Long march to Olympic qualification

At the European Track Cycling Championships next week and a number of other forthcoming sporting events, Olympic qualification will be on the minds of athletes and media.

Now that the mid-point of the cycle between Beijing 2008 and London 2012 has passed, competitions in many sports take on another dimension because results count towards Olympic qualifying.

Next week’s track cycling event in Poland is the first of 12 in the qualification process. British Cycling makes a commendable but ultimately baffling attempt to explain how the system works – see the full rules here.

It really isn’t as simple as you might think to determine the best athletes in a given sport, not once you take into account continental allocations, male and female athlete quotas and the opportunity for riders to double up in multiple events. Beyond that there is the distinct whiff of political meddling in several sports, as international federation officials look to serve the interests of the members they represent.

With limited financial resources and injury-prone athletes to consider, coaches and management teams (that’s “dad” in quite a few cases) spend hours studying rules, competition schedules and recent results trying to work out which events athletes should enter.

Journalists who dip in and out of different Olympic sports could be forgiven for getting confused from time to time. What chance then for the fans following competitions on television or reading about them?

The complexity of the Olympic qualification system hinders the promotion of some of the less commercial sports. World rankings in tennis or golf are imperfect and occasionally produce odd outcomes but they do at least provide a straightforward guide.

In a complicated world there is little prospect of qualification processes becoming less convoluted. International federations and sponsors would do well to consider how they communicate what is happening. A simple ranking list or well-designed graphic would be much appreciated. Not least by dad.

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