The Worst Way to Pick the US Olympic Team

By Phillip Whitten

PHOENIX, Arizona, February 15. NEARLY sixty years ago, Winston Churchill remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government…except for all the others that have been tried.”

The same might be said about the way USA Swimming chooses its Olympic team: You’ve got to do it at the Trials. Finish first or second, you’re on the team. Finish third — even by a hundredth of a second – and you stay home and watch the Games on TV along with the rest of America.

Critics say it’s cruel. No doubt.

They say it ignores an athlete’s achievements over an entire career, achievements that may include world records, world titles or past Olympic titles.

They’re right.

The system stinks. It’s the worst!

Except for all the others.

Emily and Michelle

This hard truth was vividly illustrated in the past few weeks in the selection of the 2006 US Olympic women’s figure skating team. At the US Trials/National Championships, 17 year-old Emily Hughes, younger sister of 2002 gold medalist Sarah Hughes, placed third. In figure skating, the top three finishers make the team. So Emily was on the team!

“But,” as they say on those late-night infomercials, “wait!”

Michelle Kwan, the darling of US figure skating, a superstar who has never won Olympic gold – she has silver and bronze – did not compete at the Trials. Plagued by a groin injury, she was given a “medical bye.” Several weeks after the US Trials, she performed by herself, before a panel of judges. The judges gave her high marks and she was placed on the team, bumping off young Emily Hughes.

Now, say what you will, but there is a vast difference between performing in a meet before a live audience, going head-to-head against your toughest competitors, and performing all by yourself before a panel of sympathetic judges.

This is true in a sport, such as swimming or track and field, which measures performance objectively. How much more true is it of a sport in which subjective judgments are made by officials who compare the performances of all the competitors!

In swimming, you can say that a 49.0 for 100m freestyle beats a 49.1. Yes, the swimmer who does a 49.0 swimming by himself in a time trial, may not be able to defeat the 49.1 guy, who did his time with seven other swimmers in the water, a packed crowd in the stands and television cameras everywhere. But at least there’s an objective measure of the two performances.

In Michelle Kwan’s case, she was judged without reference to any other skater. An attractive, personable young woman, Kwan is the darling of American skating fans. Perhaps more importantly, she was one of a handful of superstars upon whom NBC had chosen to focus in Torino. What’s more, she had recorded numerous commercials, which were to be aired at great expense to her sponsors.

In other words, Michelle Kwan was Big Bucks.

Did that influence the judges’ decision? You decide.

Kwan was named to the US Olympic team and got to march in the Opening Ceremonies. But mediocre performances in her practice sessions led the 25-year-old to conclude she would not be able to compete for the gold. Her injury had not had sufficient time to heal. Rather than embarrass herself, she held a press conference to announce she was withdrawing from the team.

Emily was back on.

A Bad Precedent

Reporters and commentators gave Kwan high marks for stepping aside to allow a healthier skater – Hughes — to replace her. She was praised not only on NBC, which no doubt will use her as a color commentator in Torino, but by Olympic beat writers around the country

Here’s where I part company with my journalistic colleagues.

Kwan should never have been allowed her own private Trials in the first place and she should never have been placed on the team. Yes, she is a lovely, charismatic young woman and a brilliant skater. But she did not compete at the Trials. She did not earn the right to be a member of the 2006 US Olympic team.

I know she was injured, and I know this sounds cruel, but that’s the breaks. Now she has set a very bad precedent.

What’s to prevent another skater in 2010 from saying she is not well enough to compete at Trials? If the figure skating officials say “no,” how will they be able to justify having said “yes” to Kwan?

Imagine it is 2008, and Michael Phelps is injured or has come down with the flu. He says he’ll be okay for Beijing, but his injury or illness prevents him from competing at the US Trials. Will he be allowed to have a private Trials, just for himself, two weeks after the Trials for everyone else?

Though I’m sure USA Swimming officials would be tempted to make an exception, and though NBC, VISA, Argent and Phelps’ agent and others would be putting on a full court press, I am sure swimming officials would not succumb.

And Phelps means much more to US success in 2008 than Kwan does in 2006.

PrincipledDecisions

Actually, USA Swimming faced precisely this issue back in 1960. Coming into the Olympic Trials, Jeff Farrell was acknowledged to be the fastest 100-meter freestyler in the world. But six days before he was to swim, he came down with acute appendicitis and had to undergo an emergency appendectomy.

In those days, an appendectomy was an even more serious operation than it is today, and few even imagined Jeff would be able to compete in Detroit at the Trials. But wrapped in bandages and yards of adhesive tape, Jeff showed up for his race.

Only the top two finishers made the team – Lance Larson and Bruce Hunter. Jeff finished fourth. Since there was no 4x100m free relay that year, he did not make the team.

Impressed by his courage, knowing his ability and convinced he’d be the fastest swimmer in the water one month later in Rome, US officials offered him a special dispensation – just like Kwan’s. Bruce Hunter gallantly offered to step aside and let Jeff swim in his place.

To his everlasting credit, Jeff refused both offers, saying the same rules that applied to all other Olympic hopefuls should apply to him.

Though not a middle-distance man, he was already focusing on the 200 free several days later. There was no 200 free in Rome in 1960, but there was a 4×200 freestyle relay. Jeff made the relay.

By September, Jeff Farrell was fully recovered. He anchored both the USA’s 800 free relay and 400 medley relay to world records and Olympic gold.

Twenty-eight years later, Pablo Morales was considered a shoo-in for the gold in the 100 meter butterfly at the Seoul Olympics. After all, he was the world record-holder (52.84) and the only swimmer ever to have broken 53 seconds for the event. Many regarded him as the best swimmer in the world. But Pablo wasn’t quite fast enough at the Trials and finished third. That was it. He was gone.

Pablo’s story, like Jeff’s, has a happy ending. Three years after hanging up his suit, Pablo began a comeback, training under his former college coach at Stanford, Skip Kenney. He won the 100 fly at the 1992 US Trials, then took gold in Barcelona by one hundredth of a second.

There are other examples of likely Olympic medalists – even gold medalists – who failed to make the US Olympic team: Kristine Quance in the 400 IM in 1996, and Ed Moses in both breaststrokes in 2004 come to mind. But the rules dictated that no exceptions would be made. For whatever reasons, they didn’t do it in the Trials, so there would be no Olympic medal.

Like I said: It’s cruel.

It stinks.

It’s the worst possible way for selecting the US Olympic team.

Except for all the others.

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