Bumps on the selection highway to Shanghai

Selection policies are funny things. Just how do you decide who gets to go to Shanghai to compete in the World Championships? The obvious course of action seems to be to pick the fastest swimmers and be done with it, but often federations like to impose a variety of additional criteria, and then in the case of recent events in Australia, not even stick to them.

At the bottom of everything sits the FINA qualification standards. Essentially FINA set A and B qualifying times for the competition; if a swimmer makes the B time, and their federation elects to send them, then they can go to the meet. However if a country wants to select two swimmers per event, then both must have swum under the faster FINA A time. This is FINA’s way of controlling numbers and maintaining standards at the meet. There are some additional discretionary rules for countries who can’t reach this standard to encourage wider participation, but for most swimming nations it is as simple as that.

These FINA standards often feature in individual country’s selection criteria. Perhaps fearful of legal challenges should the selection be influenced at all by discretionary considerations, the USA simply opts to select the fastest two swimmers at trials, which for a country with the depth of talent they have usually means by default that the athletes will have met the FINA standards. Hence the US travels to a meet with pretty much a full complement of swimmers.

Other countries don’t take it so straightforwardly. Britain for example has a history of producing complex and strict selection criteria, particularly in the early years of this century. Then National Performance director Bill Sweetenham oversaw a string of selection policies which required swimmers to far exceed FINA standards, with times set based on the previous year’s rankings, in order to drive up standards at trials. After all, if you want to be the best in the world, you need to be able to swim as fast as the best in the world. This worked in part, as standards at trials certainly rose but didn’t always convert to performances at the targeted meet.

The apocryphal story of how Britain retreated from this approach is that former Australian head Coach Don Talbot, employed at the time as a consultant to British swimming, convinced Sweetenham that the Olympics was tough enough without adding additional pressure to qualify. True or not, the 2008 policy certainly reverted to using FINA A times, albeit with provisos on heat speed being added. That approach is generally in force again this year, with FINA A times being used to select the first placed swimmers at trials for Shanghai. This could in theory have been the FINA B time, but as Britain looks to send two swimmers in each event, it’s evidently been seen as beneficial to keep those options open.

This brings us to events in Australia. In a stance that mirrors Britain’s previous approach, Swimming Australia set their own qualifying times based on the 12th ranked time from 2010 for this year’s World Championships. These times were significantly faster than the FINA A times, the message clearly being a drive to raise standards even if that meant reducing the size of the team.

“We might miss in a couple of events but the reflection is we’re just not strong enough in those events yet.” said Australian Head coach Leigh Nugent ahead of trials, adding “The message is you’ve got to rise to a standard now. It’s competitive in the world and unless you do that to the base line of our team, you’re probably not going to be in the mix anywhere.”

Those words will sound familiar to those who followed British swimming in the Sweetenham era, and some will wonder if the recent recruitment of the former British NPD to a post with Swimming Australia is just a coincidence, but what happened next was distinctly unexpected.

Perhaps taking a longer term view to London 2012 and wanting to give more swimmers the opportunity to gain international experience, the selectors ditched their top 12 criteria in a compete u-turn, instead selecting all swimmers who made the FINA A time.

“The aim of setting our own qualifying times was to raise the standard of performance and competition nationally” Nugent said before going to announce that all first and second placed swimmers who reached the FINA times would be selected meaning seven men and four women were added to the squad.

A quick look suggests most of those added are up and comers and perhaps not likely to trouble the podium places this year, but it also means a Shanghai spot for Geoff Huegill as he continues his comeback to the highest echelons of the sport. The policy had already been tweaked from previous years to keep the door open for Libby Trickett to add herself to the relay contingent later this year.

So an unusual episode leads to an Australian squad of 52 heading to China. Britain finalises its team in the summer while the US holds trials close to the event. Whatever methods adopted to pick them, all three countries should have their best swimmers on deck and a fascinating pre-Olympic showdown with the rest of the world awaits.