Sonia O’Sullivan: Team race could add spice to marathon
Race doesn’t encourage greatness such is the reduction in qualification standards
Katie Taylor in action against Estelle Mossely during the World Boxing Championships semi-final defeat in Astana, Kazakstan. Taylor will still be in Riol to defend her Olympic crown. Photograph: Inpho
It was interesting to read some of the reaction to Katie Taylor losing her semi-final at the World Championships in Astana last week – the day after she had qualified for the Olympics.
A bronze medal, it seemed, was little consolation for the reigning Olympic champion, and five-time World Champion. This was also Katie’s second and final chance to qualify for Rio, having previously missed out at the European Championships, the month before.
You would have thought it was a mere formality for an Olympic champion to qualify, especially for a boxer still on top of her game. Part of the problem is that boxing is one of those sports that aren’t so clear-cut when it comes to determining the winner. Instead, the result is placed in the subjective view of the judges, what they deem to be a winning result. Even when the result was scrutinised afterwards it didn’t seem to add up. Estelle Mossely won on a split decision, and with that Katie was left wondering how she lost, while her opponent’s arm was being raised in the air.
The obvious consolation is that at least she’s on the Irish team for Rio, and has time to readdress her strategy.
The overall standard of women’s boxing seems to have improved a great deal in the four years since London. Back then, Katie had more room for error; now, she probably needs to be as close to perfection as she can be to defend that title.
Still, many in the stands continue to shake their heads, questioning the decision. I’m certainly at a loss a lot of the time, left wondering how a fight is actually judged, particularly a close fight like that, which could have gone either way.
It’s a near complete contrast to when I’m watching athletics, where I can quickly pick out the best runner, and with that have a pretty good idea who is likely to win.
When you’re long absorbed in one sport like that you understand and see things that sometimes others don’t see, and for me, the ease and ability of the effort always stands out.
Katie’s hard fight for qualification also made me think that for some Irish athletes, it’s easier to qualify for the Olympics; standards are set out and athletes have over a year to achieve them, and with that selection is sometimes a mere formality.
Some countries, where there is real depth, still hold Olympic trials where the top three will automatically qualify (as long as the athletes have the required standard). This is the most clear-cut method of selecting a team, as used in the US, and to a lesser extent Kenya, Australia and the UK, who often leave the third spot up to the selectors’ discretion.
This is the one time when an athletics result can become subjective, and cause some controversy, particularly when there are more athletes qualified than there are the three places in each event
When athletes are so used to objective results in their sport, it’s not always easy to accept decisions that are taken out of their hands, decided by the selectors. It becomes emotional, and sometimes personal, and often only those with no connection can actually see why a decision is made.
In many other Olympic sports, the quota of athletes is much smaller than in athletics; to qualify, they often have to travel the world to gather ranking points at continental or World championships.
Sometimes, athletics doesn’t realise how good the opportunity is. There are three places in every event, per country, yet in most events Ireland won’t have a single athlete. I see this as a missed opportunity for many, who could achieve the greatness of making it onto the Olympic stage if they stepped out of the comfort zone for a few years.
The marathon, however, is a bit of an anomaly; it really doesn’t encourage greatness, such is the reduction in qualification standards. Ireland has exploited this, qualifying our full quota of men and women, but if you look at the best marathon runners in the world, most would also be capable of qualifying for the 5,000m and 10,000m. As a distance runner, this shouldn’t be unusual. Emil Zatopek, after all, won gold medals in all three distances at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
Back in 1984, John Treacy competed in the 10,000m final, and a few days later went on to win the silver medal in the marathon. What genius selectors allowed that to happen? Jerry Kiernan was not far behind in ninth position.
That’s partly because the marathon is not restricted in how many athletes it can accept. It looks better to have a marathon start with a lot of runners, even if they’ll be spread out after just a mile or so. Very few end up challenging for medals, but they’re out on the streets, it’s free to watch, and spectators love cheering on a runner from their own country.
One way to generate more interest in that scenario is to introduce a team race, which would encourage more qualifiers, generate more competition between countries, and introduce a new and much-needed dynamic to the Olympic marathon.