Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Looking forward to the Olympics - British Selection Process

With the main events of this season now in the past it is time to look forward to the next major events. In Canada, the next big one, and it will be big, will be the selection bonspiel for the 2006 Olymnpics.
I thought it would be interesting to find out what other countries were doing in preparation and started with Great Britain.
Immediately I learned one thing - how the ten teams playing in Turin in 2006 are to be determined from the British Curling Association (BCA) :

"Qualification for these Olympic events can only be determined by Scotland’s ranking at the World Curling Championships (WCC), 2003, 2004 and 2005. Under the World Curling Federation Olympic Qualifying process points will be awarded to each of the 10 participating nations in 2003 and 2004, and the top 10 from 12 participants in 2005 according to final rankings as follows: 12 – 10 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1. When two or more Nations are ranked in the same position, and no tiebreak games are played to decide a clear ranking, these Nations will be given an equal share of the accumulated points. The 9 Nations with the most accumulated points over the 3 years are eligible to join Italy (guaranteed place as host nation) in the 2006 Olympic Winter Games curling competition for men and women."
Note the part in bold. The British Curling Association site also contains the current standings through 2004; it is clear that Great Britain's men and women will qualify.

With that settled, I thought, well, how is it determined which of the British rinks will represent Scotland, er, Great Britain? It appears this question is ill-formed, in that it appears there is no reason to think the rink selected will be an existing one.

A selection committee will choose individual players to make up the rink. The first cut occurred back in December; it appears that the candidate pool for the men's and women's teams are down to 10 in size.

The news at the BCA site features :

"The following 10 athletes have been named as the initial squad from
which the Women's Olympic curling team for the Winter Olympic Games in
Torino, Italy, in February 2006 will be chosen: Karen Addison, Lyn
Cameron, Debbie Knox, Anne Laird, Jackie Lockhart, Rhona Martin, Clair
Milne, Janice Rankin, Lorna Vevers and Kelly Wood.

The following 10 athletes have been named as the initial squad from which
the Men's Olympic curling team for the Winter Olympic Games in Torino,
Italy, in February 2006 will be chosen: Ron Brewster, Tom Brewster, Euan
Byers, Colin Campbell, Graeme Connal, Ewan MacDonald, David Murdoch, Neil
Murdoch, Warwick Smith and Craig Wilson."

This group was chosen by a selection committee. The site features more interesting material on the selection process:
"Where possible selection will be based on the following objective measures:
  • track record at major international championships
  • WCT tour rankings
  • results against world top performers on arena ice conditions
  • track record in national championships
  • team and individual performance statistics

In addition, the opinion of selectors that a player has the potential to achieve a ‘medal zone’ performance at the Games will be given strong consideration."

My first concern is that all the criteria above involve team against team and there is clearly no fundamental assumption that the teams (rinks) will be kept intact. I wonder how the players feel about this.

Also, selection committees are a wonderful way for sport administrators to maintain power over athletes. National sport organizations all have a fundamental tension between the interests of the players and the interests of the administrators (who usually call it "the interest of the sport"). There are really two basic models for determining who competes for a country in the Olympics in any given sport. One system simply sets up some criteria for performance in a playoff of some sort, and awards the role to the winner. The other involves selection by a committee. Of course there are mixed models as well.

For example in track and field, the United States simply sends the top three in the Olympic trials, assuming they have met Olympic standards. Canada has a trials competition as well, but leaves open considerable discretion for selectors to exert some power. The effect is that the United States often cannot send some of their top athletes, who find themselves injured at the time of the Trials. But it is a profound motivator for an athlete to learn to perform on a given day. Canadian athletes feel much less of that pressure.

The administrative approach allows more sloppiness. It also usually favours established athletes with a reputation at the expense of promising newcomers. And of course there is the question of those athletes in combat with their sport organizations.

In any case this British procedure seems to be completely administrative. Moreover this piece of the criteria makes the power of the selectors clear.
"In order to gather an appropriate level of current information prior to Squad selection players may be asked to make themselves available for individual testing both on and off ice."

To my surprise some players appear not to be distressed:

"Wood, 23, is one of 10 players being considered for five spots on the Great Britain Olympic team. The list includes mostly skips as the nation looks to repeat the gold medal won by Rhona Martin in 2002 at Salt Lake City.

'I'm hoping to be there, and I'd be happy to play any position,' Wood said. 'At the moment it's about who would be the strongest at each position, and I think I'm quite flexible in what position I can play.'

It's certainly an unusual selection process by Canadian standards but not that uncommon in European curling circles.

"It's a positive step forward, and they are trying to go about it in the right way," Wood said."

Of course it may not be helpful for an athlete to publicly question the system.

Well, I am certainly glad Canada is not trying an approach like this. It would deprive us of our Trials - I am already looking forward to them. I also do not think, having watched many of our best rinks over the years, that a team of, say, Mark Dacey, Wayne Middaugh, Dave Nedohin, and Kevin Martin, would seem like a real Canadian representative (not to mention the nightmare thought of figuring out how they would come to play as a team).

It will be very interesting watch the British teams in Turin. Only in December this year is the candidate list down to 6, and at that point, team coaches and such are going to create a team one way or another. I wonder if they did this for 2002? I had the feeling watching the Rhona Martin rink that it was a preexisting rink and this article asserts at least that they all play out of the same club in Scotland.

There is an element here as well of the managerial vs the laissez-faire competitive approach that plays an interesting role as well.

Well, what is the next country to study?


At 4/13/2005 7:16 p.m., Blogger Brandon said...

In america we can't get much curling...only in the winter olympics...I'm always disappointed when I come to a blog like yours... :)

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At 4/14/2005 8:34 a.m., Blogger John B. Chilton said...

Please, can you rate this product advertised on your blog:

Have you used it? If not, why?

At 4/14/2005 9:57 a.m., Blogger Alan Adamson said...

I must confess I only discovered it myself quite recently, much the same way you have. There appears to be no North American distributor; I am evaluating the likelihood of its sweeping the continent.

At 4/15/2005 10:12 a.m., Blogger Amateur said...

I enjoyed your analysis of the selection process. I have some personal insight since I sit on one of those selection committees that you deride.

I think there are two important considerations that you have not touched on deeply enough. These are:

(1) Individual vs. team events. I think it makes a difference how "team" your sport is. There is a whole spectrum of "teamness," which could be a whole post in itself. But let me just point out the following.

In "real" team sports like soccer, hockey, etc., nobody uses a "win-and-you're-in" selection strategy. That would be equivalent to sending the best WNBA team to represent the U.S. in basketball, for example (ignoring a few citizenship issues). Nobody does this because everybody believes that you can make one very good team by selecting the best from existing teams (a mix-and-match strategy).

In "small-team" but still cooperative sports like curling, kayak fours, or rowing eights, you will find a mix of strategies. I sit on the selection committee for canoe/kayak, for example. We basically use a win-and-you're-in approach for the singles events, but a mix-and-match approach for the fours, with a lot of control given to the coaches in determining the composition of the crews. Some countries do use a straight win-and-you're-in approach, usually those that have an enormous amount of depth (more on this later).

Then you have your not-really-team events, the best examples being the relays in athletics or swimming, where there is very little teamwork involved. Here again, most countries use a win-and-you're-in approach, but using individual (not team) competitions as the selection. In other words, the US athletics federation does not hold a relay race at their trials and use the winning team as their entry. Rather, they make sure that they put the best individuals together.

And finally, there are your individual events. In the overwhelming majority of cases, you will find that win-and-you're-in selection is used. As you noted, some countries follow this strategy with more brutality than others. In Canada's case, there are usually some allowances for injury, illness, or other unforeseen circumstances, but in general the selection criteria are straightforward and objective. Some will reasonably argue that they are not quite objective enough, with too much allowance for past performance.

(2) Relative dominance. Canada is so strong at curling that they can get away with sending their best "rink" team, even if they are leaving some top talent at home. This also used to be the case in ice hockey, for example (remember the Trail Smoke Eaters, two-time world champions!), but Canada abandoned the practice when the best club teams could no longer dominate international competition.

Contries that are not as strong as Canada may see that the risks of the mix-and-match strategy are outweighed by the potential benefits. I predict that if you study other countries, you will find that the best curling nations use the "best existing rink" approach, and the weaker teams use something like Great Britain's strategy. I also predict that as Canada continues to lose its historical advantage, there will be more pressure to use the mix-and-match approach for future Olympics, and someday everybody will be using it.

At 4/15/2005 4:09 p.m., Blogger Alan Adamson said...

I agree completely with the point 1) you make above - and in fact just responded to another of your comments to the effect that soccer and volleyball needed selection committees, sadly.
As for relative dominance, yes, that is likely a factor too, but, as also said in another post, maybe the solution it to motivate the athletes themselves to form teams as strong as possible, rather than have a managementt board try to assemble the team. A rigorous selection process that required a team to prove some serious international competence to be eligible would provide a pretty good impetus.
So far as I can see the Brits won a gold medal in 2002 leting the teams play asthey were; let us see what happens in Turin.
And thanks for the perspective. I know that in reality you selectors are not control freaks, but in my theoretical analyses you may appear as such.


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