If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to the Olympics is surely built on shattered dreams. Around the world athletes have been learning their Olympic fates after months – and at times years – of what has been a tortuous Olympic selection process.
Some of the decisions have been surprising. Reigning Olympic champion Emma Snowsill’s non-selection by Triathlon Australia perhaps more than most (read this to see why we think she should be there). But the announcement at the weekend of the six athletes who will represent Team GB has also raised a few eyebrows.
Of course, no athlete has a divine right to take their place on a team. Well, that’s not strictly true. The Brownlee brothers and Helen Jenkins have a divine right to be on Team GB at London 2012. They have not only performed in the pre-determined Olympic selection races, but they have systematically won or podiumed at pretty much every significant event that they have entered over the last few years. They are remarkable athletes and they have every chance of ending British Triathlon’s medal drought at the Olympics (we’ve won nothing in three attempts).
It is the selection of domestiques to the team that has raised eyebrows.
For many, triathlon is an individual sport. And for the vast majority of the year British triathletes operate as individuals (the Brownlees are slightly different in that respect but you can forgive them for that) and win as individuals. Of course, having never raced an ITU event it’s impossible to know the nuances of the swim or the pack on the bike – there might be more teamwork going on than is obvious. But it seems like our athletes are good enough to win a straight-out contest against the best in the world regardless of whether or not they have help.
Needless to say, help helps. But it can also hinder. The last – or most obvious – time British Triathlon apparently applied some sort of structure to a race was the 2011 European Championships in Pontevedra, when Harry Wiltshire ended up with a six month ban after destroying Javier Gomez’s race in the water after 1500m of ‘close-contact’ swimming (Gomez will probably be the Brownlees main rival for Gold in London). Ali Brownlee won the race, Gomez did not feature, and Wiltshire’s Olympic ambitions effectively died on the spot. The whole fiasco was a shame, and took some unnecessary shine off yet another Ali Brownlee masterclass.
Should something similar happen in London, it would be a profoundly disappointing way for the race to unfold. There is no doubt that the Brownlees are good enough to win gold in London – Helen Jenkins too. But they should do it by beating the best in the world fair and square. That is what the Olympics was built on and that is what the Olympics is about. If there is any sense of a repeat of the Pontevedra incident then a British Olympic Gold will not sparkle as brightly as it should (in the triathlon community, anyway).
Finally, a word for those non-selected. Of course, there is a limit to the number of athletes in the team. And those that have made it deserve their spot – and more importantly our complete support. But there are a few athletes who have the right to feel hard done by. Will Clarke (current world ranking 23) is “gutted”, Liz Blatchford (currently 15th) is “devastated” and Tim Don (currently 7th) is yet to comment. All of these athletes – and others we haven’t mentioned – have worked tirelessly for years. In fact, for many their whole careers have been focused on getting to Hyde Park this Summer. These three in particular have raced hard, performed consistently and by rights ticked the boxes that they needed to tick to make it into the team. Yet they have been overlooked in favour of athletes who they have beaten time and time again. That must be hard to take and a few have already indicated that their days of ITU racing are over.
There is no correct answer to Olympic selection; someone is always going to end up disappointed. But the team chosen to go to the Olympics has understandably raised eyebrows. British Triathlon may have selected the squad that they believe represents the best chance of winning a medal, but they have not selected the six best triathletes in Britain.
If this team walks away with gold medals won fair and square then the public – and the world of triathlon – will say that British Triathlon did the right thing. But could the Brownlees and Helen Jenkins do it as part of a team containing bona fide competition, rather than domestiques? Almost undoubtedly.