“It proves you should never say never. You should always believe in yourself. If you work hard and keep the faith, good things will happen.” Or not, it seems. The words of Jenny Meadows on claiming the World Championship 800m bronze medal in 2009 seem rather hollow now. The Wigan athlete, the third fastest British woman of all-time over the two lap distance, will not be representing her country at this summer’s Olympics. She has been unable to race all season due to injury but this is not the reason for her omission. No, the vagaries of a deeply flawed selection process have conspired to keep her out. Incredibly, she will be replaced at the London Games by nobody, team officials preferring to fill only one of the three permitted slots in the event. It is just the latest in a series of controversial decisions across a number of sports which at best seem unfathomable and at worst actively detrimental to the nation’s potential success.
In a supremely ironic twist, Meadows was informed of her exclusion on the very day that she was retrospectively awarded the European Indoor title for 2011, following her conqueror’s disqualification for doping violations, as if to reiterate her claim to be Britain’s only proven performer in this discipline on the international stage. The particulars of her case are bewilderingly complex. She, in common with three other athletes, Marilyn Okoro, Emma Jackson and Jemma Simpson, has attained the sub-two minute ‘A’ standard qualification time, yet all four have been overlooked in favour of the rookie Lynsey Sharp, winner of the British trials, who has only the ‘B’ standard to her name. Sharp, who also claimed silver in the recent depleted European Championships in Helsinki, is certainly the in-form competitor, but the bizarre rules prevent her from being chosen alongside ‘A’ standard opponents if others are passed over. Since her inclusion would necessarily mean two of the above missing out, this precludes her unless she goes alone. This is the path the selectors have chosen to follow.
So an inexperienced youngster with little hope of a medal effectively takes all three available places. Charles van Commenee, the bombastic head coach of UK Athletics, acknowledged the decision was bold but berated those cast aside for not having seized their opportunities. It is true that Okoro, Jackson and Simpson all had their chance in the trials, though the latter, having finished second, would ordinarily have done enough to secure her place. Meadows, who expects to be fit for London, was absent but might have hoped her standing and previous record would be taken into consideration. No such flexibility. The criteria set down would be adhered to rigidly with the effect that the host country would have only a single entrant in spite of the broader talent pool available. It is important to remember that Sharp is an innocent bystander here, caught embarrassingly in the crossfire. She deserves her recognition, but why did that have to be at the expense of team strength?
Numerous squad places have not been filled despite athletes being eligible to occupy them. Richard Kilty, a 200m runner with the necessary credentials, has been discarded. Likewise men’s middle distance hopeful Gareth Warburton, with ‘lack of current form’ stated as the cause. Van Commenee has a reputation for being remorseless in his determination to foster a winning mentality and is known not to suffer fools. He had suggested that no-one would get an easy ticket to the Games, and he appears to have delivered on his harshest sentiments. But this dogmatic attitude may prove horribly counter-productive, fostering rancour and discord, and not only robbing dedicated sportspeople of a once in a lifetime experience, but also short-changing the many fans desperate to cheer on a British vest. The outpouring of encouragement from the packed stands might just have inspired an unheralded name to great deeds. Sadly, many will not now get that privilege.
This may, of course, be a rather petulant response to the failure to produce a team capable of emulating former glories. When London was awarded the Olympics we might have hoped the incentive and the funding would combine to produce a rather more enticing collection of medal hopes. Aside from Ennis, Farah, Greene and Idowu we have few genuine expectations. Van Commenee has not presided over a culture of excellence. In naming drugs cheats Dwain Chambers and Carl Myerscough, neither of whom have forced the selectors’ hands despite being cleared to compete, he has not even presided over one of consistency either. We do not possess the depth to follow the American model of basing selection entirely on the trials. This has the advantage of clarity and certainty, the qualities conspicuously absent from our seemingly arbitrary muddle which elsewhere has verged on the farcical.
Nowhere moreso than in the curious case of taekwondo, a sport whose somewhat impenetrable rules appear rather more comprehensible than its officially undisclosed Olympic qualification criteria. These apparently allow Britain’s governing body to leave out Aaron Cook, the world number one ranked performer in his weight class. We can’t comment with any certainty as to what this decision was based on due to the total lack of transparency, hardly clarified by vague references to the ‘more tactically beneficial’ fighting style of Lutalo Muhammed, the competitor chosen in his stead. It is hard to escape the conclusion that punishment for Cook’s withdrawal from the national academy programme is the real driving force behind the absurd sacrifice of a genuine medal contender. Further controversy has affected gymnastics, where World Championship silver medallist Daniel Keatings is surplus to requirements, and even the genteel world of fencing has been embroiled in a row. The sporting public, as usual, looks on bemused.
Are these crazy and capricious, sometimes vindictive, decisions undermining the UK Sport target of 48 podium finishes? Time will tell, but they certainly place enormous unnecessary pressures on the shoulders of the likes of Sharp and Muhammed. A football manager is able to choose his squad entirely at his own discretion. Either we allow our Olympic team administrators similar licence or we have clearly defined guidelines for inclusion that everyone can understand and buy into. Jenny Meadows deserves our admiration and respect for accepting her immense disappointment with magnanimity. Charles Van Commenee has promised to quit if his optimistic track and field predictions fall short. I wonder if he will show equal decorum when the time comes to pack his bags.