An Open Letter to Athletics South Africa: Address the non-selection controversies for the sake of athletes

25 Jul 2017 Posted by

This is a very SA-centric post, for which I apologize (sort of), because its immediate relevance may be minimal for many of you.  However, I post this in the light of recent controversies around the selection of the SA team for the upcoming World Championships in London.

Brief background, our national governing body (ASA) set qualifying times for the Championships that are different from the IAAF entry standards.  Most often, ASA’s standards are more challenging than the IAAF’s.  This is, presumably, in part strategic (ASA don’t want to take “passengers”, but instead want to challenge our athletes to reach higher levels.  Also, they don’t want the appearance of athletes who fail to advance beyond Round 1), and part practical (keeps the squad size down.

Anyway, I have no conceptual problem with that, but what has happened for 2017 is that some athletes achieved the IAAF qualifying standard, but npt the ASA standard, but were included in the squad, whereas others, in exactly the same situation of having the ‘lesser’ standard only, were not selected.

Dominque Scott is one such athlete – she ran a 15:20 to achieve the IAAF qualification time in Rome over 5000m (ASA qualification is 15:09, IAAF is 15:22), then ran a PB over 3000m in Monaco (after a 1500m PB earlier this year), but was omitted.  Her parents and a few of you discussed it with me on Twitter, and they reached out to me for support.  The letter below is the result.

It’s SA-centric, but has some principles of HP management and development that are transferable and relatable.

Ross

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An Open Letter to ASA: A call for good, evidence-based governance

24 July 2017

To whom it may concern:

I write this letter in support primarily of Dominique Scott, but also of all those South African athletes whose efforts are undermined by selection controversies such as those currently affecting Team South Africa to the 2017 World Athletics Championships.  In this group, I include:

  1. Those who have achieved both the ASA and IAAF standards, and who have been selected;
  2. Those who have achieved only the IAAF standard, and who have been selected for London (five athletes);
  3. Those who have achieved only the IAAF standard, and who have not been selected;
  4. Every future athlete who finds themselves in one of the three above groups for any future World Championships.

I include all these athletes, even those who have their seat to London paid for by ASA, because the confusion sown by any appearance of arbitrary selection is damaging to them, too.  You have perhaps noted the Twitter comments and discussions among some of our medal- and final-candidates about this?  I would rather that all our athletes are clear and purposeful in their final preparations for London, and not distracted by issues of who is, and is not, on the team.

Their loss of confidence and disgruntlement is clear to see, so while they have the privilege of going to London, they too are compromised by controversies and discussions around selection.

I therefore write this letter to urge you to put an end to the chaos and ambiguity surrounding the selection of the team, by including that group of athletes identified in 3) above, including Ms Scott.

I fully appreciate the strategic intention of ASA creating its own, more stringent qualifying standards.  We must strive for excellence, and it is possible to create and motivate excellence by setting a figurative (and sometimes literal) bar higher than the rest of the world sets it.  It acts as a message to our athletes that we wish them to go beyond what the world requires, and reach for what we know and require them to be capable of.

That strategy is used by others around the world too, for even more impactful and far-reaching decisions such as the allocation of funding to entire Olympic sports (Team GB being one particularly ruthless example).  These policies are often called “No Compromise”, and they say to potential funding recipients that the only level that will be accepted is medal-winning level.  Or ability to finish Top 8, or whatever criteria may be used.  Similarly, many nations provide daily-living support to athletes based on these criteria, often with very difficult performance standards.  Conceptually, I understand the possible motive.

There may also be a financial reason for such a decision, to prevent over-inflated squad sizes and reduce costs.  So I understand the likely objectives of having ASA standards that are more difficult to achieve than IAAF standards.

However, this policy creates a proverbial tightrope in terms of the development of our elite athletic talent.  ASA walk that tightrope through their own strategic intent, and thus have a governance responsibility to be very clear, unambiguous and fair in their implementation of that ‘excellence strategy’.  A mistake means falling off this tightrope, and that has catastrophic consequences for individuals and potentially, the sport.

At the point where an adult athlete is achieving world-class performances somewhere between the IAAF standard and the ASA standard, the messaging around selection needs to be extremely clear, for two reasons.

First, years of dedication, training and sacrifice have gone into bringing an athlete to this elite level – this absolutely must be respected by a governing body.  When decisions are made that appear to be even the tiniest bit arbitrary, it undermines the work of those individuals and everyone who has supported them to that point.  They are directly affected by this, and I dare say a good many potential track and field stars have been pushed away as a result of this in our past.

In turn, this sets off a cascade of mistrust that undermines other athletes, perhaps not yet affected, but who assess the situation of their peers with the realization that they may be next.

Second, this group of athletes – not yet medal hopefuls, perhaps, but world class athletes who are looking to reach finals and gain experience to become future medal hopefuls – are the critical ‘link’ to the next group of athletes down, those who are aged 16 to 19 and who are looking up the performance pathway for positive reinforcement and encouragement that their own sacrifices.

The selection of these athletes is a powerful message to the next generation that their chosen path in the sport is viable and will be rewarded with the honour of competing for their country in World Championships.

The corollary to this is that when they are NOT selected, for reasons that are unclear and appear unsupported, the pathway is undermined and appears less viable.  The sport thus asks them to sacrifice and commit without adequate promise of reward.

That is your tightrope, and so when decisions are made that appear arbitrary or discriminatory, in any manner, it destabilizes the entire system.  It says that achieving world class times is sufficient for some athletes but not for others, and that is toxic to track and field athletes, whose entire existence is measured by a stopwatch or with a measuring tape in comparison to known times.

When selection appears arbitrary, it means that the value of the stopwatch is diminished, and how might an elite athlete approach this moving forward, other than to lose all confidence in the system they rely on for selection?

Therefore, when we have a situation where athletes have achieved the international IAAF standard, but not the ASA one, then the selection (or non-selection) of those athletes must be consistent and very clearly communicated and understood by all parties.

In cases that may arise where the Federation believes an athlete should NOT go to the World Championships, the reasons must be very clearly stated for the benefit of ALL parties, not only the athlete who is denied selection.

Importantly, reasons for non-selection may not necessarily be trivial.  For example, an athlete may already have attended two or three such events, and may be nearing the end of their career based on historical age and performance data.  Perhaps they achieve the IAAF standard, but their own performances have stagnated for a period, in which case there would be reasonable grounds to omit them.

If this is the case, that athlete can justifiably be left off the team because they failed to achieve the ASA standard (even if they achieve the IAAF standard), and a clearly stated policy would even support the strategic intent of ASA to use more stringent standards as a way to develop future world-class performances.

However, if such policy is not clearly communicated, or does not exist, or if the reasons for non-selection cannot be found in such explanations, then the entire fabric of selection through objective standards falls down, and appears arbitrary.  ASA would then fall off that tightrope.

*I note in this regard that none of the above applies to Ms Scott, who is only now approaching age of peak performances in her events, has only been exposed to one such championships in the past, and who has improved by a consistent 5 to 7 seconds per year in her main event.  There can be no age- or performance-stagnation related argument for her omission.

Therefore, I call on Athletics South Africa to motivate, with clear reasoning, the following issues:

  1. How are the ASA standards derived, relative to the IAAF standards? I highlight this noting that in some events, such as Ms Scott’s, the ASA standard would win a medal at many previous World Championships, while in others (men’s 5000m), the ASA standard is actually slower or inferior to the IAAF standard.  This process must be very rigorously managed, and so I also offer my support to future efforts at creating standards to ensure that the standards do not unfairly discriminate against athletes in certain events, as appears to have been the case here.
  2. Why have some athletes who achieved only the IAAF standard been selected for London, and not others?I highlight here the case of Scott, but also put forward numerous others who are in the same situation of having cleared a stated bar, and then been told it is insufficient, whereas others, who have cleared the same bar, are included? Once again, the reasons for this may well be justified, and aligned with some strategic or operational (budgetary) imperative of ASA.  But, these must be very clearly communicated, and if the issue is cost, then it still has to be communicated by some athletes in this group are selected, while others are not.
  3. When are the criteria used for the selection of athletes for the World Championships communicated to athletes, and who makes the decision on inclusion vs non-inclusion?The timing of communication of standards is critical, because planning a season requires months of preparation, with the intention of peaking at the right time. Good performance programmes are rarely flexible enough to accommodate late changes, and nor do practical realities, like finding high quality races to achieve fast times, allow for last-minute changes.

    Therefore, it is critical that ASA provide assurances around when the athletes were notified of the objective and subjective criteria, as well as what these are?  The latter refers again to Point 2 above, where only a portion of athletes who achieved the IAAF standards but not the ASA standard have been selected.  Clear communication of the ASA strategy, and to the athletes affected by how this strategy influences their selection hopes, is critical.

    Secondly, who makes the decision?  Is there a committee, or is one individual assigned the task of selecting, or making a final judgment?  In the event of appeal, who receives the appeal and hears it?  Transparency in these matters is critical, central to good governance, and would go some way to rebutting allegations of impropriety by ASA.

In the context of the above points, I call on ASA to select those Ms Scott and the other athletes who have achieved the IAAF standard, but not the ASA standard.  Send these athletes to London, and recognize their value, if not as medal winners, then as the fundamentally important base of elite track and field in South Africa, who will ensure that in 2025, we can select even better athletes from a larger pool of athletes who achieve qualifying standards.

Failing to do this, I call on ASA to publicly explain the reasons for non-selection of every athlete who achieved the IAAF standard but who has not been chosen for London.  This is the least that should be expected from a well-functioning, transparent and elite sports organization.  It would go a long way to dispelling perceptions of bias, random governance and discrimination, and will be critical to ensure the ongoing success of South African athletes on the global stage.

Yours sincerely,

Prof Ross Tucker

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