‘There’s no longer a pathway’: Questions raised over Athletics NZ’s ‘unrealistic’ qualifying standards for Commonwealth Games

Track and field insiders are warning disillusioned athletes could walk away from the sport due to the “incredibly tough” and “unrealistic” qualifying criteria imposed by Athletics NZ for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

The demanding qualifying standards were set to ensure athletes meet the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s (NZOC) criteria of demonstrating they are capable of a top six performance in Birmingham. But behind the scenes athletes are questioning whether Athletics NZ have got the formula right, arguing in some events the standards set are more in line with medal-winning performances.

Adding to the angst is the squeeze on team numbers, with Athletics NZ allocated just 18 spots under the Commonwealth Games quota system, meaning even if athletes do meet the qualifying standards, their place in the team for Birmingham is not assured.

The brutal criteria comes as a further blow to athletes who were on the fringe of selection for the Tokyo Olympics, and face another exhausting fight to secure a place in the team for the Commonwealth Games.

“Not many people will understand the kind of grief this can bring”, Zoe Hobbs wrote on social media after missing out on selection for the Tokyo Olympics despite qualifying.

LAWRENCE SMITH/Stuff

“Not many people will understand the kind of grief this can bring”, Zoe Hobbs wrote on social media after missing out on selection for the Tokyo Olympics despite qualifying.

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Several athletes, including sprint stars Eddie Osei-Nketia and Zoe Hobbs, met the World Athletics criteria to qualify for Tokyo, but were not selected to represent New Zealand as they did not meet the NZOC’s requirement of proving they were capable of a top 16 finish.

Eddie Osei-Nketia is New Zealand's second-fastest sprinter in history but wasn't selected for the Tokyo Olympics.

Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Eddie Osei-Nketia is New Zealand’s second-fastest sprinter in history but wasn’t selected for the Tokyo Olympics.

Both posted on social media in the lead-up to the Tokyo Games expressing their frustration at the rules that sidelined them from competing on the world sport’s biggest stage.

“When you work so hard for this rare moment in time and have sacrificed a lot along your journey, it hurts when you don’t reap the rewards. It ESPECIALLY hurts when you’ve qualified but are denied selection due to NZ standard/policy,” wrote Hobbs.

“Not only does a non-selection inhibit the opportunity for experience and exposure to international competition, it also detriments the opportunities that lie thereafter the Games, i.e. financial support to sustain the already financially stressed environment many of us are in.

“We are our own biggest critic and not many people will understand the kind of grief this can bring.”

Javelin thrower Tori Peeters was provisionally selected for the Games, but could not meet the additional performance requirements placed on her in lead-up events and was left out of the final team for Tokyo.

Wellington-based coach Gary Henley-Smith believes the qualifying standards, particularly in the sprint events, are “unrealistic”. He is concerned it will lead to a talent drain on the sport.

“Many of these athletes just don’t see a pathway there any more,” says Henley-Smith, who has coached Osei-Nketia for the past two seasons.

Wellington coach Gary Henley-Smith watches on as sprinter Joseph Millar is put through his paces during a training session at Newtown Park.

Ross Giblin/Stuff

Wellington coach Gary Henley-Smith watches on as sprinter Joseph Millar is put through his paces during a training session at Newtown Park.

“It is really difficult, and I worry about where things are going to go from here. With athletes and the commitment that you need to have, they have to give up a lot, and I know there will be a lot out there wondering now if it is even worth it if there are no opportunities out there for them.

“I think there may be a number of athletes that decide to pull out. It is a conversation a lot of them are having at the moment. They love the sport, but there comes a point where you need to start working and actually having a life outside of sport.”

Henley-Smith’s concerns are echoed by athlete manager and former Olympic sprinter Mark Keddell, who points out a blanket top six rule does not account for field sizes in each event.

“In some events you have 56 on the startline, in others you might have only 18 competing,” he says.

“With the sprinting events I do think they need to take another look at the qualifying criteria not just for the Commonwealth Games, but for the Olympics as well.”

Former Olympic sprinter Mark Keddell.

David White/Stuff

Former Olympic sprinter Mark Keddell.

Athletics NZ’s high performance coach manager Scott Newman, who oversaw the development of the selection policy for Birmingham, accepts the qualifying standards are challenging. He says Athletics NZ wanted to remove some of the subjectivity around the judgement call about whether an athlete is capable of a top six performance, by setting standards that remove any doubt.

“With the Commonwealth Games, there are no World Athletics performance expectations, so in this case we look at what the NZOC selection philosophy is, which is top six, so from there we have to work out what top six means for each event. We wanted a framework so that when we nominate people to the NZOC, we can be confident that the athletes are capable of meeting the performance standards,” says Newman.

To establish the ‘A’ and ‘B’ qualifying standards for each event, Newman says Athletics NZ looked at the world rankings and “top lists” going back several years, removing athletes from non-Commonwealth countries.

“In some cases the standards are as tough as they would be for an Olympic Games, just because of the depth in the Commonwealth.

“The Commonwealth Games is no longer a development level event, which some people still seem to assume it is. It is actually a world class event in its own right and many individual events are as tough, if not tougher, than the Olympic Games in terms of qualifying.”

Newman says some events, which are typically dominated by the US or European nations, have slightly “softer” performance standards, while for the sprinting and middle distance events, which tend to be strong among Caribbean and African countries respectively, the benchmark is high.

The women’s 100m final in Tokyo, for example, was dominated by Jamaica, which claimed all three medal spots.

That leaves Hobbs, one of the greatest sprinters New Zealand has produced, facing a monumental challenge to make the grade for Birmingham. In a sport in which gains are made in tiny increments, Hobbs’ personal best of 11.32s – which equalled Michelle Seymour’s long-standing national record – is still some way off the ‘A’ qualifying standard of 11.10s. The ‘B’ standard, which comes with further performance caveats attached, has been set at 11.15s.

Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica, celebrates as she wins the women's 100-metre final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, ahead of compatriots Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson. The winning time was 10.61s, an Olympic record.

David J. Phillip/AP

Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica, celebrates as she wins the women’s 100-metre final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, ahead of compatriots Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson. The winning time was 10.61s, an Olympic record.

In the men’s 100m, the ‘A’ qualifying time has been set at 10.07s, while the ‘B’ time is 10.12s – equal to Osei-Nketia’s personal best set in Brisbane earlier this year.

In both events, the A and B standards set by Athletics NZ in the 100m would have been good enough to medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.

Henley-Smith says that is because the top athletes often bypass the Commonwealth Games in favour of more lucrative events in Europe, raising questions over whether the world rankings are the most accurate gauge of top six Commonwealth Games potential.

However, Newman says Athletics NZ “can’t set a criteria based on an unknown” and take a guess at which athletes are going to show up.

“We are confident we have got it right. That is how fast you have to be running to be a world level sprinter and when there is an expectation of a top 16 [at Olympics] or top six [at Commonwealth Games].”

Zoe Hobbs is one of the top women’s sprinters New Zealand has ever produced.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Zoe Hobbs is one of the top women’s sprinters New Zealand has ever produced.

Newman points out sprinters are not the only group hard hit. The long jump standards are also extremely challenging, with the men now needing to leap over 8 metres to make the Commonwealth Games team.

Adding to the stress for athletes is the quota system which restricts team sizes. The quota system was introduced by the Commonwealth Games Federation ahead of the 2018 Games in an effort to keep team sizes down and ensure the event is more sustainable for host nations.

Athletics NZ has been allocated 18 of New Zealand’s 103 spots (which does not include team sports). Should more than 18 athletes achieve the qualifying standard and Athletics NZ are unable to secure any further quota spots, it has prescribed a formula to separate athletes, with throwing events prioritised first, followed by middle distance, then high jump and pole vault, followed by all other events.

Keddell says a qualifying system that prioritises some athletes over others leads to questions of fairness.

“I think what is disappointing about the New Zealand qualifying criteria is that if athletes are ranked equally, then priority will be given to the throwers,” he says.

“It kind of feels at this point not everyone is getting a fair shake. If there is one spot left in the New Zealand athletics team and it is a thrower versus a sprinter and they are ranked the same, then the thrower will get the nod. Which would be a pretty tough situation to be in.”

Newman says the priority events reflect Athletics NZ’s strategic approach with funding and investment, but decisions will only be made using the “waterfall system” as a very last resort.

“Our entire performance programme is targeted and prioritised in that way, and certainly I think we have seen the success from that approach over the years, we have built up strong coaching knowledge and depth in those areas and facilities that support those specific events as well, so that gives us greater likelihood to be able to achieve on a world level in those events,” he says.

“If people are good enough, they will get there. It is equal across all sports in terms of the difficulty of standards set, so we are not excluding anyone. This will only come into effect if you are having to make a call between say a 19th or 20th athlete.”

The qualifying period for the Commonwealth Games takes into account performances from January 1 this year, through to May 1, 2022. Newman says so far 15 athletes have notched up at least one ‘B’ standard.

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