Wednesday 21 March 2018

Relay row exposes selection travesty

Athletes are programmed to compete against each other in the arena, not outside it, so it was unfortunate that the row over the selection of the women's 4x400m relay team for the Olympic games put Catriona Cuddihy and Joanna Mills in opposite corners.

This patently wasn't fair on either athlete and, as Mills' coach Ian Neely told the Sunday Independent two weeks ago, "The whole thing could have been handled a lot better; it should never have come to this. I feel that the decision had been made beforehand. It was mistake after mistake and two people are mentally scarred because of the whole thing."

Neely's comments were made in the wake of Athletics Ireland's decision to overturn the original selection of Cuddihy and to add Mills to the team. This was reversed last week on appeal to the Olympic Council of Ireland and when you read the 19-page judgement of the OCI's appeals panel then you can see that it had little choice but to take the decision that it did.

The sad thing is that the saga has caused further damage to Athletics Ireland's reputation, even if in this instance you'd have to have some sympathy for the association. Yet, in all the analysis of the relay controversy, two key points have been largely overlooked.

The first is that a fair reading of the decision of the original Athletics Ireland appeal panel is that the four members, who included chief executive John Foley and president Ciarán ó Catháin, fundamentally disagreed with the original selection of Catriona Cuddihy over Joanna Mills. This was made by high performance director Kevin Ankrom, team manager Patsy McGonagle and Steve Maguire, a well-known coach.

In sport, the process of appeals can often be a convoluted one but generally speaking there is an underlying truth which is that appeals panels are less concerned with the decisions brought before them and more to do with how they are arrived at.

This case was no different. That their level of disagreement, however, was such that they were prepared to drop Cuddihy and bring in Mills is revealing. This was the most extreme of the options open to them and caught a lot of people by surprise.

The appeals panel could, for example, have sent the relay team back to the original selectors for re-consideration, or with recommendations. But it is safe to assume that their level of disagreement was such that they felt action was needed, even though this would create a situation which would put them at loggerheads with their own high performance director and their team manager on the eve of the Olympics.

Obviously, with the Games now on, thoughts have moved on, but this episode will feature strongly in any review of the Olympics by Athletics Ireland. It must surely be divisive that the two most senior officials in the association took such a different position to two of their own key personnel in such a high-profile and public battle.

The second issue to come out of this affair is a more fundamental one. It is clear from the OCI appeals panel's decision that it was satisfied that the selectors had adhered to their own rules with regard to selecting the relay squad and the appeals panel had erred in finding otherwise. It was on this point of order that Cuddihy was reinstated -- the OCI made no finding one way or the other over who was the correct choice, only that the original selection had followed the correct procedure.

And it is here that questions need to be asked. In all, eight criteria were applied to those athletes wishing to be considered for the team. The eight are: 100 per cent commitment to the relay programme, competition results in 2011 and 2012, consistency and also repeatability of performance, an ability to achieve results at specific competitions, readiness and fitness at Games time, submit a detailed competition schedule and performance plan, compete in the national championships unless excused and, finally, sign the relay programme agreement.

This really is a load of nonsense. And the fact that the Athletics Ireland panel overturned the decision suggests they thought so too. Once you have identified athletes who are committed to competing for a spot on the team -- and in this case there were seven athletes for six places, although in reality five were assured their place so Cuddihy and Mills were competing for the sixth spot -- then a few basic principles apply.

The biggest commitment any athlete can give to a 4x400m relay team is to focus on training as hard as possible to run the fastest 400m possible -- all the rest is rubbish, and personality-based. Relay running is just as much an individual sport as individual racing. Sure, there's a brief moment of baton exchange, but this hardly necessitates a 'special bond' between team-mates.

The criteria contravene the fundamental principles of athletics: that the fastest athlete always gets selected. In one sense, that is the beauty of the sport, subjectivity is supposed to be removed. There was a weighting in this policy towards non-performance criteria, such as signing expressions of interest. As one coach said to me last week, the fact that they are training their butts off, making massive life sacrifices and competing at a high level should be a more than sufficient expression of interest.

Sunday Indo Sport

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