Monday 20 May 2019

Debacle surrounding Cuddihy and Mills has left AAI with serious questions to answer

Cliona Foley

THREE weeks before the Olympics, an athlete is picked on the Irish women's 4x400m team.

She even models the official uniform at a press launch, but is subsequently warming up at her national championships when she gets a phone call to say, "sorry, but you're not going to London after all."

A couple of weeks later, after an appeal and a counter-appeal, and just three days away from the London 2012 opening ceremony, a 19-year-old gets a phone call at 9.45 at night and hears the same heart-wrenching news.

Caitriona Cuddihy, a 26-year-old from Kilkenny City Harriers, was restored to the Irish 4x400m team on Monday night and Joanna Mills, a teenager from Ballymena & Antrim AC, who had successfully appealed to be included when she was not originally selected, is now dropped.

The question everyone is asking now is this: how did Athletics Ireland (AAI) get this one so badly wrong?

How do you take every athlete's dream -- to compete at the Olympic Games -- and turn it into such a selection debacle that both of them are disgusted and damaged by the process?

In the past fortnight many have wondered why the athlete who had run faster this year was not selected. On that basis Mills would have got the nod by a nose.

But getting on to the Irish 4x400m team for London was not just about the speed you could run at, and this was at the crux of the Olympic Council of Ireland's (OCI) decision yesterday and also at the heart of Athletics Ireland's original selection policy.

To understand what has transpired it is necessary to answer the following questions.

If it's a relay squad why not just pick the six fastest 400m runners in Ireland?

AAI's high performance manager Kevin Ankrom felt they needed a more cohesive relay squad who would do some training and racing together.

So he asked anyone interested to commit to the relay programme by signing a contract saying you would attend specialist training and be available for the European Championships in late June.

Did these two runners sign it?

Cuddihy signed it last March but Mills did not, explaining that her priority for 2012 was competing in the World Juniors in Barcelona, a week after the Europeans.

So she wasn't interested in running the relay?

She says she was but felt her individual focus (World Juniors) might not allow her to make the necessary commitment. She sought a meeting with Ankrom last December to discuss it but that never transpired.

But, after another approach by AAI in May, she decided to commit to the relay programme. Unlike Cuddihy, she had not gone on the pre-requisite relay training camp or raced with them but, like Cuddihy, she was selected as a reserve for Europeans.

What happened next?

Athletics Ireland's relay selectors -- Ankrom, Stephen Maguire and Patsy McGonagle -- named the Olympic 4x400m team on July 2. They rated athletes on eight different criteria. Cuddihy made it but Mills didn't.

Many, including Olympic chef de mission Sonia O'Sullivan, felt they should have left it until a week later to allow all involved to race off against each other at the National Championships (July 7/8), but there were two problems with that.

Firstly, AAI's agreement with OCI stipulated that the relay team had to be announced on July 2, and secondly Mills was going to miss the Nationals because she was departing for the World Juniors that weekend.

And then?

Mills appealed her non-selection to Athletics Ireland's Appeals Panel (AIAP). It consisted of Ciaran O Cathain (AAI president), John Foley (AAI CEO), Liam Hennessy (ex-AAI president) and Jerry Kiernan.

Hennessy was co-opted on to the board when two other members stepped off to avoid any conflict of interest.

Mills' argument was that she had run faster than Cuddihy this year (her season best was 54.41 and she had a PB of 53.89 from last year, compared to Cuddihy's 54.59 PB this year), and that her previous relay experience (she has run 4x400m at Commonwealth Games) and at youth and junior internationals was not taken into account.

The AIAP agreed, over-ruled the selectors and gave her a place, resulting in Cuddihy being dropped.

The counter-appeal?

Cuddihy appealed that decision to the Olympic Council of Ireland last Thursday. It was heard by a three-person committee comprising OCI executive members Willie O'Brien, Dermot Sherlock and Susan Ahern.

What did the OCI tribunal find?

They found that AAI's original selectors had been "fair and proportionate" and the process was completed with "diligence and acumen".

They found that the AAI had made one big mistake in the fact that none of the rest of the relay team, except Mills, knew that her appeal was taking place until afterwards, because the notification ended up in their email 'junk' box. However, they ruled that this did not materially affect the case and there were no procedural problems with Mills' hearing.

So why did they overrule the AIAP decision?

After studying the original eight selection criteria, they decided that the AIAP had overstepped their remit by re-interpreting two of the criteria.

The AIAP gave Mills additional credit for her "overall relay experience" (ie the Commonwealth Games) and said the selectors' interpretation of this had been too narrow, but the OCI said the AIAP had been equally narrow in their interpretation of this criteria.

The AIAP felt Mills' "overall experience in major championships" was not taken into account, but the OCI ruled that the "additional weighting" they gave to her major championship experience, including at junior level, was "disproportionate".

The OCI also took into account that Cuddihy had signed the relay contract last March and Mills had not. They reinstated Cuddihy and Mills' only option now is to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). She was looking at her options last night with her coach Ian Neely.

Athletics Ireland promised to review their selection and appeals procedures yesterday but we can save them a lot of time.

It wouldn't be an Olympics if there wasn't a selection row. Athletes are disgruntled when they're not selected, which is perfectly acceptable and understandable.

So it's crucial to avoid such rows by making your selection procedures absolutely crystal clear.

The sport of athletics actually has the most transparent barometer of all: the stopwatch. In future, why not ask relay hopefuls to run against each other in a final selection race? That's why the British and Americans, among other countries, have trials.

If you want athletes to commit to an additional team training process then set a deadline for when they have to sign up to it and stick rigidly to its criteria. Don't go moving the goalposts later by approaching an athlete who is not already involved.

And, above all, if paid officials are contacting athletes, is it too much to ask that they lift the phone and speak to them directly?

Any email on something as important as an Olympic selection appeal should surely have contained an RSVP note, to confirm that it has been received.

And sending it from an unfamiliar email address that resulted in it going to six athletes' junk mail? That was simply beyond sloppy.

Irish Independent

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