Winter sport athletes on trial

With the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games just a few weeks away, athletes in several winter sports are facing selection trials. After training and competing hard for many years, athletes have to overcome one last barrier to achieve the ambition of a lifetime.

The Olympic qualification process is necessarily complicated. The number of participants is generally capped for each discipline (for example, 12 men’s ice hockey teams, each with a squad of 23) to enable the international federations to schedule the competitions and the organising committee to plan accommodation and transport. Each international federation seeks to give the leading contenders a fair chance but they also allocate places to athletes from countries and regions where their sport is less developed. As a result, the fifth fastest skier from a leading country will often lose out to a lesser-ranked skier from another part of the world, who benefits from the qualification rules.

As sports and disciplines evolve, international federations try to adjust their quotas but, due to competing demands, there are sure to be some who are disappointed. Ahead of the Vancouver Games there has been a long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign by women ski jumpers to gain entry to Olympic competition for the first time. However, the campaign has not been in vain as there may well be a women’s ski jump competition in Sochi in 2014.  

For many of the sports and disciplines, including ice hockey, figure skating and short track, it is the national teams that secure qualifying places rather than individuals. Individual athletes may therefore  compete in national trials to claim one of the spots on the team. A few outstanding competitors have only to produce their regular form to qualify while many others chase that one last place in the squad, hoping for their best ever performance which will get them on the plane to Vancouver.

In a few cases these are high profile, televised events such as the AT&T US Figure Skating Championships which start on 14 January. More often, however, athletes’ dreams are fulfilled or broken at national championships or World Cup events in front of a sparse crowd, where only family, friends and fellow competitors realise what is at stake. “News in brief” entries in the sports media record the successful names but say little about those who missed out.

Even for those who qualify, there is a risk of injury in the tense final days and weeks of preparation: travelling at high speed over snow and ice involves inevitable dangers. A handful of athletes on the reserve list will ultimately benefit from the misfortune of others.

When you see athletes on the start line in Vancouver, remember the trials they have been through to get that far. And do spare a thought for those left behind.

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