anyway. Also, even though I have no problem with the team being at the discretion of the committee, I don't think the selection process needs to be nearly as long and protracted as it has been in the past.

Which brings us to the Olympic Trials. Namely, what is the point of this whole show? Why throw the girls into one final domestic pressure cooker when the results only kind of matter (as opposed to perhaps getting some of the girls out there for the final international meets, especially someone like Sarah Finnegan, who is rather inexperienced)? Is it beneficial to to the gymnasts?

Don't get me wrong--the trials make for excellent entertainment. (And there you have part of the answer--television ratings.) And I will be watching, rapt, tomorrow night as the women finish their competition and the team is named. But I just wonder if there is a better way to choose the Olympic team...



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