The intricacies of Olympic qualification

Olympic qualification for the triathlon is always a tricky business. There are lists that determine whether an athlete has earned enough points in ITU racing to contest for a spot on their national Olympic team, and a different points list that determines whether each country can qualify one, two or three athletes for the 55-person Olympic start. Beyond that, each national governing body sets its own criteria for selection to their national teams. Those criteria can include performance in designated Olympic qualifying events, places in the ITU World Triathlon Series year long point totals and, if the objective criteria are not met, the final choices can be left to the discretion of national coaches.

All too often, nations end up on the bubble qualifying for three Olympic start slots, which leads to frantic last minute points chases. In 2000, Hunter Kemper chased points in races all over the globe at the deadline to get three U.S. men to the start line at Sydney. In 2008, Matt Reed was in a similar ride-to-the-rescue position before Beijing. Both men succeeded in helping out their brethren – but both were worn down by the effort and did not have their best days at the Olympics. This year, the U.S. women triathletes were once again ahead of the game, but barring a miracle, the U.S. men look like they will be following in the footsteps of the 2008 Australian men and will be left with just two starters in London.

Underlining the complexity of the qualifying process, two weeks ago the first start list for the home country round of the 2012 World Triathlon Series event in San Diego, which is to serve as the second and final qualifying event for the U.S. Olympic Triathlon team trials, was missing many key U.S. triathletes. One reason was confusion resulting from the switch of the scheduled March 2011 Yokohama WCS event to September 18 – and the fact that points for that event would count toward the 2012 season and for qualification for the starting fields for the Sydney and San Diego WTS races. In addition, some athletes and their federations were caught off guard for various reasons and failed to submit entries in time for San Diego’s first deadline.

As carefully outlined in an April 13 Slowtwitch article by Sal Farruggia, the initial entry list showed just 4 American men and 3 American women – embarrassing as the host country is allowed 8 men and 8 women. On the men’s side, Matt Chrabot, Jarrod Shoemaker, and Mark Fretta were in thanks in part to their performances at Yokohama. Manny Huerta was in thanks to a relatively high ITU points total – right now he is the third-ranked American on the ITU Olympic Qualifying list. Ethan Brown, Greg Billington, Ben Collins and 3-time US Olympian Hunter Kemper were left off. Fretta’s spot was likely to be taken away and given to Kemper according to USAT’s record policy, which allows the governing body to make one substitution. On the women’s side, Sarah Groff and Jillian Peterson did not submit entries at the first deadline – and apparently neither did USAT officials correct the omissions.

In the past two weeks, there remained hope on two fronts. One, the ITU reserved the right to appoint five discretionary slots in each 65-person start field at San Diego. Two, withdrawals could roll down and accommodate athletes on a waiting list. Sure enough, Kemper was let in on an ITU discretionary pick – thus allowing Fretta to keep his slot. Sarah Groff, thanks to her high standing in the WCS series the past two years, got another ITU pass.

As things stand nine days before the May 11-12 races, the U.S. now has 7 women and 6 men on the start list for San Diego. The women include Gwen Jorgenson and Sarah Groff, who already qualified in London, plus Sarah Haskins, Laura Bennett, Jillian Peterson, Kaitlin Shiver and Kelly Whitley. The U.S. men now on the start list at San Diego include Jarrod Shoemaker, Matt Chrabot, Hunter Kemper, Mark Fretta, Manuel Huerta and Ethan Brown. Unless further withdrawals make room for them, Ben Collins, Greg Billington and Kevin Collington will be on the outside looking in.

The competition for the remaining 2012 U.S. Olympic triathlon slots may be clearly determined after the San Diego races – or, as Olympic triathlon qualification often turns out -- things might just get more complicated. So Slowtwitch offers a Q&A with USA Triathlon High Performance General Manager Andy Schmitz to explain it all for you.

Slowtwitch: What changes from 2008 were made to the criteria for making the 2012 US Olympic Triathlon Team?

Andy Schmitz: The 2008 process included three selection events: 2007 Beijing, 2008 Tuscaloosa and 2008 Hy-Vee. The winner of Beijing earned the first spot. The individual with the best score across the series earned the second spot. The winner of Tuscaloosa earned the third spot. The 2012 process features two automatic qualifiers – London in 2011 and San Diego in 2012. Any remaining spots (maximum of one per gender) could be chosen by discretionary selection.

ST: With Gwen Jorgenson and Sarah Groff earning the first two US women’s slots in London last year with their 2nd and 7th place finishes, explain the criteria for choosing the 3rd and final women’s slot on USA Olympic Triathlon team.

Andy: The final women’s spot for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team can be claimed with a top-nine finish at the May 11 ITU World Triathlon San Diego. If two U.S. women other than Sarah Groff and Gwen Jorgensen place in the top nine, the first finisher will earn the final spot on the team. If no U.S. woman places in the top nine, the final spot will be filled by a discretionary selection. Discretionary selections could entail potential medalists or an athlete who can assist the medal-potential athletes through specific team tactics.

ST: Laura Bennett and Sarah Haskins should be big favorites to earn the third U.S. women’s Olympic slot. But if through some very unusual luck neither finishes in San Diego, can some other American woman earn that final spot?

Andy: Yes. Any U.S. woman on the start list for San Diego other than Sarah Groff or Gwen Jorgensen, who are already on the team, can clinch a spot on the Olympic Team with a top-nine finish.

ST: How important was it for American women that Sarah Haskins assured the US of one irrevocable Olympic start spot early in the game with her win at the 2011 Pan Am Games?

Andy: With Sarah Groff and Laura Bennett ranked so highly in the ITU Olympic Rankings, Gwen Jorgensen locked up three spots for the U.S. in London with the automatic spot she earned with a runner-up finish at London. Sarah Haskins’ performance at the Pan American Games certainly was icing on the cake, but it wasn’t essential for securing three women’s spots.

ST: While Sarah Groff was not on the first list of entries to San Diego, how did she get a starting spot?

Andy: Sarah Groff was added to the start list in San Diego by the ITU because she was one of the top five athletes from the 2011 WTS rankings who did not receive a start initially.

Long odds against U.S. earning three Olympic triathlon start slots.

At the moment, the U.S. Men stand 10th in the Olympic Country Qualifying standings and they need to advance to 8th or else they will be left with two men at London. The countries are ranked in order of their third highest points scoring men and the standings look like this:

1. Great Britain (Jonathan Brownlee – 4399 points)
2. Germany (Maik Petzold – 3592 points)
3. France (Tony Moulai – 3050 points)
4. Russia (Ivan Vasiliev - 3015 points)
5. Spain (Jose Miguel Perez – 2981 points)
6. New Zealand (Ryan Sissons – 2600 points)
7. Portugal (Joao Pereira – 2536 points )
8. Australia (Courtney Atkinson - 2534 points)
9. Canada (Simon Whitfield – 2470 points)
10. U.S.A. (Manuel Huerta – 1822 points)

With a World Cup at Huatulco and a Continental Cup in Antalya Turkey this weekend, and World Triathlon Series events in San Diego (May 11-12) and Madrid (May 26-27) before the Olympic qualifying period ends on May 31, the odds against Huerta carrying the U.S, men to 8th are virtually astronomical. First of all, Australia’s Courtney Atkinson has recovered from injury and is entered both at San Diego and Madrid and Whitfield is entered at San Diego, as is Pereira. Next, Huerta has to make up 715 points to pass Pereira, 713 points to pass Atkinson and 648 points to pass Whitfield. WTS races award 800 points to the winner, and 463.5 points for 8th place. So, If Huerta somehow wins both WTS races, the men ahead must finish 9th or worse in both events. If Huerta finishes 11th in both races, all three men ahead must finish 51st or worse in both events.

ST: With no US men making top 9 at the 2011 WCS round at London, what criteria do you have for selecting the two slots likely available for US men?

Andy: The second and final automatic qualifier for the U.S. men for the Olympic Games is the May 12 ITU World Triathlon San Diego. The top men’s finisher will earn a spot on the team, regardless of placing. If two U.S. men place in the top nine of the event, they both will earn a spot on the starting line in London. If necessary, any remaining spots will be filled by a discretionary selection.

ST: How big a role will finish placement at San Diego – especially if no American men place in the top 9? What other factors will be taken into consideration?

Andy: Finish placement in both selection events is one variable taken into consideration. Additionally, performances in 2011-2012 World Triathlon Series races (prior to San Diego), Olympic Qualification ranking and the ability to contribute to a medal performance are also factors that will be taken into consideration.

ST: Just what factor if any does the relatively thin US entries in Yokohama play in the US men’s 10th place national standings?

Andy: Every World Cup and World Triathlon Series race offers valuable Olympic Qualification points, but there is a limit to how many races an athlete can contest during the Olympic Qualification period. The Olympic Qualification period is 24 months in duration. The ITU limits the number of races that count for Olympic ranking to six during the first 12 months of this period, and eight during the second 12 months of this period.

ST: After talking to ITU Media Manager Paula Kim, it seems that the crisis in lack of US entries for San Diego has been greatly alleviated by several successful appeals to the ITU competition board in charge of entries for San Diego. Can you explain what happened and how it turned out?

Andy: Hunter Kemper received an invitation from ITU for the ITU World Triathlon San Diego two weeks ago, and Ethan Brown rolled on from the wait list to give the U.S. six men currently on the start list. Kemper was awarded a spot because he was one of the top five athletes from the 2011 WTS rankings who did not receive a start initially.

ST: Manny Huerta had a great clutch race for Pan Am silver. According to Paula Kim of ITU media relations, if Manny Huerta had managed to beat Reinaldo Colucci at the Pan Am Games, the US men would not be facing their third do-or-die, last-minute campaign to get three US men to the start line at the Olympics.

Andy: Manny Huerta had an outstanding, gutsy race at the 2011 Pan American Games. He was added to the roster less than two weeks prior to the race following Hunter Kemper’s injury in Myrtle Beach. A gold medal at the Pan American Games guarantees an Olympic quota spot for that athlete’s federation. In the case of the U.S. last year, a gold medal would have increased our chances to receive the maximum of three men’s berths for the Games.

ST: Are you considering picking one US men’s Olympic slot to serve as a swim-bike domestique as Colin Jenkins did for Canada in 2008?

Andy: Discretionary selections could entail potential medalists or an athlete who can assist the medal-potential athletes through specific team tactics. A strategy cannot be finalized until we understand the composition of the team based on who qualifies for the automatic spot.

ST: To what degree did you encourage other US Olympic-potential caliber talent such as Andy Potts, Matt Reed , Tim O’Donnell or Greg Bennett to try to qualify for London?

Andy: All of these talented athletes were welcome to attempt to qualify for the London roster. Andy Potts competed in a couple of ITU events last fall, but each of these athletes opted to focus his attention on long course and non-drafting racing. We respect the decisions of each and are proud of their successes.